‘The man whose voice could not be heard in the classroom’ honored in talks, scholarship

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Divinity School students, faculty, and administrators gathered for the ceremony dedicating the school's largest classroom to James W.C. Pennington, an escapee from slavery who took classes there.

Yale Divinity School honored James W.C. Pennington, an escapee from slavery who took classes at the school in the 1830s, in a series of events Oct. 6 and 7. The school named a classroom in Pennington’s honor, hosted two lectures on his life and legacy, and announced a new scholarship and bi-national conference to be held in the coming years.

Though he sat in on classes, James Pennington was refused formal enrollment in the Divinity School (YDS) and was barred from speaking in class or borrowing books. Nonetheless, he holds an important place in history as the first African American to study at Yale. He went on to serve as pastor of several Congregational churches and to become a prominent advocate for the abolition of slavery and for international peace.

Gregory E. Sterling, the Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at YDS, noted in his remarks that Pennington’s legacy had been overshadowed by those of his friends and colleagues, such as Frederick Douglass, but that his life has lessons to teach us today.

“I believe that Pennington is a model for all students,” Sterling said. “He is a model of someone who overcame enormous odds with great courage, and who demonstrated a level of skill that brought him not only national but international acclaim. And he did all of that serving a cause larger than himself. I would be most happy for every student who graduates from this institution to do the same thing.”

Divinity Dean Gregory E. Sterling described Pennington (whose portrait hangs behind him) as a “model of someone who overcame enormous odds with great courage” while “serving a cause greater than himself.”

Sterling concluded: “The man whose voice could not be heard in the classroom will now have his name repeated every day at this school.”

Sterling also announced a new scholarship to be awarded each year to a Pennington Fellow, with preference given to first-year Master of Divinity students who are preparing for ordination and studying the African-American experience. Making the lead gift are Washington attorney F. Lane Heard III ’73, ’79 J.D. and his wife, Margaret A. Bauer ’86, ’91 M.F.A.. Heard serves on the YDS Dean’s Advisory Council.

The events were attended by leaders and members of congregations Pennington once served, including the Reverend Frederick Jerome (Jerry) Streets, senior pastor of Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ in New Haven and former university chaplain.

Streets called the renaming “an important, powerful, courageous, ethical act. It is our prayer that future generations of students, faculty members, and friends of YDS will find in the life story of James Pennington hope and courage to live as fully as possible their life’s dreams.”

YDS alumna Lecia Allman ’16 was active during her time at YDS in efforts to highlight the histories of alumni from under-represented groups. “In the struggle for opportunity, someone has to be first. And being first is often a lonely, rejection-filled, and stressful experience,” she remarked at the gathering. “You have no peers who can relate to your suffering, so it is easy to be lulled into the comfort of quitting. But Pennington did not quit, and neither did the other firsts who followed him at YDS. So we owe it to them to build on their legacy.”

Divinity alumna Lecia Allman said. “In the struggle for opportunity, someone has to be first. And being first is often a lonely, rejection-filled, and stressful experience. … But Pennington did not quit, and neither did the other firsts who followed him at YDS. So we owe it to them to build on their legacy.”

The focal moment of the two days of events was the dedication of classroom S100, one of the largest and busiest rooms in Sterling Divinity Quadrangle and the first classroom visitors encounter when they enter the quad. Students, faculty, and guests packed the room as Sterling unveiled a plaque and portrait of Pennington that will hang permanently.

Following the ceremony, John Witte, Jr., the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, McDonald Distinguished Professor, and director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, delivered a lecture on what he called “one of the great prophets of liberty in American history.”

Witte saw Pennington as a “fulcrum” between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr., anticipating the civil rights movement that was led in large part by the Protestant black church. Pennington saw slavery a form of spiritual tyranny that was protected by his own government.  Witte said this mindset anticipated the current view that religious freedom is fundamental to human rights, said Witte.

Jan Stievermann, professor of the history of Christianity in the U.S. at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at the University of Heidelberg, discussed Pennington’s life and connection to Heidelberg. He observed that both Pennington and the faculty at Heidelberg were actors in broader transatlantic movements of abolition, peace, and human rights. By the early 1840s Pennington had made a name for himself in European reform circles, while at home he was still, legally, enslaved. In conferring an honorary degree in 1849, said Stievermann, the Heidelberg faculty engaged in an act of moral protest of American slavery, and they “transferred symbolic capital” onto Pennington to publicize and buttress his abolition efforts.

At the conclusion of the lectures, Sterling announced plans to hold a joint conference between Heidelberg and Yale in 2019-2020 focused on Pennington. Sterling also announced that Heidelberg University has named Harry S. Stout, Yale’s Jonathan Edwards Professor of American Christianity and general editor of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, as the 2017 recipient of the James W.C. Pennington Award. The award recognizes outstanding research in areas especially important to Pennington and includes a one-month research visit to Heidelberg.

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