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Biographies Jaroslav Pelikan

2004 Kluge Prize Winner

Jaroslav Pelikan single-handedly brought the Eastern or Orthodox tradition into the hitherto Western story of Christianity. The Orthodox tradition had been largely ignored or disparaged by those who saw Byzantine Christianity as a failure of intellectual creativity. In this and other respects, Pelikan recognized the significance of ignored and unstudied aspects of history. Pelikan also illuminated many aspects of both political and religious life through attention to the visual arts, music, literature, textual interpretations and the role of the university. His popular works include “Jesus Through the Centuries” (1985), “Bach Among the Theologians” (1986), “The Idea of the University” (1992), and “Mary Through the Centuries” (1996). “Jesus Through the Centuries” presents rich reproductions of paintings and icons to examine the different understandings of Christ through the ages. Illustrative of his role as an intellectual statesman, Pelikan’s work “The Bible and the Constitution” (2004) develops cross-century connections and parallels between scriptural interpretation and American constitutional law.

Pelikan was born in 1923 in Akron, Ohio. His Slovak father had emigrated at the age of 4 to the United States and, as an adult, returned to Slovakia as a Lutheran minister. His paternal grandfather was Bishop of the Slovak Lutheran Church in America. Pelikan developed an early love of language—learning to use a typewriter at the age of 2 1/2, mastering Slovak, Czech, German, English, and, in college, Greek, Latin, Serbian, Russian, and Hebrew. His intense devotion to scholarship and his rare linguistic abilities led him to edit and translate primary texts from the biblical, classical, medieval, reformation, and modern periods and to build bridges between communities in Eastern and Western Europe.

In 1942 at the age of 18, Pelikan graduated summa cum laude from Concordia College in Fort Wayne, Ind., and by 1946 had received both a Bachelor of Divinity from Concordia Theological Seminary in Saint Louis and a doctorate from the University of Chicago. That same year he married Sylvia Pauline Burica, and they had three children. Pelikan taught at Valparaiso University in Indiana and Concordia Theological Seminary from 1949 to 1953, and at the University of Chicago until 1962. He then began a distinguished career at Yale University and in 1972 was appointed Sterling Professor of History, the highest academic honor at Yale. From 1973 to 1978, he served as dean of the graduate school.

As a teacher, Pelikan had a larger-than-life reputation, relating well both to specialized academic and general audiences. His mastery of primary literature enabled him to synthesize and interpret long 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.” His lectures were immensely popular at Yale, and his Gifford Lectures, published in 1993 under the title of “Christianity and Classical Culture,” remain a contemporary classic in intellectual history.

Pelikan’s greatest contribution, “The Christian Tradition: A History and Development of Doctrine,” published in five volumes between 1971 and 1989, has produced an incomparable historical account of the emergence and development of Christian doctrine in the English language. In that work, he demonstrated that the Christian tradition is expressed in the community’s own teaching and worship rather than in what individual theologians wrote.

Pelikan was 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. He was a scholar at the Library’s Kluge Center for one year, holding the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the North. At the age of 80, he accepted the position of scholarly director for the “Institutions of Democracy Project” at the Annenberg Foundation.

Pelikan passed away on May 13, 2006.

Why Awarded

Jaroslav Pelikan made unrivaled contributions to intellectual, cultural and religious history. His major achievements include his authoritative work on the life and work of Martin Luther; his original and monumental five-volume “The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine” (1971-1989); and his volumes that gather together the proliferation of Christian sects in our time, particularly in the Third World, such as “Credo: Historical and Theological Introduction to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition” (1994). Pelikan’s vast scholarship broadened knowledge of Christian culture, enriched understanding of the Christian tradition, and secured his place as the foremost historian of Christian thought.


“Jaroslav Pelikan is a historian who deals with the whole of the Christian tradition from the ancient Near East to the present. He began his deep scholarship on Luther, having been brought up in a Lutheran household, and 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.”
—Librarian of Congress James H. Billington


Jaroslav Pelikan

The Framer of Modern Christian Consciousness

Kluge Prize Recipient 2004

Quick Facts

1923, Akron, Ohio

2006, Hamden, Connecticut



    Professor, Valparaiso University
  • Professor, Concordia Seminary
  • Professor, University of Chicago
  • Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Yale University
  • Sterling Professor of History, Yale University

Ceremony Links

December 8, 2004

Winners of Kluge Prize Announced (Nov. 29, 2004)

Selected Publications


Selected Works at the Library of Congress