The first James W.C. Pennington Award: Albert J. Raboteau

Albert J. Raboteau, recipient of the first James W.C. Pennington Award.

“I have been moved,” Albert J. Raboteau writes in an essay in A Fire in the Bones,  “by the pervasive faith of black Christians that God was acting in their own history.”

Studying that faith and that history has been Prof. Raboteau’s life work. The Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion at Princeton University, he is the author of the seminal book on Christianity among American slaves, Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South. He has further explored the African-American history of faith in Canaan Land  and African American Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture.

He reflected powerfully on his own relationship to that faith in  A Sorrowful Joy, where Raboteau speaks of his own spiritual journey, and A Fire in the Bones, which opens with a beautiful essay on how faith and history intertwine.

 “History is based on an act of faith, the faith that events are susceptible of meanings,” he writes. “I, as a historian and a believer, cannot but hope that our history is touched by the providence of God.”

Students at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies have had the special opportunity to explore that history with Raboteau this semester in a compact seminar on African-American religion.  Raboteau will also speak of this history in a free public event next week, focusing on the topic of “Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement as Precedent for Religion in U.S. Politics.”

The lecture is open to the public: June 14, at 6:15 p.m., in the Atrium of the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, Curt and Heidemarie Engelhorn Palais, Hauptstraße 120. Reception to follow.

Raboteau comes to the HCA as the first recipient of the James W.C. Pennington Award. The award strengthens the ties that bind  the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg to the United States and the international academic community. It was created in 2011 by the Heidelberg Center for American Studies and the Faculty of Theology, honoring the life of James W.C. Pennington. An African-American churchman, abolitionist and pacifist, Pennington received an honorary doctorate from the Ruperto Carola in 1849, the first black man to receive a degree of higher learning in Europe.

Pennington, who wrote what may be the first history of African Americans, The Origin and History of the Colored People, as well as his own autobiographical slave narrative, The Fugitive Blacksmith, holds a special place in the history of the University of Heidelberg, connecting the university to American and specifically African-American history. This award thus pays tribute to Pennington’s work.

The James W.C. Pennington Award is funded by the Dr. h.c. Manfred Lautenschläger Foundation, and is given to scholars who have done distinguished work on the African-American experience in the Atlantic world. The award fosters further research on topics important to Pennington.

The university and the HCA are honored to give the first award to Raboteau, who carries on the history and tradition of Pennington.

Pennington, writing his own history in 1849, the same year he was given an honorary doctorate in Heidelberg, noted exactly the kind of faith in history that has so inspired Raboteau:

“The limits of this work compel me to pass over many interesting incidents which occurred,” Pennington wrote. “I must confine myself only to those which will show the striking providence of God.”

— Daniel Silliman

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