James Pennington, an escapee from slavery who went on to become a prominent 19th-century minister and abolitionist, and who was the first African American to attend classes at Yale Divinity School, will have one of the school’s most commonly used classrooms named in his honor.
Dean Gregory E. Sterling made the surprise announcement at the close of the Divinity School’s 190th commencement on Monday, prompting a standing ovation from the roughly 150 graduating students.
Beginning next year, the classroom now known simply as S100 will bear the name of Pennington, who sat in on classes at YDS in the 1830s but was required to remain silent and could not enroll for credit. “A student who was not allowed to speak,” Sterling said, “will now have his name spoken every day at this school.”
Pennington joins a short list of other revered figures—Jonathan Edwards, Richard Niebuhr, and Kenneth Scott Latourette, among others—honored in the names of YDS’s most-used classrooms and meeting spaces.
Invoking Pennington was a logical extension of the dean’s commencement address moments earlier, in which he exhorted graduates to place prophetic vision at the center of their careers after YDS. Sterling noted the widespread discontent and anger fueling national politics today and urged graduates not to settle for critiques of what’s wrong, but to project a positive vision for a better society—and to work to make that vision real.
“I hope that you never lose your moral conscience,” Sterling told graduates. “The day that you do, you have sold your soul. However, I hope that you will add something to that conscience and the prophetic critique that accompanies it. I hope that you will also add prophetic vision.”
The dean exhorted the graduates to remember that their future efforts, whether for churches, nonprofits, or educational institutions, or in any other field or sector, must ultimately be dedicated not to those institutions, but “to answer the needs of the world.”
Of the roughly 150 students graduating from YDS on Monday, 63 received the Master of Divinity degree; 70, the Master of Arts in Religion degree; and 12, the Master of Sacred Theology degree. The graduates represent 27 religious traditions and 14 countries, and more than one-third were from underrepresented minority groups in the U.S.
A graduate of special note was George Chochos ’16 M.Div., who received the Wolcott Calkins Prize for “excellence in clear and vigorous pulpit speaking.” Chochos has received national acclaim and media coverage for embarking on his divinity education after serving more than a decade in prison. [Related story: “An educational journey that began in prison leads to jubilation at Yale.”]
“Do not accept the world as you find it,” Sterling urged the graduates as he closed his remarks. “Change it! Do not accept the limits of what you encounter. See new visions. Dream new dreams. And remember, this is a sacred task. It is not about you. It is about representing God to the world. It is about serving people for God in whatever you do. Your training here is over. Go, change the world!”