LSE is sad to learn of the death of Professor David Martin, a prominent member of the LSE Sociology Department for nearly three decades. Here, friend and fellow sociologist of religion Grace Davie reflects on his legacy.

LSE Library in the 1960s. Photo: LSE History blog.

I have known David Martin for just over fifty years. We met in the late 60s when I was a graduate student in Sociology at LSE and have kept in touch ever since. He has been to me – and to very many others – a wise mentor and a good friend.

David came to Sociology by a roundabout route – a story told in the first chapter of The Education of David Martin, his intellectual autobiography. Via primary school teaching in the West Country and a correspondence course for an external London degree, he arrived at LSE as a postgraduate, completing a PhD with Donald MacRae in 1964. A year later this was published as Pacifism: A Sociological and Historical Study. After a brief period at the University of Sheffield, he was appointed to LSE as Lecturer in 1962, Reader in 1967 and Professor in 1971. He retired from the School in 1989.


David Martin.

In 1967, David published A Sociology of English Religion – a short book which contains a surprisingly large amount of information about religion in an England on the cusp of radical change. That watershed – or what David termed ‘the shaking of the statistics from California to Trieste’ – was not foreseen either in England or anywhere else. A second element was more far reaching. In articulating the distinctiveness of the English case, A Sociology of English Religion necessarily introduces a comparative perspective, asking not only what religion in England is, but what it is not. Specifically, the religious settlement in England is very different from that in France on the one hand and the United States on the other. Herein lies the essence of what has become David’s best-known book: A General Theory of Secularization (1978).

The understanding of secularization as a process that unfolds differently in different places provides the core. It follows that secularization is neither the inevitable corollary of modernization, nor a unitary model that can simply be assumed. It depends rather on the specificities of the context under review, not least its history: in the (varied) European and American cases the critical events are the success or failure of the Reformation and the nature, outcome or indeed absence of a Revolution.

Some fifty years later, the same independence of mind and the same insistence on empirically driven observations can be still be seen. They reappear, for example, in the remarkable and yet to be published Christianity and ‘the World’: Secularization through the Lens of English Poetry: 800 to the Present, which brings together a lifetime’s work on secularization, a thousand years of English poetry, and deep theological insight.

En route there have been substantial elaborations of the General Theory, notably in relation to the post-communist period in Central and Eastern Europe, and to the explosion of Pentecostalism in the global South.

Both are introduced in a slim but rich volume. Forbidden Revolutions (1996) is a reappraisal of marginality. Contrary to much mainstream thinking, marginality does not lead necessarily to impotence and privatization. That may be so in Western Europe; further east, however, the overwhelming dominance of communism at the centre handed to Christianity the advantages of the margin, allowing it to become the carrier of an ‘alternative’ memory which, in the long run, proved the more enduring.

David’s thinking on Pentecostalism took him to the strikingly religious global South, specifically to Latin America, and was developed in two further monographs: Tongues of Fire (1990) and Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish (2002). Most interesting in this respect – if at the time regrettable – was the inability of the sociological mainstream to accept the presence, never mind the significance, of this rapidly growing expression of global Christianity, now numbering some 250 million.

David, however, was a man of many parts. His reading was encyclopaedic both within and beyond sociology. He was trained in theology as well as in social science and ordained into the Church of England as deacon in 1983 and priest in 1984. At the same time, he was an accomplished musician with a particular fondness for Handel. David’s love of English poetry, much of which he knew by heart, has already been mentioned.

Many of these themes fed into a further and important dimension of his work: that of public intellectual and cultural critic. Early examples can be found in The Religious and the Secular (1969) and Tracts against the Times (1973), in which he articulates a persistent, profoundly sociological and, at times, costly critique of the counter-culture. Areas of diffuse religious socialization were being systematically secularized by the liberal elite.

A particularly visible example of David’s thinking in this respect reflected his acute sensitivity to liturgy – a passion that led him in 1980 to guest edit an issue of PN Review, entitled Crisis for Cranmer and King James. This became a vigorous defence of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible in both the spiritual and more general culture of England. The publication provoked a major and animated debate (both inside and outside the Church) with leaders in the major dailies and sacks full of correspondence directed to LSE. This is not the place to argue the rights and wrongs of this campaign. It is the place to note that David, in addition to a distinguished academic career, has provoked public as well as academic discussion.

Equally important has been his role in the ‘formation’ of the next generation, indeed generations, of scholars both in Britain and elsewhere. Large numbers of my contemporaries speak of their gratitude to David in this respect – as teacher, supervisor, examiner, mentor and friend. In all these roles it is important to include David’s wife Bernice in our thanks. Bernice is a distinguished scholar in her own right, but she has supported innumerable ventures and even more individuals in the sociology of religion. Many many times, I – and countless others – have enjoyed not only welcome encouragement but warm hospitality in their home in Woking. We are very grateful.

Grace Davie, Professor Emeritus, University of Exeter.

This appreciation of David Martin first appeared on the Religion and Global Society blog, and is reposted here by their kind premission.