James W.C. Pennington: Freedman, Scholar, Abolitionist
by Caitlin Smith
As the 1834 fall term began, eager seminary students poured into the lecture halls of Yale Theological Seminary. They brought high expectations and keen hopes for their education. Yale College had already distinguished itself as one of most prestigious centers of learning in early America. And, for the past seventy years, Yale’s theology faculty had cultivated ties to a specific strand of experiential Protestantism: proto-evangelicalism. Jonathan Edwards, an alumnus from 1720, had dramatically transformed New England’s religious culture with sophisticated defenses of the 1730-1740s transatlantic religious revivals. Nathaniel William Taylor, one of Edwards’ theological heirs and the sitting Dwight Professor of Didactic Theology, helped define Yale’s institutional organization and campus culture from the 1810s onwards. For a young man in the 1830s, attending Yale meant training in a specifically American theological tradition—one that combined the rigor of European Calvinist intellectual tradition with the energy of popular, awakened religion.
World-class religious instruction wasn’t all that Yale Theological Seminary boasted. Young students had the chance to network vertically, impressing renowned scholars and political leaders, as well as laterally, forging elite networks that often lasted a lifetime. The connections one made at Yale could make—or destroy—entire careers.
Thus, the students entering the first-year lecture hall had good reason to feel optimistic about their futures, and even better reason to enthusiastically greet their schoolmates as future friends and colleagues. One of them, however, kept his distance. He’d been specifically instructed to minimize his presence as much as possible. As he wrote years later to Frederick Douglass, “I was refused entry to Yale Seminary, but I was told that I could sit with the classes as a visitor, and hear the lectures but my voice was not to be heard in the class room asking or answering a question. I could not get a book from the library and my name was never to appear on the catalogue.” Technically, he was not a student at all. The year before he arrived at Yale, Connecticut’s Black Law had outlawed “the instruction of colored persons belonging to other states and countries.” And James W.C. Pennington, Yale scholar-but-not-student, had two problems. First, he was Black, with conspicuously dark skin in a conspicuously white institution. Second, he had escaped from Maryland plantation in 1827, and legally still belonged to Frisbie Tilghman.
Possibly concerned about leaving a paper trail, the Theological Seminary refused to acknowledge James W.C. Pennington’s presence in any official publication. Even today, Yale refuses to posthumously award him a degree. Yet, Pennington was arguably the most influential seminarian of his “class.” Renowned as a brilliant autodidact, talented writer, eloquent preacher, and tireless reformer for the causes of abolition and Black education, Pennington rose to international prominence in the 1840s. In 1841, cultural critics of his day often named Pennington and Frederick Douglass as the twin leaders of Black intellectual life. At the peak of his career in the 1850s, Pennington had commanded extraordinary influence in the white-dominated evangelical wing of American abolitionism. He achieved precisely the ideal career of a Yale seminarian: a rigorous theologian in the Edwardsean tradition, a fearless and commanding preacher of a prominent church, a successful networker who built lasting professional connections both in the United States and across Europe. Pennington was also one of the main political organizers of the Colored Convention movement, pushing for full civil rights for African-Americans in the free states.
So why isn’t Pennington more widely known today? In a bitter irony, Pennington’s historical afterlife mirrors his presence at Yale: technically present, but minimized and overlooked. Pennington’s erasure—or, more accurately, forgotten status—obscures an important chapter of African-American intellectual history. But before we look at how, and why, Pennington fell into obscurity, let’s look at what brought him into the public eye in the decades before the Civil War.
Pennington the Self-Liberated Freedman
Remarking on Pennington’s status as one of the great “race leaders” of his time, Harriet Beecher Stowe named Pennington, together with Frederick Douglass and Samuel Ringgold Ward, as exemplary former-slaves-turned-international-leaders. In her novel’s final plea to immediately end slavery, Stowe described these three men as “well known instances” of former bondsmen who “by a self-educating force, which cannot be too much admired, have risen to highly respectable stations in society.” And in his 1863 compendium of great Black men, William Wells Brown hailed “Dr. Pennington” as the pride of the community, a “ripe scholar,” deeply versed in philosophy and theology, who “has labored zealously and successfully for the education and moral, social, and religious elevation [of his people].”
Pennington’s 1849 autobiography The Fugitive Blacksmith earned him international acclaim. During the nineteenth century, The Fugitive Blacksmith ranked one of the most popular and widely-cited “slave narratives,” alongside the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (1847). Pennington’s autobiography sketches out his early beginnings in a large, close-knit family split between two slaveholders. The narrative repeatedly illustrates his main argument: “THE SIN of slavery lies in the chattel principle, or relation.” In the Preface, he explains that well-meaning “professing Christians” sometimes hedge their abolitionist arguments by contrasting severe with mild forms of slavery, good with bad individual slaveholders. “My feelings are always outraged when I hear them speak of “kind masters,”–“Christian masters,”–“the mildest form of slavery,”–“well fed and clothed slaves,” as extenuations of slavery,” Pennington writes. “I am satisfied they either mean to pervert the truth, or they do not know what they say. The being of slavery, its soul and body, lives and moves in the chattel principle, the property principle, the bill of sale principle; the cart-whip, starvation, and nakedness, are its inevitable consequences.” The autobiographical incidents that Pennington chooses for his narrative highlight the humiliations of living in a system that is dehumanizing and degrading, no matter how comparatively mild.
“THE SIN of slavery lies in the chattel principle, or relation.”James W.C. Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith
The Fugitive Blacksmith also highlights the impressive speed of Pennington’s self-education. Five years into his independent studies, he writes, “I had mastered the preliminary branches of English education, and was engaged in studying logic, rhetoric, and the Greek Testament, without a [school]master.” While “struggling” to catch up to his educated white peers, “I met a friend, who said to me, ‘I have just had an application to supply a teacher for a school, and I have recommended you.’ I said, ‘My dear friend, I am obliged to you for the kindness; but I fear I cannot sustain an examination for that station.’ ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘try.’ I said, ‘I will,’ and we separated” (57). Pennington is summarily hired by the Board of Trustees—the first step to his studies at Yale, and his illustrious “public and professional career.” The Fugitive Blacksmith calls attention to Pennington’s prodigy, but also the wasted potential. “I shall have to go to my last account with this charge against the system of slavery, “Vile monster! thou hast hindered my usefulness, by robbing me of my early education.”” (57).
Pennington and the Black Press
The Fugitive Blacksmith was Pennington’s most famous book, but it wasn’t his first. In 1841, he published The Text Book of the Origin and History of the Colored People, a “race history” aimed at non-white readers. If The Fugitive Blacksmith tried to persuade white Christians that slavery was a systemic evil, The Text Book tried to help African-Americans counter racist pseudoscience and history. The Text Book reads a bit like “Why White Christians Are Wrong About Black History: A Thread (Long).” In quick, sarcastic paragraphs, Pennington marshalled natural-philosophical and theological-historical arguments against popular pseudoscience and pseudohistory that supported anti-black prejudice. For example, Pennington derisively rejected the widespread argument that dark skin was the “Mark of Cain.” “It is a stupid saying,” Pennington wrote, “and I confess it would be stupid to attempt a reply, were it not for the real fact that it is trumpeted about by bar-room and porter-house orators… and received with as much complacency as if an oracle had spoken truth infallible” (8). But, as any Sunday schoolboy knew, God wiped out all humans except Noah and his family a few chapters later in Genesis. “How, then, can Cain have any posterity this side of the deluge? How could we have inherited his mark and his curse? The supposition is false and absurd.” (8)
Beyond these two book-length publications, Pennington was a prolific and successful writer. Many of his printed lectures and sermons circulated in the 1840s and 50s. In these short-form writings, he critiqued and re-interpreted America’s defining intellectual traditions: natural rights liberalism, republicanism, Christian perfectionism, and Calvinist covenantalism. Pennington insisted that older traditions of natural rights-liberalism had unfairly privileged white European-descended men. He devoted extensive time and ink to reforming natural-rights philosophy into a more comprehensive defense of human rights. Rejecting hollow universalisms, he was one of the first abolitionists to link antislavery and anticolonialism.
Finally, Pennington published extensively in the early Black press. In journals like the Colored American or Anglo-African Magazine, he built a national reputation for well-researched, lengthy reports on slavery and race relations, as well as eloquent opinion pieces on politics and reform.
The Slide into Obscurity
Whether writing to white American Christians, African-American freedmen, or European peace activists, Pennington kept his religious convictions at the center of his thought. He combined Edwardsean New Divinity School theology, which emphasized experiential renewal, with new historical-contextual criticism. He fused these elements into a unique theological position both “evangelical” in its basic understanding of salvation, and radically progressive in its ethical applications. For example, Pennington understood the gospel as a force of liberation and self-empowerment for the oppressed. In his many debates with Christian slavery apologists, Pennington rebuked them for abusing Scripture to defend sinful systems. In 1849, Heidelberg University recognized Pennington’s theological education with an honorary doctorate in divinity.
By 1858, Pennington’s dual commitments to institutional Christianity (specifically, the Presbyterian Church) and to racial equality placed him in an uncomfortable situation. On one hand, he was the African-American pastor of a majority-white church, the Talcott Street Church of Hartford, Connecticut. He’d represented his church at the 1853 Presbyterian General Assembly—a gathering which refused to exclude slaveholding Southern pastors. Afterwards, he delivered some of his most fiery anti-slavery sermons in Hartford, to an ambivalent reception. To Presbyterians, and proto-evangelical Christians more broadly, Pennington was a political radical with good theological bona fides. On the other hand, Pennington’s abolitionism was inseparable from his theology. He firmly allied himself with the proto-evangelical wing of abolitionist activism (as represented by American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society). During the 1850s, American abolitionism experienced deep internal divisions between AFASS and the anti-ecclesial wing of the abolition movement, represented by the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) and associated with William Garrison. Pennington publicly took sides: he stood with AFASS and the pro-ecclesial, proto-evangelical abolitionists. Activists in AASS opposed and personally maligned Pennington. They were especially angered by his presence at the 1853 Presbyterian General Assembly. By attending instead of boycotting it, they argued, he signaled insufficient hatred of slaveholding.
Tensions in Pennington’s home church, arguments with the Garrisonian abolitionists, and the stresses of an international speaking career all came to a head in 1858. The Talcott Street Church board asked Pennington to step down, citing discovery of secret alcoholism. Even though the board couldn’t produce evidence of the alcoholism, and Pennington’s personal papers and correspondence never indicated drinking, the charge stuck. Pennington’s Garrisonian critics immediately latched onto Pennington’s charge and spread it throughout the abolitionist press. Pennington stepped down. From 1859-1865, he focused on recruiting African-American freedmen to the Union Army and corresponding with his Black education activists in Jamaica. After the failure of Reconstruction, his star quickly sunk. Pennington moved to Jacksonville, Florida to organize an African-African Presbyterian congregation in 1870. He contracted a tropical illness and died that same year.
Pennington’s Critical Afterlife
During his own lifetime, Pennington experienced a meteoric rise to prominence, and a slow slide into obscurity. In the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, his life and works remain relatively unknown. Histories of abolitionism have focused on the Garrisonian wing, sidelining Pennington. And post-1960s studies of Black abolitionists have emphasized figures who radically challenged white institution, including organized religion. In these works, Pennington is understandably absent. His identity as a Reformed churchman make him a moderate-conservative on religious issue, even though some aspects of Pennington’s arguments were unusually radical. For example, The Text Book argues that chattel slavery, Indigenous genocide, global colonialism, and industrial capitalism are linked into a web of sinful systems, and good Christian must oppose them. In books such as Jane and William H. Pease’s They Who Would be Free (1974), though, Pennington appears as a well-intended, eloquent, but ultimately self-deluded thinker, a collaborator with organizations that disempowered African-Americans and re-entrenched white supremacy.
Pennington hasn’t received much attention from religious historians, either. This oversight reflects 20th and 21st century debates about the American evangelical tradition. “Evangelicalism” began contracting as a religious identity in the early 20th century, when it was claimed by white fundamentalist Protestants. The histories of evangelicalism they wrote had little use for a figure like Pennington. He might be theologically conservative in ways they valued. But his critiques of systemic sin sounded uncomfortably like the social gospel they strongly opposed. Even studies of evangelical involvement with the anti-slavery cause, which highlighted white progressive leaders like Theodore Dwight Weld, tended to omit Pennington. Standard histories of American evangelicalism, like Mark Noll’s survey, don’t mention Pennington. Today, most people invested in Pennington are either specialized scholars, or religious believers in the small conservative sections of historically Black churches.
In the past forty years, Pennington scholarship has been slowly but surely increasing—from a few scattered chapter sections in histories of abolitionism, to a trickle of articles and a popular biography. Yale Divinity School, where Pennington was allowed to unofficially study, has now acknowledged him. In 2011, Heidelberg University created an academic prize in his name honoring outstanding work in African American studies. But, overall, Pennington doesn’t receive even remotely the same amount of attention of a figure like Frederick Douglass —even though, in their own time, the two were frequently mentioned in the same sentence. Even as similarly-overlooked African-American intellectuals, like William Wells Brown or James McCune Smith, are being recovered, Pennington lags behind. The relative neglect of Pennington obscures his important historical role and unique contributions to nineteenth-century American thought. At the same time, Pennington’s legacy speaks to current debates about the entanglements of race, religion, and human rights politics in American culture. Even tracing the ways that Pennington became forgotten—the weird confluences of racism, church politics, and micropolitics in activist circles—feels uncannily contemporary.
The Future of Pennington Scholarship
In Summer 2021, the Heidelberg Center for American Studies organized the James Pennington Conference, generously supported by the Lautenschläger Foundation. The conference brought together leading experts on nineteenth-century American religion, African-American history and literature, and Africana philosophy. These same experts are putting forth two new works on Pennington: an edited anthology of his published works, and a companion edition of critical essays. I’m co-editing these works with Jan Stievermann and Eddie Glaude. Both works will become available from Oxford University Press in 2024. We hope to make Pennington’s work available for the college classroom, and to highlight the many contexts in which he moved and wielded influence. In his historical life, his literary career, and the politics of his obscurity, Pennington’s legacy speaks to America’s unfinished reconstruction and possible ways forward.
 Due to lack of documentation, we cannot pinpoint the exact years in which Pennington attended Yale.
 Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ch. xlv. William W. Brown: The Black Man: his Antecedents, his Genius, and his Achievements. Thomas Hamilton, New York 1963. For similarly admiring portraits of Pennington from this period, see also Brown’s The Rising Son (1876) and Wilson Armistead’s A Tribute for the Negro (1846).One of the last of such portraits appears in William J. Simmons’s Men of Mark (1887).
About the Author
Caitlin Smith is a postdoctoral researcher with the Graduiertekolleg “Authority and Trust.” Her current project looks at how American authors represented the Holy Land in nineteenth century popular fiction. You can reach her at email@example.com.
Old Divinity School, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.: Library of Congress.
Portrait of James W.C. Pennington: Originally published: Henney, William Franklin. Birthplace of American Democracy: Hartford, Commonwealth of Connecticut. Hartford, CN: The Connecticut Magazine Company, 1906. Wikimedia Commons.
Front page of The Anglo-African Magazine: Anglo-African Magazine, July 1859, Wikimedia Commons.
James W.C. Pennington’s autograph / Header: Portrait of James W.C. Pennington by William Irwin in 1948 that was created to accompany a brief biography of Pennington published in A Tribute for the Negro (1848). The portrait is a print from an engraving on paper. Wikimedia Commons.
Wm. Wells Brown, M.D. The Colored Historian: NYPL’s Public Domain Archive
Dr. James McCune Smith: NYPL’s Public Domain Archive