Emory Law News Center

Witte to receive prestigious award from German university
By Patti Ghezzi | Emory Law | May 20, 2016

John Witte, Jr.:
Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, McDonald Distinguished Professor, and director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion

John Witte, Jr., Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, McDonald Distinguished Professor, and director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, will receive the James W.C. Pennington Award in June from the Heidelberg Center for American Studies and the Department of Theology at the University of Heidelberg. 

The award honors a former slave who escaped his abusive master and became the first African American to attend Yale University. He became a writer, minister, theologian, abolitionist, and international symbol of freedom. 

Witte will give a public lecture titled, “Religion and Human Rights: What James Pennington Still Teaches Us,” during his two-week stay this summer as part of the James W. C. Pennington Distinguished Fellowship.  He will also teach a compressed course on American religious freedom, and lecture on issues of law, religion, and family at the University of Bonn. 

“Professor Witte was chosen for his outstanding work on the religious origins of modern conceptions of human rights,” said Jan Stieverman, professor of history of Christianity in the U.S. at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. “This directly relates to Pennington and his contributions to the abolitionist cause as an African-American pastor.” 

Pennington’s ties to Heidelberg University date back to the 1849 World Peace Congress in Paris, when he befriended theologian Fredrich Carové, who persuaded Heidelberg University to confer an honorary doctorate of divinity on Pennington. It was the first time an African American received such an honor from a European university.

The James W.C. Pennington Award was established in 2011, and past recipients have included leading African-American scholars from Princeton and Harvard. 

“Professor Witte is an outstanding scholar with a great international reputation,” said Michael Welker, senior professor of systematic theology and executive director of the Research Center for International and Interdisciplinary Theology. “He has worked creatively in many of the areas central to the award: religion and law, emancipation and freedom, respect of human dignity, the care for justice and human rights, interreligious and intercultural cooperation and understanding.” 

Witte said he is deeply honored to receive an award named for a historically significant spiritual leader, theologian, intellectual, and activist. “James W.C. Pennington was a man of great faith who used his intellect first to gain his own freedom and then to fight for the freedom of all persons trapped by what he called ‘domestic tyranny’ – black and white, male and female, old and young, enslaved and indentured,” Witte said. “He showed gracious resilience in the face of oppression and had the prophetic courage to call America and the world back to its founding ideals of the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – for all.”