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Margaret Mead: A twentieth-century faith, by Elesha J. Coffman

30 April 2021

Bernice Martin on the findings, faith, and love life of Margaret Mead

THIS volume is the latest in OUP’s enterprising series on the spiritual lives of famous people not usually thought to have a religious dimension to their story. Its subject is the pioneer American woman anthropologist, notorious in the 1920s for her first monograph, which shocked and titillated her compatriots with its account of the guilt-free sexual lives of the unmarried Samoan young which, Mead believed, had neither social nor psychological ill effects.

Today, anthropologists fault Mead’s ethnology, particularly her ideal of “primitive” societies, “uncontaminated” by Western modernity, when, in practice, she simply ignored modern influences, including the mission churches. Her use of anthropology to preach contemporary lessons is now also deplored, but at the time it made her a public intellectual and popular guru on marriage and family and issues of social responsibility. She was a consistent peace advocate and, late in life, a trusted adviser to President Carter.

Mead had three husbands: in her student days, a Lutheran priest-anthropologist; second, an intense young New Zealand anthropologist; and, third, the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson, with whom she had a much-loved daughter. Mead took both male and female lovers and spent many years with two close women partners, her fellow anthropologist Ruth Benedict, then, after her divorce from Bateson, a younger colleague, Rhoda Metraux.

Mead was brought up in a family for whom, Elesha Coffman tells us, “social science had replaced religion”; but, aged 11, she chose to be baptised in the Anglican Church. She loved the liturgy and responded deeply to its poetical resources. She invariably used Christian metaphors in the poetry and letters that she wrote to the people she loved most, including her various sexual partners. Apart from the brief interlude of her second marriage, she attended church regularly. Despite her advanced ideas, she was for a long time uncomfortable with the idea of women priests.

Christian faith inspired her lifelong commitment to social reform and the alleviation of injustices throughout the world. She took this inspiration into the many Anglican and ecumenical committees on which she served and into her active political life. In a notable two-day conversation with James Baldwin, published as a book, A Rap on Race, in 1971, she summed up the source of her indefatigable work and unquenchable hope. She said to Baldwin: “You and I, what we have of belief in the brotherhood of men, of all men, or the power of love, we got out of the Christian tradition.”

Throughout her exhausting academic career and all her sexual vicissitudes, Mead remained a passionate Anglican. Her life is, surely, a chastening case study for people wrestling with Living in Love and Faith.

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at Royal Holloway, University of London.


Margaret Mead: A twentieth-century faith
Elesha J. Coffman
OUP £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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