Remembering N.J. Demerath III

N.J. Demerath III (‘Jay’), former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (1997-99), and winner of two SSSR distinguished publication awards (article 1992; book 2002), passed away February 5, 2021 in Leeds, Massachusetts.

Jay received a B.A., magna cum laude, from Harvard University in 1958, and then an M.A. (1962) and Ph.D. (1964) in Sociology from the University of California at Berkeley. There he studied with Professor Charles Glock. Jay was on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison from 1962-1972, progressing from Instructor to Full Professor, before moving to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst as Professor and Department Chair. When he retired from UMass in 2008, Jay held the title of Emile Durkheim Distinguished Professor.

During his career Jay authored, or co-authored, eight books, edited or co-edited four others, edited two special issues of academic journals (including one of Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion that celebrated the SSSR’s 50th anniversary), and authored three shorter monographs intended for specialized professional audiences. He was sole author on 28 articles in scholarly journals and co-author on 16 others, authored 16 chapters in edited collections and co-authored another nine, and wrote about two dozen book reviews, review essays, and encyclopedia entries. Moreover, he consistently produced op-ed contributions for newspapers and newsletters.

Jay’s contribution to the sociology of religion were at the heart of his scholarly reputation, although he also published in sociological theory, the sociology of collective behavior, and wrote a fair amount on the institutional dynamics of the academy. In the sociology of religion, Jay contributed to a number of important scholarly debates about religion in American, and then global, life. His first book was Social Class and American Protestantism (1965), once a classic in the study not just of religion and inequality but how religion becomes expressed in various class cultures. In an interesting way, his publishing career came full circle, as the last publication to his name was the forward to Lisa Keister and Darren Sherkat’s 2014 edited collection, Religion and Inequality in America.

Jay authored or co-authored three books specifically on religion and public life and politics, one on their connections in Springfield, Massachusetts, A Bridging of Faiths: Religion and Politics in a New England City (1992; an article drawn from the study won the SSSR Distinguished Article award), Crossing the Gods: World Religions and Worldly Politics (2001), which won the Distinguished book award from the SSSR, and Sacred Circles and Public Squares: The Multi-Centering of American Religion (2004) a study of public religious expression in Indianapolis. His articles ranged from studies of ‘non-religion’ (one of which was in the American Journal of Sociology), to examining and revising secularization theory, to organizational analyses of religious institutions (including the co-edited book Sacred Companies in 1998).

Beyond his scholarship, Jay offered considerable organizational service to the discipline of sociology and the subdiscipline of the social scientific study of religion. He was executive officer of the American Sociological Association (1970-72), and was president of the Association for the Sociology of Religion (2005), the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (1997-99), the Eastern Sociological Society (2001), and chaired the ASA Section on the Sociology of Religion (2011). He was willingly drafted into organizing conference sessions, being a discussant or a critic in an ‘author-meets-critics’ session, or serving on associational committees. Notably, he was President of the SSSR (1997-99) at the 50th anniversary of the founding of the association, and his conference program that year both looked back at its history and development and looked forward at the challenges to come. Also, while president he secured Ford Foundation support for grants to international scholars so they could attend SSSR meetings; it gave a powerful push to the SSSR’s continuing efforts to become more global. Further, Jay was active in the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (SISR) and the International Sociological Association. He had two different Fulbright Fellowships in India and did a turn as visiting faculty at the London School of Economics (as well as visiting gigs at Yale University’s Divinity School and at Harvard). 

In all these ways, Jay was the consummate professional. He was committed to rigorous scholarship and to the promotion of sociology as a perspective. He believed fervently in the ‘craft’ of good writing and was a tireless editor of others’, and his own, prose. His bow-ties and WASPy ways could be misleading – in fact, Jay loved sitting up late at night while at conferences, sharing scotch, telling stories, swapping ideas, and making predictions about the upcoming baseball or basketball season. His delight at word play and puns was inexhaustible – sometimes seemingly compulsive – and he reveled in his audience’s groans and eye-rolls at his turns of phrase. He rarely began an academic presentation without an opening joke or humorous anecdote. He rarely was at a loss for something to say.

For all these contributions, professional and personal, Jay Demerath will be missed.