Christian historian Pelikan dies at 82

History professor emeritus Jaroslav Pelikan, a world-renowned scholar of the history of Christianity and of medieval intellectual history, died Saturday of lung cancer at his home in Hamden. He was 82 years old.

Pelikan, who joined the Yale faculty in 1962, served as dean of the Graduate School from 1973 to 1978. A Sterling professor emeritus, Pelikan was a former president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and served on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities from 1993 to 2000, after being appointed by President Bill Clinton LAW ’73.

Yale President Richard Levin said Pelikan was among his generation’s preeminent authorities on Christian history.

“Professor Pelikan was one of Yale’s most prolific and accomplished scholars,” Levin said. “He was an extraordinary person.”

Levin said Pelikan was known as an “outstanding” speaker and was often called on at University events to deliver toasts with “literary eloquence and great humor.” Pelikan delivered the toast at Levin’s inauguration as president in 1993.

Current Graduate School Dean Jon Butler said in an e-mail that Pelikan contributed greatly to the field of history and to Yale.

“Jary Pelikan was, literally, a scholar’s scholar and one of the truly great historians ever to teach at Yale,” said Butler, who is also a professor of history and religious studies. “He was … the truly complete scholar who gave back magnificently to the institution he graced and the students he so devotedly taught.”

Pelikan was the author of more than 30 books, including the five-volume work “The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine,” and he founded the Council of Scholars at the Library of Congress in 1980. In 2004, Pelikan and French philosopher Paul Ricoeur shared the $1 million Kluge prize honoring scholars in disciplines not covered by the Nobel prizes.

Emily Scheuer, who served on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities with Peliken, said in an e-mail that she remembers Pelikan for his speaking abilities and personal traits.

“He was a wonderful speaker and a very compelling personality,” Scheuer said.

Yale History Department chair Paul Freedman said Pelikan, an expert in church history from the 3rd to 16th century AD, raised the University’s profile in the field of medieval history.

“He was a world-recognized scholar in the large, important and venerable field of church history,” Freedman said. “He was one of a group of people who made Yale one of the prominent centers of medieval history in particular.”

Pelikan delivered the annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, the highest honor conferred by the U.S. government for outstanding achievement in the humanities, in 1983. He served as the University’s William Clyde DeVane Lecturer from 1984 to 1986 and in the fall of 1995. He was born in 1923 in Akron, Ohio, to a Serbian mother and a Slovak father.

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