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Renowned Yale church historian Jaroslav Pelikan dies at 82

Jaroslav PelikanJaroslav Pelikan, whose first position at Yale was as the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School, died May 13 at his home in Hamden, CT after a long battle with cancer.

A revered figure for generations of church historians during the last half of the twentieth century, Pelikan was 82 and at the time of his death was Sterling Professor of History Emeritus. The funeral was held at Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood, NY. He was buried at Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven.

A prodigious writer, Pelikan was the author of more than 30 books, including multi-volume works such as his acclaimed The Christian Tradition and Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, published by Yale University Press.

James Dittes, the Roger J. Squire Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology, said, “Jary Pelikan liked to say that the best graduate education occurs when the student can look over the shoulder of the professor at work. But I am not entirely sure he followed that maxim in practice.

“Too often it seemed to me that the education was going on because he was looking carefully over the shoulder of the student. As mentor and as advocate he exercised a profound and vigorous respect for the accomplishment and talent of others, especially perhaps of those regarded conventionally as ‘junior' scholars, even the maverick.”

Dittes, like Pelikan, served as director of graduate studies in the Department of Religious Studies and chaired the department from 1975-83.

Pelikan mastered almost a dozen languages during his long scholarly career, which included teaching posts at Valparaiso, Concordia Seminary and the University of Chicago before his arrival at Yale Divinity School in 1962 as the Titus Street Professor—a professorship that was endowed in 1869 through the bequest of Augustus Russell Street of the Yale College Class of 1812. Ten years later, he was appointed Sterling Professor of History. Between 1973-78, he served as acting dean and then dean of the Graduate School at Yale.

The recipient of scores of prizes, awards and honorary degrees, in 2004 Pelikan was awarded the Library of Congress' John W. Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences, an international award that recognizes individuals for their contributions in a range of disciplines not covered by the Nobel Prizes. In announcing that award, the Library of Congress said Pelikan had made "unrivaled contributions to intellectual, cultural and religious history."

"As a teacher, Pelikan had a larger-than-life reputation, relating well both to specialized academic and general audiences," the Library of Congress noted. "His mastery of so much primary literature enabled him to synthesize and interpret lengthy periods of intellectual history. As one of his former students said: 'He teaches in a way that makes the listener feel intelligent; one feels that one is fully understanding (or perhaps discovering for oneself) the intricacies of the argument.'"

Pelikan was born into a Lutheran family but late in life became a member of the Orthodox Church in America, which grew out of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to either St. Vladimir's Jaroslav Pelikan Theological Endowment or to the Jaroslav Pelikan Publication Fund at Yale University Press.