Memorial service set Jan. 8 for history professor emeritus Robert Kingdon

December 27, 2010

Robert McCune Kingdon, Hilldale Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, mentor of generations of Reformation scholars and path-breaking historian of the Reformation, died on Friday, Dec. 3, 2010.

He will be missed by many friends, colleagues and students whose lives he touched over the years. He was the preeminent American historian of the French Reformation.

Kingdon was born in Chicago, Ill. on Dec. 29, 1927, but spent the first 12 years of his life in Hawaii. After receiving his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from Oberlin College in 1949, he entered the graduate program in history at Columbia University, where he completed his master’s degree in 1950 and doctoral degree in 1955 under Garrett Mattingly. 

For his dissertation, he posed what he called a hypothesis on how the Reformation spread from John Calvin in Geneva outwards into France and elsewhere. To test that hypothesis, he went to Geneva. The product of that research, his first book, “Geneva and the Coming of the Wars of Religion in France, 1555-1563,” published in 1956, presented hard evidence of the ways ideas moved in the 16th century.  

The book became an immediate classic; an edition was published to commemorate its 50th anniversary in 2007. It was followed by “Geneva and the Consolidation of the French Protestant Movement, 1564-1571,” published in 1967; “Myths about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres, 1572-1576,” published in 1988; and “Adultery and Divorce in Calvin’s Geneva,” published in 1995.

Kingdon belonged to the first generation of American historians of the Reformation who went to the archives. That sense of history as grounded in and anchored to archival sources not only defined Kingdon’s own work, which changed the shape of the field, but also that of his students.

From his unparalleled knowledge of the archives of Geneva emerged one of the major projects of his life, the publication of the Registers of the Consistory, the disciplinary body Calvin helped to found, first in their original language and then translated into English.  He carried on this project in collaboration with Librairie Droz in Geneva, and raised the funds, much of them his own, to ensure the completion of the project after his death.  He also supported the publication of the Registers of the Company of Pastors, who spread out from Geneva, carrying the Genevan Reformation to France, the Low Countries, England and, ultimately, North America.

After he began teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1952, Kingdon moved to the University of Iowa in 1957. He joined the history department at UW–Madison as full professor in 1965. In addition to his appointment in the history department, he was appointed a permanent member of the Institute for Research in the Humanities in 1974 and served as its director from 1975 to 1987.  

In those joint roles, Kingdon brought major European historians to Madison to participate in his graduate seminars, fostering an international community of scholars whose conversations have proven lifelong.  He oversaw more than 35 dissertations on topics that ranged more widely than any other historian on either side of the Atlantic: on Reformation France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Scotland and England, the Reformed tradition, Martin Luther, the Catholic Church and the Catholic Reformation, women’s history, and social, political, and religious history.  

Kingdon held fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies in 1960-61, the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton in 1965-66, the Guggenheim Foundation, from 1969-70, and a Forschungspreis from the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung in Germany from 1992-94, among others.

He was president of the Society for Reformation Research in 1970-71 and of the American Society of Church History in 1980.  He was one of the three founders of the Sixteenth-Century Studies Conference, the largest group of the field, explicitly intended to be inclusive and expansive—non-denominational and interdisciplinary. He served as editor of the Society’s publication, The Sixteenth Century Journal, from its inception to his retirement.

He received a Hilldale Professorship in 1988, and in 1992 was accorded the Hilldale Award in the Humanities.

He is survived by his sister, Anna Carol Dudley of Berkeley, Calif.; his brothers, Henry Shannon Kingdon of Drummond, Wis.; John Wells Kingdon of Washington, D.C.; Arthur McAfee Kingdon of Vassalboro, Maine; and 10 nieces and nephews.

A memorial service, followed by a reception, will be held on Saturday, Jan. 8 at 10:30 a.m. at First Congregational Church, 1609 University Ave. The family suggests that, in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be made to the church.