What is a hero? The answer to that question probably depends on who you ask. Different people become heroes to different people for different reasons. Some may name a teacher or coach that had an impact on their lives. Others may point to their mothers or fathers or grandparents. Some heroes are well-known, while others never rise beyond the personal circle of familial bonds and friendships of a well-lived life. Though we do not all share the same heroes, historically, our heroes have shared some common characteristics. We admire and venerate heroes because we see in them qualities that we consider extraordinarily virtuous and courageous. True heroes, however diverse, share a willingness to sacrifice themselves in pursuit of truth, beauty, goodness, and justice.
In an age when the hero standard seems to be dropping rapidly, we need reminders, both for our own benefit and for the sake of future generations, that the world has not always been as lacking in moral courage as it may now appear. We have much to learn from the “great cloud of witnesses” that have preceded us. Indeed, history presents us with remarkable examples of men and women who courageously stood against the cultural currents of their day at great personal cost. We benefit from their example.
One particular historical cultural injustice that tragically seems to be making something of a comeback: blatant racial injustice. Tragically, some Christians in every age (including our own) have chosen the cowardly path and gone along with the tide of culture on this issue, speaking out on the wrong side of the issue or opting to remain silent about racial injustice in spite of God’s clear revelation to the contrary. However, there have also been heroic figures who courageously stood for truth and righteousness, speaking out against the evil of racial injustice even though the consequences for doing so were sometimes great. This series of historical sketches will point to some of these heroes for racial justice. May we follow their lead! In this series we are going to document some of these historical heroes.
James Madison Pendleton and the Price of Convictions
To be a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention during the generation of the convention’s founding (1845) almost universally meant to be a proponent of legalized slavery. Sadly, the very existence of the Southern Baptist Convention was the result of southern churches deciding to no longer cooperate with northern churches over the issue of southern slave-owners being refused ordination for missionary service. Early Southern Baptist leaders almost unanimously supported the institution of legalized slavery—almost. One of the few exceptions is James Madison Pendleton (1811-1891), a Southern Baptist pastor in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Pendleton also authored several theological books and served on the faculties of Union University in Tennessee and Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Aside from Pendleton’s exceptional abilities as a theologian who wrote with clarity and depth, he also courageously stood against slavery, a decision that would cost him dearly.
Pendleton was a man that was intensely driven by convictions, no matter the cost. If he believed that Christ compelled him to do something, he was obligated to do it, even at the risk of personal harm. In a letter to a pro-slavery pastor from Louisville, Kentucky, Pendleton wrote: “Permit me respectfully to suggest that the great question with every man, and especially with a minister of the gospel, should be, What is right? Deciding this question, let him dare to do right whether the North or the South, the East or the West, shall smile or frown” (italics his).1 To gain further insight into this rare Christian quality, note Pendleton’s own descriptions, from his autobiography, of what it cost him to oppose secession as a southern man living in Tennessee leading up to beginning of the Civil War:
I was known to be a Union man, and it was no advantage to me that nearly all my family connections, by blood and marriage, were on the other side. I suppose I was in greater danger of personal violence than I thought at the time. It is said that a citizen offered to head any company that would undertake to hang me, and that my name, accompanied by no complimentary remarks, was sent to the daring John Morgan. I knew not what might happen. I supposed that if measures of personal violence were resorted to, it would be done in the night; and how often, before going to bed, did I arrange a back window and shutter, so that I could escape in a noiseless way! My wife would put up a parcel of something for me to eat; and I remember well how sad her tones were when she said, ‘You may need this.’…I was fully satisfied that God would suffer no one to injure me unless it would be for the glory of His name, and then I was ready to endure anything, even death itself.2
Besides the personal risk of nearly losing his life, Pendleton’s convictions also led him to sacrifice much in the realm of career aspirations. Because of his allegiance to the Union at the outset of the Civil War, he was forced to resign his post at Union University in Tennessee and moved his family north in search of career opportunities. He preached at several churches in Kentucky and Ohio but failed to procure a call to any vacant pastorates, probably due to his unpopular convictions. Before preaching (and eventually being called to pastor) at a small church in Hamilton, Ohio, he describes the despair he experienced during this time, “I remember waking the next morning before the day and bursting into tears, under the impression that the Lord had nothing more for me to do, and that there was no place for me in his vineyard.”3
Such costly conviction is rare today, it seems. In our context we see almost daily examples of men and women who are willing to give up any conviction if it will benefit their career and add value to their net worth. The only non-negotiable question seems to be, “What’s in it for me?” As we continue to see leaders who are willing to give up convictions for personal gain, we need the examples of men like Pendleton, who are willing to stand for their convictions even when it hurts to do so. We need gospel warriors who understand that it does not profit a man to gain the whole world while losing his own soul (Luke 9:25).
- J.M. Pendleton, Letters to Rev. W.C. Buck, in Review of His Articles on Slavery (Louisville: n.p., 1849), 12.
- J.M. Pendleton, Reminiscences of a Long Life (Louisville: Press Baptist Book Concern, 1891), 122-123.
- Ibid., 134.