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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 585

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This is the grave of Jaroslav Pelikan.

Born in 1923 in Akron, Ohio, Pelikan grew up in a Lutheran family. His father was a pastor of a Slovak Lutheran church (I grew up Lutheran and had no idea that there were Slovak Lutherans). He embraced the religion of his father and grandfather, who was a bishop. He was a brilliant child and learned multiple languages. He was an outstanding pianist and nearly went in that direction in his life. Eventually, he followed his forefathers into the Lutheran ministry, but Pelikan was more interested in studying the history of Christianity. He attended the seminary, at Concordia University in St. Louis before getting his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.

Pelikan would become possibly the most important historian of Christianity in American history. Over his long career, he wrote over 30 books. His most famous is The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of the Doctrine, a five-volume work published between 1971 and 1989. He also edited a multi-volume release of Martin Luther’s writings in English. Moreover, Pelikan was deeply committed to translating his own brain to the general public. He wrote several books targeted at a broad audience that sold quite well. Those included Jesus Through the Centuries, Mary Through the Centuries and The Idea of the University: a Reexamination.

Pelikan’s first academic job was at Valparaiso. He then got a job back at Concordia and then went to Chicago. He started teaching at Yale in 1962 and stayed there the rest of his career. He became president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences one year, one of the top honors for an American intellectual. He gave the Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1983, the top government award for someone working in the humanities. He received honorary degrees from a mere 42 different colleges and universities.

Much of Pelikan’s work was on eastern Christianity and although his dissertation and several of his published works were on Luther, he became more interested in earlier forms of Christianity at time went on. So I guess it isn’t that shocking that in 1998, he converted to the Orthodox Church of America. But by this point, he wasn’t all that committed to any one denomination and had more of a pan-Christian theology. For instance, in 2005, Pelikan praised Pope John Paul II, after the pontiff’s death. Pelikan died soon after, of lung cancer in 2006. He was 82 years old. Yo-Yo Ma performed at his funeral. They had actually played together in at least one concert.

Jaroslav Pelikan is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit other scholars the NEH chose to give the Jefferson Lecture, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Cleanth Brooks, the poetry scholar who gave the lecture in 1985, is in Baton Rouge. Barbara Tuchman, the popular historian who gave the 1981 lecture, is in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.


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