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James William Charles Pennington (1807-1870) was perhaps the first African American minister to receive a doctorate of divinity - by the University of Heidelberg, Germany (1849). And he was so honored while still legally a fugitive slave. He also attempted to desegregate streetcars in New York City (1855), one hundred years before Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted the same with public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama (1955-1956). His sermon on Covenants Involving Moral Wrong Are Not Obligatory Upon Man (1842) in which he affirmed that unjust laws have no moral force at all predates King’s same argument (citing Augustine) in the Letter From a Birmingham Jail by over 120 years.
The fact that this escaped slave became a Presbyterian minister is remarkable. But in 1843 he gave a speech in which he shared his experience of racism within the church. It is painful to read, but reading it serves as a reminder that the church is not immune to prejudice. And there are many different types of prejudice - the Apostle James spoke of one kind involving favoritism to the rich to the detriment of the poor, James 2:3. But those who are so judged based on the color of their skin or other factors can be deeply hurt, as Pennington here testifies.
For the last ten years, since I have been a Christian − seven or eight years of which I have been a minister, I have thought much on this subject, and have come to the conclusion that I am an excommunicated man. I have tried to avoid the conclusion, to think it was not so, but, like other people, find I cannot believe without evidence. I have tried to command my mind from this subject, but could not. To say that our condition is not an enviable one − that it is not a pleasant one, does not express the whole truth. I have labored hard to inform myself − I have tried to make myself useful and agreeable as a Christian − have tried to avoid everything wrong. A great question of orthodoxy is concerned here. Though we have felt ourselves abused, we have not dared to indulge unkind feelings toward our brethren. You have helped us to build small school-houses and churches, or rather helped us to shoulder a debt, many times − but I forbear − and yet I may as well speak out my convictions − it is done in the spirit of colonization, to get us out of the way. How often, in coming into a congregation like this, have I been treated with indignity. A man accidentally takes his seat by my side − he discovers that I have a dark face − he rises in contempt and leaves the slip. It is said colored people are fond of sitting together. It is such treatment as this which drives them together. They take the Jim Crow seat to escape ill treatment and abuse. And here let me say, the necessity for separate schools and churches has not grown out of the wishes of the colored people, but from the spirit of caste in the church. We do not desire separate churches. They have not bettered our condition, but only made it WORSE. Many of our churches have not competent religious teachers − they have had to hasten through their course so fast, in order to supply the destitute fields, that they have come into the ministry illy prepared. The treatment of the colored people has put back Africa’s redemption fifty years.
This testimony is nearly 200 years old, but it is to be feared that today’s church also is not color blind or free from all forms of prejudice, Elsewhere (in an 1844 letter appended to his autobiography), Pennington explains what is needed to combat this prejudice - something that is, it should be noted, to be found within the church.
Let me urge upon you the fundamental truths of the Gospel of the Son of God. Let repentance to- wards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ have their perfect work in you, I beseech you. Do not be prejudiced against the gospel because it may be seemingly twisted into a support of slavery. The gospel rightly understood, taught, received, felt and practised, is anti-slavery as it is anti-sin. Just so far and so fast as the true spirit of the gospel obtains in the land, and especially in the lives of the oppressed, will the spirit of slavery sicken and become powerless like the serpent with his head pressed beneath the fresh leaves of the prickly ash of the forest.
The troubles and sorrows of those who have been hurt are real, but Pennington urged his hearers to bring them to the Lord Jesus Christ. In another speech given in England in 1843 he reminded his hearers that the whole human race is laboring under sin, but redemption is found only in Jesus Christ, in whom all are one:
Though I have a country that has never done me justice, yet I must return to it, and I shall not therefore recriminate. It has pleased God to make me black and you white, but let us remember, that whatever be our complexion, we are all by nature labouring under the degradation of sin, and without the grace of God are black at heart. I know of no difference between the depraved heart of a Briton, an American, or an African. There is no difference between its colour, its disposition, and its self-will. There is only one mode of emancipation from the slavery of sin, from the blackness of heart, and that is by the blood of the Son of God. Whatever be our complexion, whatever our kindred and people, we need to be emancipated from sin, and to be cleansed from our pollution by the all-prevailing grace of God. I bless his name, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, Barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free, but all are one.
The sermons, speeches and writings of James W.C. Pennington reflect the heart of a man who was deeply wounded and hurt by prejudice but who found redemption in Jesus Christ and preached the healing and uniting gospel of grace to others. And that is a message that is timeless.