by Rev. John Van Epps
HARTFORD (10/31/2012) -- The topic of our authorized ministers' luncheon on October 19 was James Pennington, a prominent African American pastor in the mid-1800s. He was born a slave in Maryland in 1809 with the name Jim Pembroke. At the age of 21 he escaped toward Pennsylvania, following the North “pole star.” After several harrowing experiences he found refuge with a Quaker family, who taught him to read and write and develop his blacksmith trade.
After a couple years he had made his way to New Haven, eager to continue his education, become a preacher, and be involved in abolitionist activities. Because he was black he was not allowed to enroll at Yale or borrow books, but he was able to attend several classes.
He became the first black pastor of Temple Street Church, now Dixwell Avenue UCC. He completed his studies and was ordained there in 1838. Then he went to serve a church on Long Island. But within two years he returned to become the first settled pastor of the Talcott Street church in Hartford, now Faith Congregational Church UCC. He was pastor there from 1840 to 1847. Because of his abilities, he was several times elected moderator of the ministers association in Hartford.
James Pennington was not involved in the initial support and defense of the Amistad ship captives. After their release, however, he gathered support for them and for the Mendis' return to Africa, as well as for black missionaries to be sent to Africa. His abolitionist supporters did not seek support from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, since it received financial support from slaveholders in the South. Instead, he helped found the Union Missionary Society in Hartford in 1841, with five Amistad Africans in attendance. He was its first president.
Pennington declined the offer to become the first black missionary. Instead money was raised and, within a year, the Amistad survivors and five missionaries, including two blacks from his church, set sail to return to Sierra Leone to establish a mission there.
|Touchstones with History -- a monthly series from the Connecticut Conference UCC.|
In 1846 the Union Missionary Society was absorbed into the newly formed American Missionary Association, which continued the work to send black missionaries to Africa. Pennington served on its executive board until 1851.
In 1848 James Pennington left to become pastor of a black Presbyterian church in New York City. He traveled in Europe and received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Heidelberg University. In 1850 he published his autobiography “The Fugitive Blacksmith.” He served churches in New York, Maine, Mississippi, and finally Florida, where he died in 1870.
As one tribute said, “A fugitive slave wholly illiterate, in 40 years, by his own efforts, sat among the princes of the land, crowned with academic honors and professional attainment.”
The Rev. John Van Epps is Archivist for the Connecticut Conference UCC.