Obituary: John M. Todd
Friday 25 June 1993
John Todd was best known as a Christian ecumenical publisher and as the author of irenic biographies of Luther and John Wesley, but he was a man of far wider interests, sympathies and achievements, all unified by his integrity, Christian vision and gift for friendship.
Born near Liverpool, Todd went to Wellington College, but by the time he left he was set on a lifelong course of pacifism and moral independence. During a summer in pre-war Germany he formed deep impressions of the evil of Nazism, and several times showed courage in bearing witness to his ideals. At Cambridge he read history and prepared for teaching. In 1940 he registered as a conscientious objector and spent the war years working on the land, mainly in Somerset, where he and his brother gathered a 'land community'.
It was in Somerset that Todd's life found its direction. The most influential of all his friendships was with Reginald Trevett, a Taunton schoolmaster and Roman Catholic layman who gave Todd a new vision of Christian life. In 1944 Todd himself became a Roman Catholic; he said that Christopher Dawson's The Making of Europe was a decisive influence. In the same year he visited Downside Abbey for the first time and met Dom Ralph Russell, who became the second greatest influence on him. Todd joined Trevett and Russell in plans to foster adult education for the laity by means of 'Catholic People's Weeks', in which those endowed with riches of Christian theological insight and culture would share their treasures with others. The first small 'week' was held in 1945; the movement grew steadily and still continues.
In 1945-46 Todd was seriously ill and did not expect to live. This experience both strengthened his motivation to achieve plans he had begun to form, and greatly deepened his personal spirituality. He came to live at Downside as a lay associate. But he knew that his vocation was to remain a layman and he married in 1953, settling not far from the abbey. He began to become known through writings and activities inspired by his friendships both with the monks and with a circle of scholarly laypeople who had come to live near Downside.
A notable fruit of these friendships was the series of 'Downside Symposiums', focused on important themes of Christian faith, culture and life, which began in 1955 and were held about every two years, mostly at Downside or at Le Bec in Normandy, till the early 1970s. The 'core group' now included two more learned laymen, Lancelot Sheppard and John Coulson, with Dom Sebastian Moore; the wider membership varied, but represented Christian intellectual circles of increasingly ecumenical breadth. The papers of all the symposiums were published, the first four being edited by Todd. The most important volumes were Problems of Authority (1962) and Theology and the University (1964, edited by Coulson).
Meanwhile Todd had joined the publishing house of Longmans Green, but when in 1959 Michael Longman left the firm to form a new ecumenical venture with Tim Darton, Todd joined them as the third partner. DLT published most of the Downside Symposiums. During his active years in publishing Todd continued with the Catholic People's Weeks and also, with Lord Hylton, founded in 1973 the Ammerdown Ecumenical Centre at the latter's country house not far from Downside. Among its activities, regular Jewish-Christian events, organised by resident Sisters of Sion, continue to represent another of Todd's deep concerns.
As an author, Todd produced seven books of his own from 1955 to 1982, the best of which established him as a biographer inspired by ecumenical irenism, working at a well-researched but not too technical level. His John Wesley and the Catholic Church (1958) emphasised the catholicity of Wesley's spirituality and underplayed his protestantism, but it was a revelation to Catholics not yet out of the ecumenical ghetto. More solid, though marked by the same irenic bias, are Todd's two shots at the far harder task of characterising Luther: Martin Luther: a biographical study (1964) and Luther: a life (1982). Between these, the broader historical essay 'Reformation' (1972) contains, probably, Todd's most balanced historical reflection. For the Catholic reappraisal of Luther and the Reformation Todd brought to Britain and the US the fruits of Joseph Lortz's Die Reformation in Deutschland (1939-40). DLT published the English translation in 1968. The other great achievement, for a small firm, was the publication in 1966 of the English Jerusalem Bible.
But the great interest of DLT publications in Todd's years reflect, to a great extent, the breadth of his own concerns. The development of Christianity in other cultures was important among these. In 1962 Todd produced a history of the Society of African Missions, and he remained enthusiastic about his visits to Africa. India he never visited, yet he was deeply impressed by the ideas and work of Bede Griffiths and Raymond Panikkar, both much concerned with expressing Christianity in truly Indian forms, and became close friends especially with the former.
In later years Todd was invited to conduct seminars in the United States and Canada, and in 1983-86 was Visiting Professor in Theology at King's College London. After he retired from DLT he became in 1988 a director of the Tablet, the Catholic weekly.
John Todd's achievements reflect his personal qualities and deepest concerns. Underlying all was his integrity and determination to fight for good and against evil, whether in the moral or in the ecological sphere. Out of his capacity for friendship grew almost everything: his desire to share the gifts of education with others; his longing to see 'unity in diversity' realised both between Christians and between world faiths and cultures; even his biographies are the monuments of a desire to make contact in friendship across the gulfs of time and division. John Todd's faith and hope could make such things thinkable.
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