Professor of Law John Witte Jr., J.D., of Emory University in Atlanta (USA) will receive the Heidelberg University James W.C. Pennington Award on 14 June 2016. The internationally renowned expert on the history of religion and issues of religious liberty is honoured for his work on the religious roots of the modern concept of human rights. The award, presented by the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) and the Faculty of Theology, commemorates the American minister and former slave James W.C. Pennington. In 1849 Pennington was bestowed an honorary doctorate from the Ruperto Carola and thus became the first African American to receive this title from a European university.
The James W.C. Pennington Award, now in its fifth year, recognises outstanding research in areas especially important to Pennington: slavery and emancipation, peace, education, societal reform, civil rights, religion and intercultural understanding. The prize includes a one-month research sojourn in Heidelberg made possible through funding from the Manfred Lautenschläger Foundation. US President Barack Obama sent an official message in 2011 when the award was inaugurated.
John Witte Jr. is director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. With the support of major American foundations, he directed twelve international research projects on democracy, human rights, religious liberty, and marriage and family law. His writings have appeared in 15 languages, and he has delivered public lectures in Europe, Japan, Israel, Hong Kong, South Korea, Australia and South Africa. The editor of two series of academic publications, Witte has received numerous research and teaching awards.
Born in 1809, James W.C. Pennington escaped from slavery at the age of 18, learned to read and write, and in 1834 was admitted to Yale University as its first black student. He became a minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1838. At the World Peace Conference in Paris in 1849, Pennington met Heidelberg scholar Friedrich Carové, who was so impressed with the American that he convinced Heidelberg University to award Pennington an honorary doctorate in theology that same year.
At the award ceremony on 14 June, Professor Witte will deliver the keynote entitled "Religion and Human Rights: What James W.C. Pennington Still Teaches Us". The speech will be in English. The event begins at 6:15pm at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies.