Elmer Schaffner Miller, 88, formerly of Germantown and Mount Airy, a longtime professor at Temple University and former chair of its anthropology department, died Friday, Dec. 6, in hospice in Roxborough, of prostate cancer.
Born April 26, 1931, in Lancaster County, Mr. Miller was raised in a rural, Mennonite household, an upbringing that would shape his life and career. After completing ninth grade — he was always a grade ahead, doing work more advanced than his classmates — he obtained his GED and went to work on a nearby farm, sending money home to support the family. (He had 10 siblings.)
Farm life, it turned out, was not for him. Even later in life, his daughter Lisa Lynn Miller recalled, laughing, it was a family joke to not mention potatoes around him “because he’ll tell you what a grueling job it is to pick potatoes.”
Instead, Mr. Miller went to what is today Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., studying religion and philosophy and receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1955. The next year, he received his master of divinity degree from Eastern Mennonite Seminary, part of the university.
He had already begun to ask questions about his faith, his daughter said, at some points causing tension with family and members of the tight-knit community at home when he would return. But he also felt a calling, she said: His mother had died when he was only 3 years old and did not get to fulfill her wish of becoming a missionary.
So from 1958 to 1963, Mr. Miller was a Mennonite missionary in northern Argentina, living with his wife — a childhood friend, Anna Lois Longenecker, whom he married in June 1953 — and working with indigenous people to translate the Bible, among other things.
That experience deeply affected Mr. Miller, his daughter said, and he more than ever began to question the strict religious teachings of his youth.
Once, Mr. Miller was asked to lead the family in prayer and did a fairly standard prayer — at first.
“Then he said, ‘And also, please give your blessings to all of the people in the world who are poor and suffering, and who are suffering from things that our own government is doing,’ and went on this whole political part of the prayer,” Lisa Miller said.
When Mr. Miller returned to the United States, he and his wife left the Mennonite church. Mr. Miller dedicated himself to the study of societies and cultures, particularly indigenous people and religious work, and he earned a master’s degree in anthropology and linguistics from Hartford Seminary in Connecticut in 1964 and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1968.
Mr. Miller spent three decades as an anthropologist at Temple University, and his time with the university included chairing the anthropology department, heading the campus in Rome, and helping start the anthropology Ph.D. program.
But he never fully lost the ties to the faith and the community that had raised him, and later in life Mr. Miller began reconnecting with the church. He and his wife joined the Germantown Mennonite Church, particularly committing to it after it was rebuked by the Eastern District Conference of the Mennonite Church for its acceptance of LGBT people — “they were just so progressive,” Lisa Miller said — and he ultimately found that he could reconcile his sharply rational and inquisitive academic side with his faith.
In a homily in 2006, Mr. Miller described the church as “a congregation where I could feel at home without leaving my rationality at the door.”
After a lifetime of questions and travel, studying religion and culture, Mr. Miller found himself returned, at last, to the church he had been raised in.
In addition to his wife, Anna Lois, and daughter Lisa Lynn, he is survived by his elder daughter, Rosina Sue Miller; five grandchildren; and eight siblings.
Mr. Miller’s body is to be donated to Humanity Gifts Registry for teaching.
Services will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, at Cathedral Village Hall, 600 East Cathedral Road, Philadelphia, 19128.