Obituary: Professor Donald Nicholl

Adrian Hastings
Tuesday 06 May 1997 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Donald Nicholl was one of the most widely influential of modern Christian thinkers, a teacher and writer whose words have inspired people in many countries and churches, and someone whose personal life wonderfully reflected his beliefs. But he was always a storyteller rather than a systematician.

The child of a working-class Anglican home in the West Riding, brought up in the poverty of the Depression years, Donald showed already at school an exceptional range of talents, intellectual and athletic. Almost six foot six, he was a young giant physically as well as mentally. When his teachers decided that he could best specialise in history, he sat for and won a Brackenbury Scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford.

After a year there, he joined the Army and spent most of the Second World War in Asia, first in India and, finally, in Hong Kong. Asian religion already exercised a profound influence on the young infantryman at this time and helped him decide to become a Catholic - nothing less than Catholicism, perhaps, seemed able to encompass in communion the vast diversities he felt so keenly.

Returning to Oxford in 1946, he was received into the Catholic Church at Blackfriars. On taking a First, he was at once appointed to a lectureship in British History at Edinburgh from where, in 1953, he moved to Keele University, ever after his principal English home.

At that period Nicholl was struggling intellectually on two fronts: his formal responsibility was in medieval history, his informal in the intellectual and spiritual crisis of Europe in the early post-war years. He travelled in France and Germany, endeavouring to act as a bridge of understanding and reconciliation, above all with German Catholicism.

In this he was greatly helped by two women writers, one living and one dead. The living one, Ida Friederike Gorres, who had just published a passionate "Letter on the Church" denouncing the mediocrity of the German church and especially its clergy, became an intimate friend, while the dead one, Edith Stein, the Jewish philosopher and Carmelite nun who died in a Nazi concentration camp, became one of his chosen icons. Nicholl translated her life into English. At the same time he wrote an extremely wide-ranging and stimulating guide to all the "-isms" of the modern world, entitled Recent Thought in Focus (1952).

On the medieval side, he made a new translation of Dante's Monarchy to serve the needs of students unable to read Latin before going on to write his one full-scale historical study, a life of the 12th- century Archbishop Thurstan of York. He also learnt to read Welsh and Irish, believing that without this one could not hope to understand medieval Britain, still a somewhat unusual view among English medievalists.

Soon after Thurstan was published in 1964 Nicholl decided that he could not continue all his life becoming an ever more learned medievalist and switched back to the modern world, specialising particularly in the field of Russian religion. He taught himself Russian and, though for years he published little on the subject, other than a fascinating BBC lecture on Nikolai Fyodorov, became ever more deeply immersed in the development of the Russian religious mind in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the late 1960s he was invited to become a visiting professor at the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California and after a while transferred there to become through most of the 1970s Professor of both Religious Studies and History and, for three years, chair of the Religious Studies department. At Santa Cruz he added the great religions of the East - Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism - to his area of serious concern, and one of his most intriguing writings is a discussion of the problems involved in helping young American Jews understand the relationship between Judaism and Asian religion. He was always more a teacher than a pure scholar and probably the activity he enjoyed most in his Californian years was his course on The Brothers Karamazov open to all comers in the "Penny University" held in the Cafe Pergolesi at Santa Cruz.

Towards the end of his years in California, Nicholl wrote the much-admired book Holiness (1981) at the request of an old friend, John Todd, the founder of the religious publishers Darton, Longman & Todd. There then began four extremely demanding years, 1981-85, as Rector of the Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Studies at Tantur, near Jerusalem, where he battled not only to help crusty academics behave decently to one another but, still more, to relate both to Palestinians and to Jews at the deepest human and religious level. He later described his Tantur experiences in the form of a journal, entitled The Testing of Hearts (1989).

After retiring from Tantur back to England and to his home near Keele, Nicholl continued a very active life as a retreat-giver, lecturer and writer. His major study Triumphs of the Spirit in Russia, a synthesis of many years of reflection, was finally completed last summer, just as he was diagnosed as suffering from inoperable cancer. It will be published by Darton, Longman & Todd later this month.

Nicholl was an academic who lived for his students, and a human being who lived for friendship, concerned above all to further a culture of love - a word which came back and back on his lips in his final weeks. Married to Dorothy Tordoff, whom he had known since childhood, in July 1947, he died just short of their golden jubilee. It proved a wonderful partnership in which Dorothy provided, wherever they might be, the homely stability he needed to balance the life of a wandering scholar.

Always a Yorkshireman at heart, Nicholl combined the strong sense of being a northern English person with a wholly international network of friends, among whom one could name Leonard Cheshire, Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier. If he lacked the practicality which characterised those three great achievers, he more than made up for it in an at times almost uncanny power of perception.

Donald Nicholl spent the nine months of his final illness studying his Greek New Testament and, occasionally, taping a few of his thoughts. When I visited him on the last Sunday of his life, he was still able to ask me in a whisper to bring him a copy of Recent Thought in Focus so that he could point to a moving passage from Aelred of Rievaulx which he had included 45 years ago in an idiosyncratic appendix on the meaning of friendship. The consistency of his pursuit of what, following Pascal, he liked to call "the knowledge of the heart", was never more clearly revealed.

Adrian Hastings

Donald Nicholl, historian and theologian: born Halifax 23 July 1923; Assistant Lecturer, Edinburgh University 1948-52; Lecturer and Reader in History, Keele University 1953-72, Professor of History 1972-74; Professor of History and Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz 1974-80; Rector, Ecumenical Institute for Advanced Theological Studies, Tantur 1981-85; Senior Research Fellow, Multifaith Centre, Sellyoak, Birmingham 1985-88; married 1947 Dorothy Tordoff (one son, four daughters); died Betley, Staffordshire 3 May 1997.

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