David Nicholls was a rare phenomenon in today’s world of professional pigeon-holing: a writer of important and influential academic works who never held a mainstream academic post, a theologian whom the Church of England found it difficult to accommodate. He was amused as well as irritated by his lack of recognition and ecclesiastical preferment. He knew, perhaps, that to be appointed to one of the chairs for which he applied would in fact, be to enter a bureaucratic trap. Faute de mieux, therefore, he came to live as an old-style country parson of the best sort, working since 1978 in the parish of SS Mary and Nicholas Littlemore near Oxford (and thus near the Bodleian Library), and issuing a far more substantial stream of books and articles -in qualitative as well as in quantitative terms -than those who got the jobs for which he applied. He made theology matter in the world of secular academia; and he showed religious people that good intentions and kindly thinking are not enough.
David, although born in England, was of Welsh descent and proud to regard himself as such; under his father’s influence he became a champion swimmer; his mother taught him to “love people and books”. Graduating from the London school of Economics he obtained scholarships for post-graduate study at Kings College Cambridge (with Alec Vidler) and Yale Divinity School. He attended Chichester Theological College (under Cheslyn Jones) and as deacon, then priest, worked in the London University Chaplaincy team (at St. George’s Bloomsbury ) under Gordon Phillips -formative experiences. Grey, rainy weather in London prompted application for the post of lecturer in Government at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus (1966-1973). It was during this time that his interest in Haiti was kindled, he pioneered interest in the non-English speaking Caribbean at UWI. Trinidad’s pluralist society (see dedication in Three Varieties of Pluralism) with its rich heritage of language and customs, the weather, beautiful scenery and vibrancy suited him (and his motor-bike). There David continued a mixture of teaching, research, writing and pastoral work (on campus and outside) which he continued in varying proportions throughout his life. Returning to England as Chaplain and Fellow of Exeter College Oxford, he also jointly ran seminars on race relations at the Latin American Centre of St. Anthony’s college, becoming a senior associate member there. After 5 years at Exeter College he moved to the parish of Littlemore where he continued to write, his theology being rooted in his pastoral ministry and regular worship. His life was lived true to his Christian faith but his influence in personal and academic terms was much wider than the church.
His work on the Caribbean, particularly Haiti gained him an international reputation and he was much in demand as a speaker especially in the United States. His views were summarised in From Dessalines to Duvalier: race colour and national independence (1979, paper-back edition 1988) which has become a classic, Economic dependence and political autonomy: the Haitian experience (1974) and Haiti in Caribbean Context: ethnicity, economy and revolt ( 1985). A comparative study of the Levantine community in the islands is published in articles and chapters. His theological work included editing a series of nine volumes under the general title Faith and the Future (1983) He then turned to what he saw as his credo: a trilogy, working from the present backwards, examining the symbiotic relationship of theology, philosophy and politics. The first 2 volumes were Deity and Domination: Images of God and the State in the 19th and 20rh Centuries (1989) given as the Hulsean lectures in Cambridge, and God and Government in an Age of Reason ( 1995); the third volume Despotism and Doubt he left unfinished. These are among the most important British works in political theology. Quite apart from his reputation in theology and Caribbean studies, political philosophers were beginning to recognise David Nicholls as the pioneer in the revival and restatement of pluralism. His Three Varieties of Pluralism appeared in 1974 when the doctrine was highly unfashionable. Marxist-Leninist, Hobbist and democratic theories all began, and ended, with theories of the state. How centralised power should be used was debated. What was largely ignored, however, was that all concentration on and of such power was an inadequate account of the essentially pluralistic nature of actual political life and social formations. David went back to Figgis and his secular disciple, Harold Laski, to restate pluralism as a critique of the theory of sovereignty. Twenty years ago it seemed only of some academic interest. But by the time of the second, revised and extended edition of The Pluralist State (1994), opinion had swung to vindicate his judgement, not merely among academics but in nearly all reforming political opinion. “He was right about the spirit of our times, and some of us got there before others having read him and been persuaded,” writes Bernard Crick. He will be seen as one of the few political philosophers of our time who had an influence outside the academy. Oxford University recognised his ability with a D Litt. In 1991. David’s special gift apart from his academic rigour, was to see important connections between disciplines usually separated; this, combined with a deep interest in and love of people. A friend recently said “David did not care about the world yet he cared deeply about the world.”
All who knew David will agree that no description would be complete without an accounting of the role of the Venerable William Paley, Archdeacon Emeritus. This magnificent macaw from the Venezuelan Orinioco jungles had a distinguished career as a loyal ally of David, the scholar, as well as David, the journalistic jouster. The following letter appeared in the Independent newspaper (April 3, 1995):
Sir: It is reassuring to know that the Pope is against the “culture of death”, particularly in view of the fact that he was the only head of state in the world to recognise the brtual and murderous military junta [in Haiti]. It would appear that the pro-life principle is selectively applied by the Vatican.
William Paley (Archdeacon Emeritus, Oxford).