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Excerpted From: John Witte, Jr. And Justin J. Latterell, Between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King: James Pennington's Struggle for “Sacred Human Rights” Against Slavery, 31 Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 205 (2020) (271 Footnotes) (Full Document)


JamesWCPenningtonThe Reverend Dr. James W.C. Pennington (ca. 1807 to 1870) was a remarkable figure in the American anti-slavery movement, though he is largely unknown today except by specialists. He was born into slavery in Maryland. As a young child, he was whipped severely by the master's overseer and taunted by the master's children. So he spent long, lonely, and hungry days hiding in the woods while his parents worked the fields. As a youth, he was trained as a blacksmith, and periodically leased out to other masters and forced to live away from his family. In 1827, after witnessing the brutal whipping of his father, he fled North toward freedom. Twice along the way he was seized by fugitive slave hunters; twice he escaped. He made his way to Pennsylvania where Quakers took him in and provided food, shelter, kindness, a paid job, his first Bible, and his first glimpse of formal education. Pennington then moved to New York City and settled in a Presbyterian community, working during the day and attending one of the black charity schools at night.

In 1830, Pennington converted to Christianity and learned to read the Bible. He taught himself Latin and Greek and became a voracious reader of theology, history, philosophy, and rhetoric. In 1834, he became the first African American to study at Yale, taking courses in theology despite being forced to sit in the hallway outside the classrooms to hear the lectures. He became an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1838, serving as pastor to churches on Long Island, Hartford, and New York City--and later as moderator of the New York presbytery before taking final pastoral calls in Maine, Mississippi, and Florida.

Also in 1830, Pennington attended his first abolitionist convention in New York City. His own suffering as a slave had already convinced him that slavery and racism were morally evil, and that he was no less entitled to natural liberty than his white counterparts. But as he learned more about the vast scope, cruelty, and injustices of the chattel-slavery system in America and beyond, he resolved to become an educator and crusader against slavery and racism, adopting and adapting the Presbyterian theories of rights, resistance, and revolution that he was learning as a pastor and scholar.

Pennington treated slavery as a form of domestic tyranny that needed to be resisted and reformed in the name of human rights. Much like the sixteenth-century Protestant reformers who revolted against the spiritual tyranny of the medieval pope and the American revolutionaries who revolted against the political tyranny of the English king, Pennington called for abolitionists to revolt against the domestic tyranny of the chattel-slave system. He called it “blatant hypocrisy” for the avowedly Protestant American nation to declare proudly that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and then systematically to deny rights to women, children, immigrants, indentured servants, Native Americans, and African Americans, enslaved and free. He called it a “monstrous crime” for slaves to be treated as items of personal property of their masters rather than as image-bearers of their creator God. He called it “divine treason” to refuse sanctuary and comfort to an escaped slave, or to return slaves to their masters for “thirty pieces of silver,” in the vein of Judas Iscariot. And he called the American law of slavery a “covenant with death and hell” that would bring the entire nation under God's judgment and wrath.

But Pennington was no sword-swinging revolutionary like some of his Protestant forebearers. Anticipating by a century the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, Pennington advocated primarily nonviolent resistance against racism and slavery. To combat racism, he led sit-ins, lawsuits, political protests, and scholarly refutations of popular prejudices. He worked assiduously for the abolition of the institution of slavery and for the emancipation and escape of individual slaves. He sold much of his property and collected donations from others in an effort to ransom his family. He led initiatives to promote temperance, education, family stability, missionary work, and charity among free and enslaved blacks in the United States, Africa, and the West Indies. And as an elected leader of the World Antislavery Society, he mounted pulpits, lecterns, and soapboxes on both sides of the Atlantic, pleading for the rights and liberties of all--especially for African Americans, slave and free.

Pennington's abolitionist speeches, first in London in 1843 and later in Paris in 1849, caught the appreciative ear of Heidelberg jurist, philosopher, and literary figure Friedrich Wilhelm Carové, himself something of a liberal freedom fighter. Carové thus took the bold step of recommending Pennington for an honorary doctorate in theology. “The University of Heidelberg,” he wrote to his colleagues, “was the first to confer this honor upon a Jew (Spinoza),” as a standing rebuke to many centuries of pogroms, expulsion, persecution, and slaughter of Jewish people. “The university was the first to establish a chair for natural and human rights,” he continued, to counter the many centuries of church and state absolutism that so abused the people. And now, Carové argued to his colleagues, this great German university should again be the “first to confer the doctoral degree ... on this mistreated and despised North American” James Pennington and, by lifting him up, help Europe begin to “atone for the terribly heavy guilt for [abusing] the wretched sons of Africa, who for centuries have been robbed of their most sacred human rights.”

This principle of “sacred human rights” animated Pennington's mature efforts to abolish chattel slavery and to purge the racism that marked American society. Pennington's understanding of “sacred human rights” came directly from the Protestant tradition of rights, resistance, and revolution that he absorbed in his Presbyterian training and ministry. He portrayed the sixteenth-century Reformation movement in Germany and the abolitionist cause in America as part of the same providential movement from slavery and tyranny toward liberty and justice, from a national “covenant with death” to a natural covenant with life. Like the Protestant revolutionaries before him, Pennington viewed conscience as the “mother of all rights.” Like the black church civil rights leaders after him, Pennington viewed Christian faith as the “soul fire” of the human rights movement. As such, Pennington stands as a fulcrum between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King.

[. . .]

James Pennington opened a new chapter in Protestant political theology and civil disobedience. He repeated the cardinal Protestant themes of rights, resistance, and revolution by a covenant community called to obey God before men. He echoed the central premise of Protestant rights talk that freedom of conscience is the font and focus of civil and religious liberties for individuals and communities alike. He underscored the Protestant teaching that the reform and renewal of law, politics, and society must include and involve religion and the church. And he repeated the Protestant mantra that a Christian church and community must always be restless to reform (semper reformanda), particularly in times of tyranny. Pennington thus adopted and adapted the centuries-old tradition of Protestant political theology and activism that had been sparked by Martin Luther's earliest declarations of Christian liberty in Europe.

But Pennington also added appreciably to this tradition. First and foremost, he argued that human rights belonged to all humans, regardless of race or skin color. He treated slavery as a domestic form of tyranny that needed to be resisted and reformed in the name of those same human rights. He called it blatant hypocrisy for a Protestant nation to declare proudly that all persons are created equal with unalienable rights, and then systematically deny rights to women, children, immigrants, indentured servants, Native Americans, and African Americans, enslaved and free. He decried the monstrous blasphemy of treating human beings as items of property and not as image bearers of God. He judged it divine treason to refuse sanctuary and comfort to an escaped slave, or to return that slave to his master. And he condemned the American laws of slavery as a “covenant with death and agreement with hell,” that would bring the whole nation under the same divine retribution that the biblical God visited on the Israelites when they forsook his laws.

Emancipation from slavery, Pennington believed, must begin with proclamation of the Gospel and the free exercise of faith. Just as God miraculously led his chosen people out of the house of bondage in Egypt--and just as God's grace irresistibly leads his elect from their bondage to sin--so God will ultimately break the bonds of human slavery. God equips the conscience of each slave to know that he or she is endowed with liberty and has the right to break free from slavery and escape when the right time comes. God pricks the conscience of each slaveholder to know that slavery is wrong and emancipation is right, whatever the wrong laws and false prophets (and profits) of his day might tell him. God calls on everyone to exercise the three-fold office of prophet, priest, and king on behalf of slaves: as prophets, to speak powerfully in opposition to slavery and racism; as priests, to evangelize slaves and masters and provide pastoral care and comfort, healing and sanctuary; and, as kings, to work hard to break those unjust laws of slavery that betray God's word and to work for justice, mercy, and rights and liberties for all.

But Pennington was no sword-swinging revolutionary like some of his Protestant predecessors. Anticipating by a century the American civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Vernon Johns, and others, Pennington advocated primarily nonviolent resistance against slavery and racism. He led sit-ins, lawsuits, political protests, and constitutional challenges. He advocated the integration of churches, schools, charities, workplaces, and public accommodations. He encouraged blacks to prepare and to place themselves in positions of leadership in all sectors of society, starting with the church, whose segregation of blacks and whites and exclusion of slaves he called outrageous heresy.

Pennington, in prescient and prophetic ways, anticipated the twentieth-century civil rights movement led by the Protestant black churches. He anticipated that the more fully the state protects religious freedom, the more readily the church helps in the great task of bringing liberty and justice for all. He anticipated Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous saying that:

if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. Men far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travelers at midnight.

Pennington also anticipated our late-modern recognition that religion is a cornerstone of human rights and that religious freedom is indispensable to constitutional order. Even in today's liberal and pluralistic societies, religions help to define the local meanings and measures of restraint and respect, responsibility and restitution that a human rights regime presupposes. Much as churches in Pennington's day played an important role, for better or worse, in shaping their communities' moral commitments, diverse religious communities today help define ideals of human dignity and human community, and the essentials of human nature, need, and capacity upon which human rights are built. Much as churches and schools in Pennington's day could serve as important institutions of social uplift and support, religious organizations today often stand alongside the state and other institutions in helping to implement and to protect the rights of a person and community-- especially at times when the state is weak, distracted, divided, cash-strapped, transitioning, or corrupt. Religious communities can create the conditions (sometimes the prototypes) for the realization of civil and political rights of speech, press, assembly, and more. They can provide a critical (and sometimes the principal) means of education, healthcare, childcare, labor organizations, employment, and artistic opportunities, among other things. And they offer some of the deepest insights into duties of stewardship and servanthood that lie at the heart of environmental care, humane development, and the rights of nature.

Finally, Pennington challenges us to see that tyranny comes in many forms beyond that of the totalitarian state or the authoritarian church. Other legitimate authorities, too, across families, schools, corporations, hospitals, charities, farms, factories, unions, and other institutions wield enormous, but often invisible and unchecked, power. And these authorities can become corrupt and can crush the sacred human rights of their local subjects with as much cruelty, devastation, and outrage as the early-modern state inflicted on its local subjects. Particularly, in contrast to the loud and brash nativist and xenophobic voices that we now hear today on both sides of the Atlantic, we can take comfort and courage from Pennington's abiding message of hope and resilience; of peace and reform; of righteous protest and rights-based living; of just war and juster reconstruction - built on the foundations of family, church, and school; of democracy, constitutional order, and rule of law; and of the firm resolve to ensure that every member of society may enjoy their “sacred human rights.”

John Witte, Jr. is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, McDonald Distinguished Professor of Religion, and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.

Justin J. Latterell is the Interim Managing Director, and Research Director for Law, History and Christianity at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.

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