Bryan Wilson, who has died aged 78, was one of the world’s leading sociologists of religion; his scholarly interests ranged over many fields, and his studies of secularisation and religious sects have already become classics.
It is a measure of Wilson’s influence that references to his publications remain frequent in the writings of much younger scholars, and that that influence extends well beyond the boundaries of his native Britain.
Bryan Ronald Wilson was born on June 25 1926 in Leeds, where he was educated. After National Service in the Army, Wilson studied at University College, Leicester, before taking a First in Economics from the University of London in 1952. He then wrote a PhD thesis at the London School of Economics on Christadelphians, Elim Pentecostals and Christian Scientists.
A period of post-doctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, enabled Wilson to expand his thesis into Sects and Society (1961). This book, and associated articles on the development of religious sects, set new standards for historical and theological understanding of sectarian movements as well as for identifying the social forces, internal and external, that shaped those movements’ development.
After a lectureship in sociology at the University of Leeds, Wilson spent the rest of his academic career at Oxford, where he was appointed Reader in Sociology in 1962 and, from 1963, a Fellow of All Souls. He also spent periods as a teacher, examiner and researcher in Africa, America, Asia, Australia and Western Europe.
In all these places he gave generously of his time to students and colleagues alike, often writing lengthy and detailed advice on papers in draft. Generations of graduate students and visitors to the sociology of religion seminars that Wilson organised for many years at Oxford delight in recalling the formal, but always polite and considerate, way in which important questions were debated.
The willingness of authors to contribute to the seven volumes that he edited on sectarianism, rationality, education, new religious movements, values, new issues in religion, and Soka Gakkai Buddhism is further testimony to the universally high regard for his erudition, skills and patience.
It was Wilson’s Religion in Secular Society (1966) that laid the foundation for his international renown as an advocate of the view that long-term processes of modernisation and rationalisation had eroded the capacity of religion to shape human societies. In the face of extensive criticism, and of numerous attempts to modify his claims about secularisation, he continued to reinforce and refine his argument in articles and books as diverse as Contemporary Transformations of Religion (1976) and Religion in Sociological Perspective (1982).
Wilson’s early interest in religious sects led not only to several original schemes for categorising them and to a grand synthesis in Religious Sects (1970), but also to detailed explorations of millennial ideas in Magic and the Millennium (1973) and the modern fate of charisma in The Noble Savage (1975).
The role of rationality in studies of “other cultures”, on which his edited volume on Rationality (1970) had cast much needed light, was a constant theme of his mature work. Moreover, the new religious movements that had first become controversial in the 1960s also featured prominently in Wilson’s later work, as well as in his special studies of the legal controversies in which the Exclusive Brethren and Jehovah’s Witnesses were embroiled, leading to his involvement as an expert witness in court cases in Britain and overseas.
Wilson’s agnosticism proved no obstacle to his principled engagement in struggles to defend the freedoms of unpopular religious minorities. In championing religious underdogs, he argued that toleration was not enough. “Toleration,” he wrote in 1995, “is only a limited licence. It is not an avowal of religious liberty . . . It is a concession by those who enjoy power to those who are excluded from it.”
The importance of the personal and intellectual contributions that Wilson made, beginning in the late 1960s, towards the success of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (ISSR) cannot be exaggerated. As one of the pivotal actors who transformed a formerly Catholic organisation into a genuinely scholarly and non-confessional community of sociologists, he became the ISSR’s first honorary president in 1991. It was during his presidency of the Society from 1971 to 1975 that the participation of Japanese scholars increased sharply.
He found his contacts with academics and religious movements in Japan especially rewarding for the insights that they provided into the workings of a society where respect for scholarship, tradition, morality and family remained strong. Human Values in a Changing World (1984), which contains Wilson’s conversations with Daisaku Ikeda, President of Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest lay Buddhist association, reflects a long-standing concern with civility, manners, morals and the value of education. In 1994 he co-wrote, with Karel Dobbelaere, the distinguished Belgian sociologist and a personal friend, a pioneering study of Soka Gakkai, A Time to Chant.
A private man of impeccable taste, Bryan Wilson was admired for his erudition and elegant prose style. He also played a full part in the life of the University of Oxford and of All Souls. Loyal service to his college included fulfilling the roles of Domestic Bursar (1989-93) and Sub-Warden (1988-90) as well as quietly imparting his peerless knowledge of fine claret. At All Souls, he created the visiting fellowship scheme, which since the 1960s has brought some 800 scholars to the university.
He also served as Senior Treasurer of the Oxford Union Society from 1983 to 1991.
His academic honours included an Honorary D Litt from Soka University in 1985, a Doctorate honoris causa from the University of Leuven in 1992 and an earned D Litt from the University of Oxford in 1994. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1994.
Bryan Wilson died on October 9. A victim of Parkinson’s Disease, he had been taken by his carer on a tour of the Cotswolds, and suffered a heart attack after enjoying supper in a pub.
He was unmarried.