Obituary: The Rev Professor John Marsh
Wednesday 09 March 1994
JOHN MARSH was a distinguished biblical scholar, theologian, college principal, Congregational (later United Reformed) minister and ecumenical leader. His principal achievement was to transform Mansfield College, Oxford, from a small, though distinguished, theological college threatened with bankruptcy into a Permanent Private Hall of Oxford University, offering teaching in a wide range of subjects, and to set it on course towards its now assured goal of becoming a full college of the university.
Born in 1904, Marsh studied philosophy at Edinburgh University before moving to Mansfield College for three years to study theology and prepare for the Congregational ministry. A year at Marburg, where he studied with Rudolf Bultmann, followed by a spell of lecturing at Westhill College, Birmingham, led to his ordination to a four-year ministry in Otley, Yorkshire, where he made lifelong friendships.
But it was not long before his own college called him back to assume the role of Chaplain and Tutor. Here his influence extended beyond the college, for he became Chaplain to all Congregational undergraduates and a leading senior figure in the Student Christian Movement in Oxford and beyond.
He and his wife - Gladys Walker, a member of the Society of Friends, who loyally supported him for more than 59 years, and with whom he enjoyed a very happy family life - offered generous hospitality to Congregational students, and he joined with obvious enjoyment in the annual Easter walking party of the Congregational Society in the Lake District.
In 1949 he was invited to become the first Professor of Christian Theology at Nottingham University. In four years he built up a flourishing department, and published his first major book, The Fulness of Time (1952). But in 1953 he was recalled to Mansfield as fourth Principal, in succession to Nathaniel Micklem. His acceptance of the post was a brave move, for the college was in a precarious financial position. During the next 17 years, under his guidance, Mansfield was established as a Permanent Private Hall within the university, provided with new buildings, and expanded to include the teaching of disciplines other than theology.
As well as achieving all this, Marsh found time to write biblical commentaries, notably his Pelican Commentary on Saint John's Gospel (1968), to translate German theological works into English, to participate in the meetings and commissions of the World Council of Churches for more than 20 years, to act as co-chairman of the Joint Committee which steered the difficult and long drawn-out negotiations which eventually led to the formation of the United Reformed Church, and to act as religious adviser to the BBC and the ITA (for which he was appointed CBE in 1964). Coaching the College Eight on the river was one of his relaxations, and he took great delight in Mansfield's sporting achievements. He was Chairman of the Congregational Union from 1963 to 1964, and Moderator of the Free Church Federal Council from 1970 to 1971.
In retirement he lived in Cockermouth, before finally moving back to Oxford. During these later years, he continued to write, preach and lecture on both sides of the Atlantic.
John Marsh's achievements were great, but he remained at heart a Christian minister, a lover of life, who will be remembered for his humanity and for what one of his students has called 'the overflowing generosity of his friendship'.
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