The Rev. Robert J. Marshall, 90; minister helped unify Lutheran denominations

The Rev. Robert J. Marshall, who presided over the largest denomination of the Lutheran Church in the 1970s and was part of early discussions that led to the merger of three branches of the church, has died. He was 90.

Marshall died Monday of a heart attack at a senior living facility in Allentown, Pa., where he had lived since 1999, said his daughter, the Rev. Peggy Niederer.

Marshall, who earned a doctorate in divinity at the University of Chicago, was a professor of the Old Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago when he was tapped as president of the Illinois synod of the Lutheran Church of America in 1962.

During the next six years, Marshall led efforts to keep inner-city Lutheran congregations nationwide alive as whites left cities for the suburbs, said Philip Hefner, a retired professor at the theology school.

"He had a real insight into the church's function in society, in the public order," Hefner said. "He was not at all parochial."

Marshall won a special election as president of the Lutheran Church of America in 1968. He held the post, based in New York City, for 10 years.

During his tenure, the Lutheran Church of America was a part of preliminary discussions about a merger with other denominations, which led to the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1988.

Marshall handled contentious issues with aplomb, Hefner said.

"Even when he said things people didn't like, he wouldn't ruffle any feathers," Hefner said.

Marshall was born in 1918 in Burlington, Iowa, where his father was a carpenter. He told his daughter that as a boy he would stand on a tree stump and imitate the sermons he had heard in church.

He took pre-seminary courses at Wittenberg University in Ohio and studied at the Lutheran seminary in Maywood, Ill., now part of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, before being ordained in 1944.

He spent three years as pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Alhambra before accepting a teaching job in the religion department at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. He headed Muhlenberg's religion department for a year before going to the Lutheran School of Theology in 1953.

After stepping down as president of the Lutheran Church of America, Marshall taught at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C.

He was a president of Lutheran World Relief, a finance moderator of the World Council of Churches and served on boards of various colleges, hospitals and social service agencies.

Marshall's wife, Alice, died in 1998. In addition to his daughter, survivors include a son, Robert; a sister, Dorothy Fisher; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

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