In Memoriam: Jaroslav Pelikan

What you have received as an inheritance from your fathers, you must possess again in order to make it your own.” – Jaroslav Pelikan’s motto, from Goethe’s Faust

PelikanJaroslav Jan Pelikan, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University and one of the foremost scholars on the history of Christianity, died last week at his home in Hamden, Connecticut. He was 82.

Pelikan was the author or editor of scores of articles and nearly forty books, many of which were published by Yale University Press. His acclaimed scholarly works included the five-volume magnum opus The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine; his original translation of Luther’s writings in twenty-two volumes; the acclaimed multi-volume Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition; and Credo. Pelikan was also a bestselling author whose popular works included Jesus Through the Centuries, The Illustrated Jesus Through the Centuries, and Mary Through the Centuries. But his academic interests ranged widely, and Pelikan made important contributions in fields as diverse as political and legal theory (Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution), music (Bach Among the Theologians), and education (The Idea of the University). 

“We will miss Jary profoundly at the Press,” says John Donatich, director of Yale University Press.  “As the long-time chief of our Publications Committee, active member of our Board of Governors, and steady friend, Jary embodied a profound faith in scholarship and was an inspiration to us all.  To honor him, Yale University Press has established the Jaroslav Pelikan Publication Prize, an endowed fund that will support lectures and books by scholars in the history of religion.”   

During his distinguished career Pelikan received dozens of honors and awards, including 42 honorary degrees. In 2004 he was awarded the John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences–sometimes described as the Nobel Prize for the humanities–by the Library of Congress. In previous years Pelikan served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1994-97), founding chairman for the Council of Scholars at the Library of Congress (1980-83; 1988-94), and chairman of the board of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (2003-04). He was also appointed by President Bill Clinton to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

In 1998 Pelikan was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws at Harvard University. The citation provides an apt summation of his exceptional achievement:

Your vast scholarship has brought us an enriched and broadened knowledge of our culture at the same time it has made you the foremost historian of Christian thought. Your magisterial inquiry into the theological history of Christianity in its Eastern and Western, Catholic and Protestant dimensions has immeasurably enriched our understanding of the range and profundity of the Christian tradition and illuminated the cultures for which that tradition provided religious and intellectual sustenance.

Listen to a 2003 conversation with Pelikan, rebroadcast last week, on NPR’s Speaking of Faith.

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