A Twentieth-Century Faith
- ISBN: 9780198834939
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: January 2021
Margaret Mead may not be familiar to all contemporary readers. Those who know of Mead today may chiefly know her name because of the posthumous controversy over the reliability of some her anthropological fieldwork in Samoa. Yet Mead was one of the towering figures in the intellectual landscape of 20th-centuryAmerica. A leading (and prodigiously productive) anthropologist of her generation, she was energetic in bringing anthropology to the service of US (and global) society. The range of Mead’s interests, influence, and connections was breath-taking. She was the president of the American Anthropological Association (1960) and a long-serving member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (becoming president in 1975). Yet she also wrote a long-running column for the popular Red Book magazine and several bestselling books on American society. Mead served as head of the wartime National Committee on Food Habits and later turned down an invitation from Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as his secretary of state for education, health, and welfare. Mead’s conclusion that sex roles were determined not by biology but by culture played a hugely significant role in shaping Western society as we know it. Her advocacy of a style of parenting based on “love, security and celebration” (85) was equal in influence only to that of Benjamin Spock in transforming post-war parenting styles. (Mead deliberately chose Spock, a comparatively unknown doctor at that point, to be her own pediatrician; his seminal The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare [Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1946] was formulated while Mead and her daughter were under his professional care.)
However, much less well-known is that Mead was a fundamentally (and idiosyncratically) Christian person whose convictions about the spiritual were closely woven (although sometimes not explicitly) through most of her life and work. Elesha J. Coffman’s excellent biographical study, Margaret Mead: A Twentieth-Century Faith, sets the record straight. Mead’s early commitment to Episcopalianism is nicely contextualized within the early 20th century US religious landscape (chapters 1-2). Despite Mead’s being estranged from the church during the earlier part of her career, Coffman shows through Mead’s private correspondence how she continued to be deeply attached to aspects of Christianity (chapters 3-6). Coffman also demonstrates the breadth of Mead’s more explicitly religious commitments after she returned to church in the 1950s (chapter 7 onwards). Serving on several national church committees and at the World Council of Churches, Mead sought to bring the insights of contemporary science and anthropology to bear on re-imagining Christian faith for a free, affluent, and technological society (136-43, 166-75). Although Mead was somewhat more reticent about the ways in which faith might influence anthropology, Coffman convincingly demonstrates that the relationship flowed both ways. There is a particularly interesting discussion of the way in which Mead’s return trip to Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, in the early 1950s, and the indigenized, prophetic form of Christianity she found there, may not have been unrelated to the renewal of her church commitment during this period and the subsequent direction of her commitments (123-25).
From Coffman’s skilled biography, Mead emerges as a committed but unconventional Christian (particularly in adolescence and again from late middle age), ambivalent about doctrine, deeply rooted in traditional Christian worship and ritual, and passionately committed to a faith that brought positive, practical transformation in the world. Mead was in no way a systematic theologian; consequently, Coffman is frequently obliged to piece together Mead’s worldview from a wide variety of disparate sources. Coffman is particularly good (sometimes with frustratingly little source material from Mead herself) at exploring the ways in which the anthropologist reconciled Christian faith with ideas and aspects of her identity or lifestyle which many of her contemporaries would have regarded as anomalous (e.g., Mead’s bisexuality, her affairs, or – towards the end of her life - her close relationship with a faith healer). Here, Mead’s sense of the priority of love and human personality appears as significant.
Likewise, Coffman is attentive to the views held by Mead which many contemporary readers will find uncomfortable (e.g., her lukewarm attitude to the ordination of women, the colonialist assumptions behind some of her earlier anthropological research, and her strong views on limiting population growth). Never hagiographical in tone, Coffman is also even-handed in chronicling the ways in which Mead’s insights were not always universally welcomed (the Episcopal Church’s Standing Liturgical Commission disregarded most of her recommendations on Prayer Book revision), and the ways in which Mead’s fierce intellect and strong (if unorthodox) moral sense were sometimes colored or superseded by her personal life experiences, temperament, and passions. Yet the picture also emerges of a woman of formidable intellect and unrelenting energy, passionately committed to the constructive application of scientific research to modern society, and to the incubation of a modern form of Christian Humanism not only open to scientific knowledge, but also able to foster human personhood and fellowship within it.
Occasionally I felt more explanation would have brought greater clarity. For example, the brief discussion of the Columbia University chapel (169-71) did not (for me) quite clearly enough outline Mead’s view on the relationship between different types of sacred spaces and its implications for the development of the chapel. (I do acknowledge however, that this may reflect my own limitations rather than those of the author). Structurally, the book ends abruptly with Mead’s funeral. Although numerous assessments of Mead’s life and work already exist elsewhere, I would nevertheless have appreciated the addition of a final epilogue drawing together some of the significant themes of the book and assessing Mead’s spiritual life in the context of her legacy. A serious student of Mead might also find the select bibliography and limited index frustrating (although the footnotes are copious). However, these are minor reservations.
Overall, this is a superb study of a significant, complex, and intriguing figure. Biography offers huge promise for those attempting to bridge the all-too-common gap between “religious history” and wider intellectual, social, and cultural history. It is here where one potentially witnesses the interplay between individuals’ religious/non-religious beliefs, practices, and allegiances, and other aspects of their lives. For recognizing this so clearly, series editor Timothy Larsen and Oxford University Press deserve congratulations for the Spiritual Lives series, to which Elisha Coffman’s biography of Margaret Mead is a highly accomplished contribution.
Ian Jones is director of St Peter’s Saltley Trust and an honorary senior lecturer in the School of Education, University of Worcester UK.Ian JonesDate Of Review:May 4, 2022