African American Leaders: Clinton McClurkin Marsh
Each month, the Presbyterian Historical Society is bearing witness to the lives of African American leaders throughout the history of the PC(USA). Click here to learn how PHS is collecting records of the Black Presbyterian experience through the African American Leaders and Congregations Initiative.
Additionally, a free bulletin insert about each figure is available for download at the end of each blog.
Reflecting on his legacy, Associate for Black Congregational Enhancement, Rita Dixon, described Clinton Marsh as “the church growth pastor par excellence.” Indeed, Marsh’s early ministry as pastor of Witherspoon Presbyterian Church served as a model of evangelism that informed years of regional, national, and even international ministry. In recognition of his work, Knoxville College and Dubuque Theological Seminary conferred Doctor of Divinity degrees on Marsh in 1955 and 1973 respectively. Even so, Marsh is perhaps best recognized as a key leader who served as Moderator of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (UPCUSA) and quite simply as a patriarch of the church.
Clinton McClurkin Marsh was born October 28, 1916 in Wilcox County, Alabama on the campus of the Arlington Literary and Industrial Institute, a United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA) mission. His father, Thomas Marsh, had attended school at nearby Prairie Mission and after high school went on to Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tennessee. His mother, Sadie Marsh, was born in Selma, Alabama and eventually attended Selma University.
Because Thomas and Sadie served at various times as educators with the Mission Board, Marsh spent his formative years on the campus of Camden Academy where he completed his secondary education. Regionally, Camden Academy was known for its academic rigor, which Marsh attributed to its teachers, describing them later as, “very well trained and very dedicated so that in spite of not having many of things which are considered, now, essential for education, we were getting [a] good, solid education.” From Camden, Marsh attended his father’s alma mater, Knoxville College, where he earned his degree in 1939 and went on to Pittsburgh Xenia Theological Seminary where he earned a degree in theology in 1944.
That same year, Marsh was ordained by the Tennessee Presbytery of the UPCNA and entered formal ministry as pastor of a church in Chase City, Virginia. Two years later, he became pastor of Witherspoon Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, a congregation that traced its early history to students who, like Marsh, had attended Knoxville College and other mission schools in the South. Marsh faithfully served Witherspoon for 18 years and grew that congregation to the largest Black church in its Presbytery and the second largest Black church in the denomination.
At the same time, Rev. Marsh found “challenging and varied opportunities to serve his God, his church and his Black heritage.” Some of the many calls that Marsh answered included serving as moderator of the Indianapolis Presbytery, a member of the board of the Indiana Council of Churches, interim executive of the Synod of the South, and in the years following the 1958 merger of the UPCNA and the Presbyterian Church USA, a member of the General Assembly Committee on Segregated Presbyteries and Synods. Eventually, Marsh was asked to join the staff of the Board of National Missions where, as a resource to churches in the north central region, his mission was to spur evangelism. Marsh held to this mission throughout his years of ministry, where it would lead him to Nairobi, Kenya in the mid-1960s to help organize the All Africa Conference of Churches and to stand as Moderator of the General Assembly of the UPCUSA in 1973. Appropriately, he adopted the slogan “Marsh…he’s a mission man.”
Rev. Marsh held steadfast to the belief that the church played a critical role in the life and health of the people and the nation. This guiding force doubtlessly shaped his later ministries as president of Knoxville College, Chairperson Emeritus of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, and in his activism against gun violence. In this capacity, Marsh supported a resolution urging Presbyterians to work toward the removal of handguns and assault weapons from American homes and communities. He was also a driving force in the Concerned Black Clergy’s anti-gun campaign. He and his wife, Agnes Marjorie Watson Marsh (1922-2017), were active members of Blacksburg Presbyterian Church in Blacksburg, Virginia until his death on November 1, 2002.
While some would remember Clinton McClurkin Marsh for his determination and leadership, others would recall his powerful benediction:
And now, I am supposed to say to you, "Go in peace." But how can I say, "Go in peace," when you are going out into a world where you are insecure, whether at home or on your neighborhood street? Out into a world where race is set against race and ethnic cleansing is a name for genocide? Out into a world where people are hungry and homeless, while their governments squander billions of dollars on instruments of destruction that they dare not use? Out into a world where every night millions of mothers watch their children sink into a hungry slumber, only to awaken (if they awaken) to another hungry tomorrow? With a world like that out there, how can I say to you, "Go in peace?" But I dare to say, "Go in peace," because Jesus says, "I give you my peace." But—remember—he who says, "I give you my peace" also says, "If you would be my disciple and [thereby] have my peace, take up your cross and follow me!" So I dare to say, "Go in peace!”
Want to share this biography with your congregation? Click below to read and download a free bulletin insert about Clinton McClurkin Marsh.