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Abstract

This Article outlines the human rights theories of nineteenth-century abolitionist and civil rights leader James Pennington. Born into slavery in Maryland, Pennington escaped North and became the first African American to attend Yale. As an ordained Presbyterian clergyman, educator, orator, author, and activist, he adapted traditional Protestant rights theories explicitly to include the rights of all, regardless of race. He emphasized the authority and freedom of the individual conscience as foundational to human rights. He advocated a central role for covenantal institutions including church, state, family, and school as essential for fostering a law and culture of human rights. And he defended the right of all to disobey unjust laws and resist tyrannical regimes. Pennington bridged these theories in novel ways with pacifist teachings, anticipating by more than a century the American civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. Though largely forgotten by historians, Pennington was well known and influential among his contemporaries. His life and work represent an important step in the development of law, religion, and human rights.

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