James W.C. Pennington: Fugitive Slave to Evangelical Abolitionist
--by Richard Reifsnyder
Among the pleasant surprises of my 45th reunion at Yale Divinity School was the discovery that the seminary had given long overdue recognition to James W.C. Pennington, the first African American to attend Yale. A room and scholarship were dedicated in his honor and a portrait hung in the common room with other theological luminaries. In a time when Yale was struggling over the appropriateness of having a residential college named after slavery apologist John C. Calhoun, taking this action to honor Pennington is worthy of praise.
Nevertheless, the treatment Pennington received during the three years he spent at Yale beginning in 1834 was not without the shameful elements so characteristic of the ambiguity of the times. He was not officially enrolled, or allowed to borrow books from the library, and he was only permitted to sit in the back of the classroom and listen, “so long” he wrote years later, “as my voice could not be heard in the classroom asking or answering a question.” Although Pennington acknowledged there were elements of the experience which were “oppressive,” he had a voracious appetite for learning and soaked up the opportunity. He was deeply influenced by Yale’s reigning theologian of the day, Nathaniel Taylor. Pennington was ordained and went on to a distinguished career as an evangelical Presbyterian and Congregational minister, and he gained national recognition as a leading abolitionist voice and proponent of numerous other reform movements in the antebellum period.
Born into slavery in 1809 on Maryland’s eastern shore, Pennington resolved to flee captivity after he saw his father mercilessly beaten and his mother threatened. Only eighteen years old at the time, he knew he might be putting his family in additional danger; nevertheless, he was determined to be free, whatever the cost. After several days of harrowing adventure and near recapture, he found his way to a Quaker family in Pennsylvania that was part of the network of the Underground Railroad.
Inquiring about possible employment as a blacksmith, a trade in which he had been trained, Pennington never forgot the response of his Quaker host, William Wright: “Come in and take thy breakfast, and get warm, and we will talk about it.” To Pennington, these words of “simple sincerity and fatherly kindness” indicated that he was being viewed as a fellow human being, “a treatment I had never before received at the hands of any white man.” For years afterward, Pennington referred to this story in his broadsides against slavery, arguing that there was no such thing as a benign form of slavery, no matter how kindly a master professed to be. The core “sin of slavery was the chattel principle,” the refusal to acknowledge the humanity, freedom before God, and dignity of each human being.
While living with the family of a Presbyterian elder, Pennington had a spiritual crisis characteristic of many others in this period of revival known as the Second Great Awakening. Grateful that he was free, he agonized about the plight of those still in bondage, especially when he became cognizant of the size of the enslaved population. At the same time, he became convinced of his own personal bondage to sin: “I now saw that while man had been injuring me, I had been offending God; and that unless I ceased to offend him, I could not expect to have sympathy in my wrongs; and moreover, I could not be instrumental in eliciting his powerful aid in behalf of those for whom I mourned so deeply.”
Pennington, in his own words, was “brought to a saving acquaintance” with Christ under the influence of a visiting pastor, Samuel H. Cox, who later became a moderator of the General Assembly in the New School Presbyterian Church. Pennington became a member of the congregation Cox served in New York (also the church of Lewis and Arthur Tappan, advocates and financiers of the anti-slavery movement), although he apparently didn’t worship there regularly because of the ongoing practice of segregated seating. At a young age, Pennington connected the need for personal redemption and the anti-slavery effort. Not all forms of abolition were deeply rooted in evangelical religion. William Lloyd Garrison, for example, argued for decisive separation from all institutions complicit in slavery, including most churches. After attending Yale, Pennington buttressed his evangelical anti-slavery perspective with the theology of Nathaniel Taylor’s modification of Calvinistic principles. Taylor argued that God was the "moral governor" of the universe, and drawing from that theological conviction he maintained that slavery at its core was an "evil under the moral government of God--a sin not only against man, but against God.” Opposing slavery was “our duty as subjects of God’s moral government.” No human laws could make a wrong--a sin--right.
After his conversion, Pennington grappled with a sense of call. At the time there were no great anti-slavery societies. He considered going to Africa, only to quickly abandon the thought, ultimately resolving to devote his energies to supporting the “free people of color” in New York. Slavery had recently been abolished there, but free blacks faced a shortage of educational opportunities and significant ongoing discrimination. Only a few years removed from illiteracy himself, Pennington was certified and began teaching in 1833 in the African American school in Newtown.
Even before that, he had developed a vision for broader influence. In 1830, as a twenty-one year old, he was elected a delegate to the initial meeting of the National Negro Convention, a group concerned about the plight of slaves and working toward the improvement of free blacks. Cross-denominational, ecumenical efforts at moral reform were widespread in the antebellum period, and Pennington would be a leader and frequent speaker at many of these meetings. The convention early declared its opposition to the colonization movement, asserting that such a movement implied that African Americans had no place in a majority white American society. Pennington rejected the notion explicitly. “I am American to the Backbone,” he often declared.
The pull toward ministry increased, and Pennington moved to New Haven to begin teaching at a larger school and attend the seminary. As happened throughout his life, he was aided by friends, in this case a pastor in the anti-slavery movement who provided housing. Pennington apparently assisted at several churches in New Haven, likely Congregational ones. He appeared before the local Congregational association, but since he expressed a desire to return to Newtown, Long Island, to do evangelical work “among people of color,” the association commended him to the Congregational Association of New York for licensure and ordination, which occurred in 1838. Although he had been deeply influenced by the Presbyterian community in New York City and Long Island, it is clear that Pennington’s ordination was in the Congregational Church, perhaps because Presbyterians in Newtown still had segregated seating and Pennington refused to accept that. There had been considerable fluidity between Presbyterians and Congregationalists in the early nineteenth century; the Plan of Union of 1801 allowed ministers to serve in either denomination. But that accord broke down in the 1830s, with Old School Presbyterians rejecting the formula in favor of more narrow, explicit denominational standards, and with New School Presbyterians continuing to affirm the plan. The Newtown Presbyterian Church sided with the Old School, and although Pennington never seems to have commented on the split, clearly his sympathies and later allegiance were with the New School, a denomination that was also much more affirming of the evangelical spirit. Some scholars suggest that it was an “African American Presbyterian Church” Pennington served in Newtown, though not an officially constituted congregation (the worshiping community may have been a preaching point that received support from both denominations as well as the American Home Missionary Society.) Pennington resumed his teaching post during this time and began writing for the most important black newspaper in New York, the Colored American. After two years in Newtown, he received a call to the Talcott Street Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut, where he continued his activity in anti-slavery organizations.
Pennington had begun to make a reputation for himself as a popular speaker and activist. During the Amistad controversy, he helped raise funds to defend the Africans who had been captured after their attempted mutiny on a slave ship; Lewis Tappan headed the fund. When the Supreme Court finally pronounced in the defendants’ favor, Pennington was delighted. But he was also concerned about the spiritual welfare of the exonerated when they returned to Africa, which stimulated his work with Tappan to establish the Union Missionary Society. Two missionaries were trained and returned to Africa with the freed captives. From then on, Pennington would devote considerable attention to mission administration, raising funds, and eventually merging the society with several others to become the American Missionary Association. Because other missionary organizations included and received financial support from slaveholders, he considered the AMA to be the only truly anti-slave mission society.
Pennington’s career moved along two equally important tracks. Although there is only limited information about his pastoral work, he was foremost a popular pastor and celebrated preacher who served several of the leading African American congregations in the nation. The more visible part of his career was as a leader in a number of broad ecumenical ventures for personal and social reform. These were all part of the great 19th century “voluntary” effort to create a Christian America which transcended denominational distinctions.
The anti-slavery cause was his greatest passion. The Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society chose him as a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1843, catapulting Pennington to the world stage. He was conscious that his very presence at the convention as a learned man with great oratorical skills showed the possibilities open to African Americans when given the opportunity; it also gave lie to some of the premises used to defend slavery. While in London Pennington was invited for the first time to preach before a predominantly white congregation. Asked to talk about “free people of color,” he expressed his unhappiness with the discriminatory seating practices that still existed in many American churches and praised the English churches for not having a “negro pew.” Pennington shared with the delegates material from his recently published work A Text Book of the Origin and History of the Colored People. In great detail, he spelled out the misinterpretations of the Bible which slavery supporters used to justify the institution, decrying the ministers and people of faith who suggested that because “Noah cursed his grandson Canaan…this dooms the black man to slavery, and constitutes the white man the slaveholder.” “Defenders of slavery,” he continued, “have not only desecrated their holy profession, but they have taken a part of God’s word and construed it into a commission to shed the innocent blood of his creatures.”
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, on top of earlier harsh state laws, caused Pennington to fear returning home to New York. He no longer felt his safety could be guaranteed and was determined finally to settle his personal status as a “fugitive.” Some years earlier he had sought to raise funds to purchase his freedom and that of his parents, but backed off, partly because the cost was too great and he resented having to pay for the liberty that was his divine right. But now, under new circumstances, he asked his friend John Hooker to negotiate his freedom. The heirs of Pennington’s original master sold him for $150 to Hooker, who then “freed” him. This episode shows how little security there was in a nation where slavery was permitted, even for a free black man as accomplished as Pennington.
Like many other social advocates of his time, Pennington was involved in multiple reform organizations. He was a founder of the Brooklyn Temperance Society for people of color, and pressed hard for temperance to be part of the annual Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Color. African Americans often had separate organizations for moral improvement, providing important opportunities for leadership. Pennington gained an important platform by being active in and often a speaker at these numerous conventions.
Peace was another of his major interests. The American Peace Society took advantage of Pennington’s trip to England in 1843 to add him to its delegation to the General Peace Convention, held right after the anti-slavery convention. Thereafter Pennington traveled frequently to Peace Conventions, including a second trip to the international Peace Congress in Germany in 1851. Although Pennington was a pacifist for most of his life who argued that slavery was a breeder of war, he would modify his position during the Civil War, helping to raise troops and supporting Abraham Lincoln despite the critique that Lincoln was an insufficiently strong emancipationist.
Even with this important national and international activity, Pennington’s primary vocation was pastor. In 1848 he reasserted his religious roots by becoming the leader of the largest African American Presbyterian Church of the day, Shiloh Presbyterian, in New York’s Third Presbytery. The church and the Pennington home were important way stations in the Underground Railroad. Elected moderator of the presbytery in 1853, he preached a widely distributed sermon on “Christian Zeal” that culminated in a rousing call to develop the necessary engagement to end slavery. He lamented how some Presbyterians used the Bible to justify the peculiar institution; New School Presbyterians, he reminded his hearers, held as many as 40,000 slaves and “Presbyterian slaves are liable to all the evils of the system.” He struck a positive concluding note, however, saying that he was glad “our church is the friend of progressive opinion,” and, perhaps reflecting his commitment to the peace movement, declaring that “one thing we need to learn...is how to discuss slavery without getting angry.”
Pennington may have been overly optimistic. Although he had not been heavily involved in denominational matters, he had been criticized by some abolitionists for maintaining membership in the PCUSA and taking a leadership role in the denomination, thus fellowshipping with slaveholders. New School General Assemblies from 1846 regularly passed resolutions deploring slavery and urging presbyteries to do all they could to expunge the sin. But efforts to go further, and apply church discipline to slaveholders, were rejected. The General Assembly of 1853 had been particularly contentious, with Samuel Cox, Pennington’s former mentor, taking a more conservative position than he had earlier regarding fellowship with slaveholders.
Not long after the Assembly Pennington was attacked in an article questioning him for being in “full communion with men thieves.” The question of whether one could remain in fellowship with slaveholders as one worked to overcome slavery was a source of considerable debate in the abolition movement. Pennington had wrestled with the issue as far back as his writing of A Text Book, but he had chosen to remain in the church, promote his convictions, and advocate for reform. He consistently called on those who knew they were released from sin to take the logical step to oppose slavery and deeply resented the implication that he was disloyal to the cause and lacked integrity. “I have never spoken one word or cast a vote, on any occasion, or in any place, pro-slavery wise, positive or implied.” The suggestion that he could not make an independent, moral decision about his participation in the Presbyterian Church seemed to him an assault on his dignity as a free man before God. “I recognize no Lord of my conscience but God only,” Pennington said. “I have yet to learn that a mere profession of abolitionism gives any white man a right to take me by the coat button and lead me where he will.”
The year 1853 marked the zenith of Pennington’s career. He was moderator of the Third Presbytery of New York and President of the National Negro Convention. Yet at the same time Pennington was criticized for being too much of a self-promoter. He not only raised support for himself and his church, but for the many causes which he supported. (Most African American churches of that era lacked substantial resources and securing funds was always a challenge.) Even Lewis Tappan, Pennington’s erstwhile ally in the abolition movement, questioned some of the financial accounting and suggested that Pennington might be dealing with alcoholism.
Late in December 1855, the Third Presbytery received a request from the Shiloh Church for guidance in regard to “certain conduct on the part of their pastor.” The exact nature of Pennington’s conduct—or misconduct—is unclear. Perhaps he did have a problem with alcohol. Perhaps he had left the church on too many extended trips. Contrary to the custom of the time of spelling out the details of purported offenses, the presbytery merely commended Pennington’s “expressions of penitence” and his commitment to “guard against a repetition of acknowledged offences.” He resigned his position within a year of the charges and moved back to Hartford.
One incident involving an act of civil protest in 1855 remained unresolved legally when Pennington moved from Shiloh. A long standing issue in New York involved the rights of African Americans to ride the streetcars on an equal basis with whites. Depending on the attitude of the conductor or the objections of white riders, African Americans could be forced off the car, or pushed to the back or outside. Pennington had been involved with others in suing a streetcar company, and despite what had seemed a legal victory, the practices still continued. He urged his parishioners to test the ruling, and soon found himself tested by being asked to leave a streetcar. When he refused, and was physically thrown off the car, he followed it on foot, and asked a police officer to arrest the driver and conductor. When the officer refused to act, Pennington got back on the car and was arrested. The charge was dismissed, but Pennington continued to pursue it, filing a complaint. The case dragged on for many months. The defendants justified their actions on the basis of a “separate but equal” doctrine for African American customers. Beyond that, the streetcar company warned of the possibility of a slippery slope if it lost the case—would African Americans next ask to sit together at public tables in hotels? Pennington lost the case but his actions helped begin to turn the tide. The episode was a stark reminder that changes in law do not necessarily foster changes in action. The struggle for justice is long and hard, and it continues into our time. Pennington demonstrated a commitment to an educative, transformative civil disobedience, similar to the witness of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, more than a hundred years later, helping to initiate the modern civil rights movement.
Pennington’s public influence weakened after he left Shiloh, but he continued to serve the church and the causes in which he believed. He remained in Hartford only a short time, and eventually returned to the church where he first served after his ordination: the African American Presbyterian/Congregational church in Newtown, ministering and teaching there from 1858 to 1863. It was a financial struggle, and he appealed from time to time to wealthy allies for support and went on the lecture circuit to secure additional income. Although he wrote prolifically during this time for the Anglo-African Magazine, that work did not provide income.
At the outset of the Civil War, Pennington circulated a petition to Congress from his fellow black citizens asserting that “African Slavery…is the prime cause of the present crisis and that permanent peace cannot be restored until said cause be removed.” He helped raise troops during the war and then turned his attention to the needs of free blacks in the south. It was a return to his first calling—the education and uplifting of the freedmen. Since New School Presbyterians had lost connections to the south and were not doing much to prepare for this transformation, he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church and even preached for a short time during 1865 in Natchez, Mississippi. When he returned to New York, it was likely because of the illness and subsequent death of his wife, Almira.
Pennington was restored to the membership of the Third Presbytery so he could take a call to the Abyssinian Congregational Church, in Portland, Maine. Within less than two years, he moved again, this time to a call as Presbyterian missionary to former slaves in Jacksonville, Florida, with the intention of forming a new congregation. By this time the Presbyterian Church had established a Committee of Missions for Freedman to provide its own ministry for free blacks, the cause that had been central to Pennington’s initial sense of call. Though he was eager to engage in the educational ministry he thought was the prerequisite for former slaves to claim the benefits of freedom, he did not get to serve long. In fragile health by this time, he died on October 22, 1870, after a short illness.
James W.C. Pennington’s life was a remarkable witness to a transformative, progressive evangelicalism, a strain of Christianity deeply committed to personal transformation, a relationship to God, and the transformation of society toward justice and peace. Through talent and sheer determination he escaped slavery, the most dire and dehumanizing of situations, and became a conscientious and faithful pastor; a powerful speaker, preacher, and teacher; a prolific writer and historian of African American tradition and experience; and an ardent advocate not only for the cause of abolition, but for the causes of education, temperance, peace, and missions. Undergirding all his activity was the evangelical faith and trust in God which propelled a lifelong sense of call. He had a deep confidence, even in the face of seemingly overwhelming obstacles, that God had a plan and was working his purpose out. Free human beings had a responsibility to discern God’s plan and to faithfully and patiently work with God to bring about that end. Pennington had a strong sense that because the outcome was assured, one’s work in the Lord was never in vain.
The racially tinged contentiousness of the recent Presidential election and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement remind us graphically that we still are dealing with the unfulfilled promises of the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement a century later. In such a context, James Pennington is an African American minister and social activist whose portrait deserves not only a prominent place in Yale’s hallowed halls, but whose witness and accomplishment should be an ongoing source of inspiration for the Presbyterian church and the broader community of faith.
Richard Reifsnyder retired after 44 years in pastoral ministry in the PC(USA), including 21 years as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Winchester, Virginia. He is a graduate of Duke University, Yale Divinity School, and Princeton Theological Seminary, where he received a Ph.D. in Church History. Among his publications are articles on the history of church organization and leadership in The Presbyterian Presence series. Rich lives in Salisbury, CT.
Pennington, James W.C. The Fugitive Blacksmith; or Events in the Life of James W.C. Pennington (London: Charles Gilpin, 1849).
Pennington, James W.C. A Text Book of the Origin and History of the Colored People (Hartford: L. Skinner, 1841).
Thomas, Herman E. James W. C. Pennington: African American Churchman and Abolitionist (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995).
Thomas, Herman E. “Toward an Understanding of Religion and Slavery in J.W.C. Pennington,” Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 6:2 (1979).
Webber, Christopher L. American to the Backbone: The Life of James W.C. Pennington, the Fugitive Slave Who Became One of the First Black Abolitionists (New York: Pegasus Books, 2011).
 Yale News, September 30, 2016; October 12, 2016.
 Frederick Douglass’s Paper, August 14, 1851. James W.C. Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith, p. 56.
 Although Pennington’s narrative, The Fugitive Blacksmith (London: Charles Gilpin, 1849) was not as well known as Frederick Douglass’s account of his escape from slavery, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, published a few years earlier (1845), it is equally gripping. Among the connections between Douglass and Pennington, besides their common fugitive slave narrative and abolitionist activity, was that Pennington officiated at Douglass’s marriage in 1838, shortly after his escape.
 The Fugitive Blacksmith, p. 41.
 Ibid, p. iv.
 Ibid, pp 52-53. Herman E. Thomas’ biography James W.C. Pennington: African American Churchman and Abolitionist. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1995 places Pennington’s anti-slavery activities solidly within the context of evangelical religion.
 Ibid, p. 54. Throughout his life, Pennington had a deep conviction that God’s “moral government” was being worked out, and thus slavery would ultimately be abolished. There are some similarities to Martin Luther King’s often expressed sentiment that “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.” Taylor’s emphasis on God as “moral governor” owed its theological roots to Jonathan Edwards and his successors. See E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), pp. 341-369.
 See Christopher L. Webber, American to the Backbone: The Life of James W.C. Pennington the Fugitive Slave who Became One of the First Black Abolitionists. (New York: Pegasus Books, 2011), passim.
 Webber, pp. 95-104, 140 provides a solid account of the Yale years, the details of which were somewhat shrouded in mystery; Pennington, Fugitive Blacksmith, p. 56. Throughout his career, Pennington was acutely aware of the discrimination faced by black ministers, even at the hands of his white colleagues. Nevertheless, he never abandoned his deep commitment to the church, even as he called it to live up to its principles.
 Clergy Register, Third Presbytery of New York. See George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970) for a treatment of the Plan of Union and the split in the denomination in 1837-1838. Also Thomas, pp. 48-49.
 For a classic treatment of voluntary benevolent societies and the quest to build a Christian America, see Alice Felt Tyler, Freedom’s Ferment: Phases of American Social History from the Colonial Period to the Outbreak of the Civil War (New York: Harper and Row, 1962); Ronald G. Walters, American Reformers 1815-1860 ( New York: Hill and Wang, 1978); and Robert Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971).
 James W.C. Pennington. A Text Book of the Origin and History of the Colored People, (Hartford: L. Skinner, 1841), p. 13. This is often considered the first book length treatment of black history.
 J.W.C. Pennington to the editor of the British Banner, January 4, 1850, quoted in Webber, p. 268; see the appendix “The Awarding to Pennington of the Doctor of Divinity Degree by the University of Heidelberg, 1849” in Thomas, pp. 179-186.
 Frederick Douglass’s Paper, June 26, 1851; August 14, 1851; Thomas, p. 56; Webber, pp. 283-288.
 Webber, pp. 70, 76, 279-281.
 James W.C. Pennington, “Christian Zeal: A Sermon preached before Third Presbytery of New York, July 3, 1853” (New York: Zuille and Leonard, 1854); Webber, pp. 330-332.
Frederick Douglass’s Paper, June 9, 1854, May 4, 1855. Quoted in Herman E. Thomas, “Toward an Understanding of Religion and Slavery in J.W.C. Pennington,” The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 6:2 (1979) pp. 152, 156.
 Ibid. Webber, pp. 311-315, 364-370.
 Andrew E Murray, Presbyterians and the Negro—A History (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1966), pp. 40-41.
 Webber, pp. 290, 343-351.
 Minutes, Third Presbytery of New York, December 10, 1855; January 9, 1856; January 28, 1856; Webber, pp. 381-382.
 Webber, pp. 316, 355-356, 363-376, 388-393.
 “A Petition,” Weekly Anglo-African, August 17, 1861. Quoted in Webber, p. 406.
 Webber, pp. 419-432.