Marvin M. Ellison, Jr. was born in 1948 in Knoxville, Tennessee, to Marvin M. Ellison and Esther Alexander. There was an older sister and younger brother in the family. The family heritage is largely professional class, with doctors, teachers and clergy in the Southern Presbyterian Church. Marvin was active in church in his developing years. His faith journey was shaped by coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. One striking recollection was seeing a picket line protesting Black persons being denied entrance to a Knoxville movie theater that was playing “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Marvin grew to understand that the Gospel he heard preached in the Southern Presbyterian Church was not the Gospel he saw unfolding in the world around him.
After earning a B.A. in religion from Davidson College, Marvin went to graduate school at the University of Chicago Divinity School, drawn to an urban ministry program there. Disappointed that the program did not unfold as he had expected, Marvin completed his M.A. in religion and society there and then went to Union Theological Seminary.
Union was a whirlwind of emerging thought at that time including liberation theologians James Cone, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza. Ellison did his Ph.D. dissertation in economic justice and global development with Roger Shinn and Beverly Harrison, who became not only his dissertation advisor but also the namesake of his daughter.
After completing his Ph.D., Ellison was invited to join the faculty of the Bangor Theological Seminary in 1981 as the Willard S. Bass Professor of Christian Ethics. Over the years he has lectured widely on ethical issues related to human sexuality, health care, and economic justice and published essays on same-sex marriage, gender justice in Protestant Christianity, and changing patterns of family life.
Ellison has expressed his gratitude to be able to leave the southern U.S. and live and work in the North throughout his adult years. He found life in the South to be suffocating both related to race and also to his coming out and changing sexual identity during the 1980s. However, exemplifying the Southern adage that “everyone is related by blood,” Ellison later learned that he was cousin to Bev Harrison’s partner, Dr. Carter Heyward.
Bev Harrison recommended Ellison to serve on the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s Special Committee on Human Sexuality (1989-1991). This was the first formal study group of the newly-reunited northern and southern Presbyterian Churches--probably no other could have been more contentious. More senior Presbyterian scholars declined the invitation to serve on the task force, so despite his relatively young age, Ellison became the principal author of the committee’s report, “Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice.” As stated in the Foreword, the study intended to ”address many issues from the perspective of a consistent ethical position” and “illumine some of the most complex social and personal issues we face in church and society, and be a guide to reflection and decisions as Christian people seek to live responsibly and creatively, in body and soul, as members of the body of Christ.” This report was sent to the General Assembly in 1991 where, after heated debate, it was not adopted.
At this point, Ellison’s research and writing has shifted to more focus on sexual ethics, although he understood and explored the deep interconnectedness between different issues of injustice.
In addition to numerous essays and journal articles, Ellison has published these books: Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality (Westminster John Knox Press 1996), Body and Soul: Rethinking Sexuality as Justice-Love (The Pilgrim Press 2003), Same-Sex Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis (The Pilgrim Press 2004), Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect (The Pilgrim Press 2007), Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection, second edition (Westminster John Knox 2010), Making Love Just: Sexual Ethics for Perplexing Times (Fortress Press 2012).
The Same-Sex Marriage book was written during his 2002-03 sabbatical leave. Bev Harrison had invited him earlier to write an essay on same-sex marriage during which time he discovered layers of more extensive research awaiting. The book was published the same week as the Goodrich decision in Massachusetts, to the delight of his publisher. About six weeks after the book was in print Ellison received an email from a pastor asking for a free copy. Resisting the impulse to simply delete the request, Ellison read on that this pastor was in a 350-member congregation that had limited resources. About one-third of the members were LGBT, so there was much interest there in the topic. So “if it is possible, could you send me a free copy here in Sri Lanka?” This was a profound experience for Ellison reminding him that God’s Spirit was at work across the globe touching and moving people to truth and justice.
Ellison founded the Religious Coalition Against Discrimination in Maine in 1994 to support civil rights protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, including the right to marry and also founded the Maine Interfaith Council for Reproductive Choices in 1997. He has served on the “Out In Scripture” Advisory Board of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Project since 2005 and the Advisory Board of the Religious Institute for Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing since 2008. He serves on the Board of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England from 2007-2014.
Bangor Theological Seminary is scheduled to close in the fall of 2013, ending Ellison’s position there. He plans to continue guest teaching at other schools and writing. He lives in Portland, Maine with his partner Frank Brooks, a licensed clinical social worker with a private practice.
(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman from information provided by Marvin Ellison.)
Ellison recorded this video interview with Dan Smith in April 2015 at the Prophets & Rock Stars gathering at Stony Point Conference Center: https://vimeo.com/channels/936435/142700283