Martin E. Marty

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Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty (born 1928), a Lutheran pastor, historian of American religion, and commentator on contemporary religious life, wrote prolifically on American religion and culture. His work was noted for blending solid scholarship and popular, readable style.

Martin E. Marty was born on February 5, 1928, at West Point, Nebraska, into a family descended from Swiss immigrants. After graduating from Concordia High School in Milwaukee he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Luther School of Theology in Chicago, and the University of Chicago, receiving a Ph.D. from the latter institution in 1956.

Contributed to Religious Field in Diverse Ways

His pastoral career began with ordination to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod ministry in 1952. In 1957 he took up duties as founding pastor of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, a position he held for six years. His founding of that church was innovative at the time; in those days few churches had moved out of downtown locations to serve the booming suburbs. During those years he also was a contributor to the Protestant weekly magazine The Christian Century, becoming associate editor in 1958. He resigned his pastorate in 1963 to join the faculty of the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he taught American religious history.

Explored Ecumenical Movement

Marty's wide-ranging interests within the field of American religion were exemplified by the subject matter of his books, which emerged at a rate of more than one per year after 1959. He probed specific religious beliefs and practices, such as baptism; he examined unbelief and infidelity in America; he explored and analyzed the ecumenical movement and its quest for church union; he charted emerging trends for American churches, and especially for Protestants; and he undertook major historical studies, especially of Protestantism. The most influential of his books was Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America, a conceptual survey of Protestantism and its interactions with the larger culture since the American Revolution. That work received the National Book Award in 1972. A later major book, Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America (1984), was an even more comprehensive compendium of facts and interpretations.

Through all of his work in teaching and the writing of books, Marty kept heavily occupied with other activities. His associate editorship of The Christian Century continued over the years; he wrote many major articles, editorials, book reviews, and a weekly column (called M.E.M.O.) for that journal, all the while performing the gamut of other editorial functions. He also founded a newsletter on religion and society, called Context, which he wrote and edited entirely. He served as co-editor for the scholarly journal Church History. His articles were published in many places, ranging from tiny specialized publications to the largest national magazines. Marty's casual and witty personal style made him a much sought after public speaker who travelled extensively. He also found time for other service, such as the presidency of the Park Ridge Center, an institute for the study of health, faith, and ethics located in suburban Chicago.

Pluralism Recurred as a Theme in Writings

Perhaps the most pervasive theme in Marty's writing was that of his commitment to pluralism and, therefore, to civility. He argued that the only basis for a moral, just, and humane society is a respect for the beliefs and practices of others who are unlike ourselves; yet the fact of respect for the ways of others does not mean that one should not have passion about his or her own ways. Our own roots and convictions define us, and individuals with strong—although differing—commitments make for a strong society. Outwardly, Marty argued, a key to maintaining the American social fabric is civility—the respect that one must have for others, the fair treatment that one must give others, which leads to a wholesome, fulfilling society.

In his observations concerning American religion, Marty clung to a belief in the parish, the local community of believers. He argued that the lessons of all of society can be learned in interaction with individuals and small groups gathered for worship and religious service. While other commentators were dismissing the parish as an outmoded organizational unit (and Marty himself certainly contributed some criticism of its shortcomings), Marty kept arguing that its faults were simply the faults of human beings and that in the community of the faithful was the promising hope for the future of religion.

Marty was also a leading ecumenist, committed to the belief that a divided Christendom has been not only a disappointment to those who believe that all of Christianity should work toward common goals, but a source (and a symptom) of destructive conflict over relatively trivial issues and a source of inefficient use of religious bodies' resources. His work at The Christian Century began in the headiest, most optimistic days of ecumenical thinking in the 1950s; later many of his colleagues became discouraged at the impediments to Christian unity which appeared insurmountable, but Marty persevered in seeing the real possibility of a unified Christianity at some future time.

Joined Civil Rights Movement

He was not only an observer of situations, but a promoter of causes and ideals in which he believed. He was an active propagandist for the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and at the invitation of Martin Luther King, Jr., joined many other religious leaders in journeying to Selma, Alabama, for the movement's most historic march, from Selma to Montgomery, in 1965. Later he became an active spokesperson for those opposed to the American role in the war in Vietnam, helping to found the influential Christian antiwar group Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam and lending his influential name to other antiwar protests.

Was Co-Director of the Fundamentalist Project

Marty was also a co-director of the Fundamentalist Project for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. From 1988 to 1994, he and R. Scott Appleby explored current questions in fundamentalism with scholars from around the world. The culmination of this project was edited by Marty and Appleby in Fundamentalisms Comprehended. Other titles in this encyclopedia of fundamentalism include Accounting for Fundamentalisms, (1994), Fundamentalisms and the State, (1993), Fundamentalisms and Society, (1992), and Fundamentalisms Observed, (1991). The series was based upon the interdisciplinary program directed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The purpose was to explore the nature and impact of fundamentalist movements in the twentieth century.

Life, be it religious or secular, isn't so much about achieving goals as it is about getting there, Marty wrote; he thus had a sense of his work as a journey, one in which he could change and grow and learn. That kind of openness to new experiences and the sense that he had much yet to learn, even while he shared the many insights he had had, pervaded his work.

Further Reading

Marty's most influential book was probably Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America (1970); Another important historical work was Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion in America (1984); By Way of Response (1981) was Marty's closest work to an autobiography, dealing as much with his ideas as with his life; The Public Church (1981) dealt with Marty's ideas about religious pluralism; His numerous contributions to The Christian Century since the 1950s and his newsletter, Context, provided ongoing outlets for his thought; Marty was the subject of a few master's theses, but no major biography has yet appeared. Also see Christian Century February 2-9, 1994. □

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Martin E. Marty

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