Rupp, (Ernest) Gordon (19101986), ecclesiastical historian, was born on 7 January 1910 in Islington, the only son and elder child of John Henry Rupp, counting-house clerk, and his wife, Sarah Thomas, nurse. He learned to read at the Methodist Sunday school in Islington and, after an elementary education at Owen's School, became a messenger boy to a furniture dealer and then a bank clerk. At the bank he used his wage to buy one Everyman volume a week and so read many great novels and fell in love with the English language. He went out to Finsbury Park to preach on a box and became a Methodist local preacher. He decided to be a teacher, and the Methodist community gave him the money to spend a year at the London Institute of Education, and then a further year, studying history, at King's College, London. The Methodist church then wanted him as a minister and sent him to Wesley House at Cambridge in 19336, where he gained a first class in both parts of the theology tripos (1935 and 1936). He was afterwards sent for a year to the universities of Strasbourg and Basel.
In 1938 Rupp married Marjorie (d. 1988), daughter of Frank Hibbard, toolmaker; they had one son. From 1938 to 1946 Rupp was a Methodist minister at Chislehurst, and from 1947 to 1952 a tutor at the Methodist college in Richmond. He gained a Cambridge BD in 1946 and DD in 1955.
Rupp was a born pamphleteer and was threatened with prosecution by Hilaire Belloc for a wartime article in the Record. In 1944, replying to a pamphlet which accused Martin Luther of causing the rise of Hitler, because Luther was responsible for the German cult of the state, he published Martin Luther, Hitler's Causeor Cure? This counter-pamphlet was persuasive and funny and its author was not afraid to pillory Archbishop William Temple; he also disclosed a rare knowledge of Luther's original texts, thereby showing Rupp to be a potential academic historian. As a result of his pamphlet, Rupp was invited to give the Birkbeck lectures in Cambridge in 1947, which drew large audiences. In the same year he wrote Studies in the Making of the English Protestant Tradition. In 1952 Norman Sykes, who had taught him at London, found him a lectureship in Reformation history at Cambridge, which he held from 1952 to 1956. He subsequently became the first professor of ecclesiastical history at Manchester in 195667. In 1968 he was appointed Dixie professor at Cambridge, with a fellowship at Emmanuel College (until 1977). But the professor at Manchester was also the deputy pianist at the Sunday school in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, as well as an observer at the second Vatican Council, and the professor at Cambridge was also the principal of Wesley House from 1967 to 1974 and for the year 19689 the president of the Methodist conference and a frustrated leader in the plan to unite the Methodists and the Anglicans. His university colleagues occasionally grumbled that, when they needed him for a meeting, he was speaking in a little chapel 300 miles away.
As a historian Rupp reintroduced the British to Luther's thought with the publication in 1953 of his Birkbeck lectures, The Righteousness of God. He did not overstress the importance of Luther in the Reformation (he also studied other leading radicals in Patterns of Reformation, 1969) and he thought that social causes were given too much emphasis, to the detriment of the religious and theological ideas which lay at the heart of the Reformation. He was the first Briton to read the complete critical texts of Luther's works, and to understand the different interpretations in the two Germanies, whether Marxist or not. He also made himself familiar with Swedish Lutheran scholarship.
John Wesley was almost as consuming an interest. Rupp was among the editors of the History of the Methodist Churches in Great Britain (4 vols., 196588) and his last book centred on the age of WesleyReligion in England, 16881791 (1986). He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1970. An honorary fellow of King's College, London (1969), Fitzwilliam and Emmanuel colleges, Cambridge (1969 and 1983), Rupp had honorary degrees from Aberdeen, Manchester, and Paris.
Rupp never lost his simple tastes, retaining a liking for fish and chips and ginger beer. In an age when sermons had become much shorter, he was the supreme master of that art form. He had a husky voice and was small and impish, with a delightful command of satire and barbed wit. He was no man for tidy structures but looked to the heavens to probe the mystery of religion. He lit up with humour, historical example, and humane insight all that he encountered. Rupp died in Cambridge on 19 December 1986, his wife and son surviving him.
Owen Chadwick, rev.
The Times (22 Dec 1986) · P. N. Brooks, Ernest Gordon Rupp, 19101986, PBA, 80 (1993), 4938 · D. Thompson, Cambridge Review (June 1987), 912 · P. Brooks, ed., Christian spirituality: essays in honour of Gordon Rupp (1975) [incl. a list of Rupp's writings to 1973] · J. M. Turner, Gordon Rupp … as historian, Epworth Review (Jan 1991), 7082 · personal knowledge (1996) · J. Vickers, ed., Dictionary of Methodism in Britain and Ireland (2000) · Methodist Recorder (1 Jan 1987) · Methodist Recorder (8 Jan 1987) · Wisdom and wit: an anthology from the writings of Gordon Rupp, ed. J. Vickers [n.d., 1993?]
Wesley House, Cambridge, papers
photograph, repro. in Brooks, Ernest Gordon Rupp, 494
Wealth at death
£15,125: probate, 11 March 1987, CGPLA Eng. & Wales