Oxtoby, Willard G.

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OXTOBY, WILLARD G. Willard Gurdon Oxtoby (19332003), one of the twentieth century's foremost scholars of comparative religion, was born on July 29, 1933, in Kentfield, California, across the bay from San Francisco. He died on March 6, 2003, in Toronto, Ontario, of colon cancer at the age of sixty-nine. Oxtoby was for twenty-eight years a professor of religious studies at the University of Toronto, where he became the founding director of the Centre for Religious Studies, the one center or institute, among the dozens devoted to religious study in this large international university, dedicated exclusively to the history and comparison of religions. The founding of this center completed the University of Toronto's credentials as one of the foremost resources for the study of religion in North America.

Oxtoby began his Bible studies at age five when his father, a professor of the Bible at a Presbyterian seminary, taught him the Twenty-third Psalm in Hebrew to encourage the elder Oxtoby's graduate Hebrew class. Initially, Oxtoby followed his father into biblical studies, training at Princeton (Ph.D. 1962) after his undergraduate major in philosophy at Stanford (B.A. 1955, Phi Beta Kappa). He spent two years in Jerusalem helping to prepare the Dead Sea Scrolls for publication, with his new wife Layla Jurji, the daughter of a Princeton Theological Seminary professor of comparative religion. With Layla, he began a family of two children, David (b.1960) and Susan (b. 1963). Oxtoby's dissertation was a critical edition of the inscriptions of pre-Islamic Arabia. His first teaching assignment was at McGill University in Montreal. But he soon realized the importance of Persian religion for Judaism and Christianity, so he entered Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a postdoctoral fellowship to study Zoroastrianism and ancient Persian at the Center for World Religions under the stewardship of Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

After this fellowship, Oxtoby took up a position in Zoroastrianism and comparative religion at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1966. He taught at Yale for five years and then accepted a full professorship in 1971 at the prestigious Trinity College of the University of Toronto, where he remained until his retirement in 1999. His first assignment was to establish the internationally renowned Centre for Religious Studies, which he directed from 1976 to 1981.

In June 1980 Oxtoby's wife Layla died of cancer. The following year he began to study the Chinese language with his colleague Julia Ching, a collaboration that developed into his second marriage and a long-standing publishing partnership specializing in the comparison of Abrahamic faiths and Asian faiths. Julia predeceased him in 2001 after a long bout with cancer. Although his life contained more than its share of grief, much of it from disparate cancers among his loved ones, Oxtoby was able to conquer that sorrow with the solace that his own religion gave him.

In the course of his life Oxtoby was a member of countless professional organizations, including the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion, the Canadian Asian Studies Association, the American Academy of Religion, the American Oriental Society, and the Society for Values in Higher Education (formerly the Society for Religion in Higher Education). Of all his responsibilities, perhaps most satisfying to Oxtoby was his membership in and service to the American Society for the Study of Religion, an honorary society devoted to the comparison of religion. First elected in 1964, he served as secretary (1969), executive councilor (19841985), vice president (19851988), and president (19901993) of that organization.

Oxtoby's detailed knowledge of the languages, cultures, and history of world religions was unmatched. In the course of his career he authored, coauthored, and edited over a dozen books on disparate topics, ranging from pre-Islamic inscriptions; to Experiencing India: European Descriptions and Impressions, 14981898, a catalog for the 1998 exhibit of four hundred years of Indian publishing at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library of the University of Toronto; to Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century (1988); to Moral Enlightenment: Leibniz and Wolff on China (1992). He is perhaps best known for editing the massive two-volume textbook World Religions: Eastern Traditions and World Religions: Western Traditions (1996/2002). As well as serving as the general editor of this work, he authored the sections on Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, primitive religions, and modern developments. He used common terms for these religions as a matter of convenience (e.g., Eastern and Western religions) but argued strongly throughout the books against essentializing any religion, or seeing any religion in isolation from its social and historical setting, or ignoring the other religions with which it came into contact. When he died Oxtoby was actively engaged in a series of lectures as the American Academy of Religion Distinguished Lecturer in Comparative Religion for 2003 to 2004, showing how differently Islam developed as it encountered Persia, India, Africa, Europe, and North America. The lectures, had they been finished, were contracted for publication at Columbia University Press. Oxtoby's sudden and unexpected death also interrupted several other ambitious retirement projects, including a massive collection of Near Eastern texts spanning from the ancient beginning of civilization in that part of the world to modern Islam and the IsraeliPalestinian problem.

Oxtoby was a practicing Presbyterian and a minister of that denomination. He never thought of himself as anything other than a Christian, but he pioneered a comparativist Christianity rather than an exclusivist one. Oxtoby concluded in his 1983 book, The Meaning of Other Faiths, that "My Christianity, including my sense of Christian ministry, has commanded that I be open to learn from the faith of others."

See Also

Ching, Julia.


Ching, Julia, and Willard G. Oxtoby, eds. Discovering China: European Interpretations in the Enlightenment. Rochester, N.Y., 1992.

Ching, Julia, and Willard G. Oxtoby. Moral Enlightenment: Leibniz and Wolff on China. Nettetal, Germany, 1992.

O'Connell, Joseph T., Milton Israel, and Willard G. Oxtoby, eds. Sikh History and Religion in the Twentieth Century. Toronto, 1988.

Oxtoby, Willard G. Ancient Iran and Zoroastrianism in Festschriften: An Index. Waterloo, Ontario, 1973.

Oxtoby, Willard G. The Meaning of Other Faiths. Philadelphia, 1983.

Oxtoby, Willard G., ed. World Religions: Eastern Traditions. Toronto, 1996; 2d ed., 2002.

Oxtoby, Willard G., ed. World Religions: Western Traditions. Toronto, 1996; 2d ed., 2002.

Alan F. Segal (2005)