Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan, a former dean of the Graduate School, will receive the Library of Congress’s second John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences, the Library announced Monday.
Pelikan will share the $1 million prize with co-recipient Paul Ricoeur, a French philosopher who taught at Yale briefly in the 1970’s before a substantial career at the University of Chicago. The prize honors lifetime achievement in the humanities and social sciences — areas of scholarship for which there are no Nobel Prizes.
When reached Monday night at his Hamden home, Pelikan said he was surprised when he heard last week that he would soon receive the prize.
“Obviously it’s not the sort of thing you count on getting,” Pelikan said. “It’s an enormous gratification to have many years of scholarly work recognized that way.”
Pelikan is being awarded for his groundbreaking work in intellectual, cultural and religious history, Librarian of Congress James Billington said in a statement.
“Jaroslav Pelikan is an historian who deals with the whole of the Christian tradition from the ancient Near East to the present,” Billington said. “He began his deep scholarship on Luther, having been brought up in a Lutheran household, and he has moved over time to consider the whole history of church doctrine, both through the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. He is concerned with the history and practice of worship in its doctrinal and creedal forms over two millennia.”
Yale history professor emeritus Gaddis Smith, a longtime colleague of Pelikan’s, said he was elated to hear the Library is honoring Pelikan.
“He is one of the great scholars of the 20th century,” Smith said. “A very bright, sociable, witty man who is enormously erudite, he could lecture almost spontaneously on almost everything. I can’t think of a better person in the country to receive this.”
Born in 1923 in Akron, Ohio, Pelikan was the first child of his Eastern European immigrant parents to be born in the United States. He embraced his multicultural background from an early age and developed a lifelong love of language, learning to use a typewriter before his third birthday and mastering Slovak, Czech, German, English and, in college, Greek, Latin, Serbian, Russian and Hebrew.
He holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago, a divinity degree from the Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis and a bachelor’s degree from Concordia College in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he graduated summa cum laude.
Pelikan taught history at Valparaiso University, Concordia Theological Seminary and Chicago before beginning his tenure at Yale in 1962. He was appointed in 1972 to the Sterling professorship, Yale’s highest honor, and served as dean of the Graduate School from 1973 to 1978.
Pelikan has penned more than 30 books, including the original five-volume work, “The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.” Despite his numerous accomplishments, Pelikan called “The Christian Tradition,” which has been translated into French and Chinese, among other languages, the professional work of which he is most proud.
“It covers the development of Christian ideas and teaching from the end of New Testament to the end of 20th century,” Pelikan said. “It’s very widely regarded as the standard work in the field. If I am remembered, at some point in the future, it may well be for that.”
Praising Pelikan’s pioneering work in the field, Graduate School Dean Jon Butler, himself a historian of religion, said Pelikan will surely be remembered for his numerous accomplishments.
“Professor Pelikan has done more to unravel the mysteries of Christianity and its development in the past half-century than any other individual,” Butler said. “His many books are a monument to a scholarly erudition that is awe-inspiring.”