John Brooke (sometimes spelled as Brooks) Pinney was born December 25, 1806, in Baltimore, Maryland, and grew up in Colebrook, Connecticut. He graduated from the University of Georgia after preparing for a career in law and was admitted to the bar in 1828. However, as a result of being converted to Christianity in his senior year, he decided instead to study for the ministry. His father's opposition to this plan to leave law made it necessary for Pinney to spend a year teaching in Charleston, South Carolina, to raise tuition expenses for Princeton Theological Seminary. After graduation from the Seminary in 1830, he volunteered for African mission work with the Pittsburgh Synod of the Presbyterian Church. Pinney was subsequently ordained as the first foreign missionary of the Presbytery of Philadelphia on October 12, 1832.
In 1833, he also became connected with the American Colonization Society and was sent to Africa, both as an agent for the Society and as a missionary for the Presbyterian Church. In the former capacity, he was Acting-Governor of Liberia and also was commissioned as agent for re-captured Africans. Though offered appointment as permanent Governor, he refused this in order to remain a missionary. The stresses of a dual role, plus recurrent attacks of African fever, forced his return to the United States after two years. Following a period of illness and emotional exhaustion, Pinney gradually resumed normal life and married Ellen Agnes Seward on September 13, 1836, in Guilford, Connecticut. During their years together, the Pinneys had a family of six girls and four boys; four of the children died in infancy.
Pinney remained an agent to the New York Colonization Society, and in 1836 he wrote a complete report of the state of the settlement in Liberia for the Society. The following year, 1837, he became Corresponding Secretary to the New England branch of the American Colonization Society. He resigned this position in 1847 when Liberia became an independent nation and accepted a pastorate of the Presbyterian Church in Washington, Pennsylvania. When the interest in Liberia continued, he requested release from his ministry to take up the duties of Corresponding Secretary to the New York Colonization Society. This position he filled until 1863, a period of time which included a trip to Africa in 1858. Again he left the Society, feeling that efforts to support education in the newly-independent country had become fruitless.
Pinney did not lose concern for the black situation, however, and when the position of Consul-General was formed after President Lincoln's formal recognition of Liberia as an independent country, he applied for the post. He was accepted and in 1863 returned to Africa for a term which ended in 1865 when he resigned and returned to work for the New York Society. His fact-finding trip back to Liberia in 1868-1869 reported on the conditions of educational facilities still supported by the Society. He followed this trip with a series of lectures and other work on behalf of Lincoln University near Philadelphia and the College of Monrovia, Liberia, and the educational needs of blacks in both countries. Later in 1869, Pinney decided that his work for Liberia was essentially complete because of what appeared to be problems which would not be overcome without support of the colonists and their government and he retired from public life.
In 1876, Pinney accepted another offer from the New York Society to return to missionary work. In this capacity, he again undertook a trip to Liberia in 1878 for assessment of educational facilities there. His observations confirmed rumors of incompetent teachers and run-down property and while he was there, the President of the College of Monrovia resigned. Pinney was asked and agreed to accept appointment as President. In this capacity, he fought for better salaries and for moving the College to a more congenial site which would provide conditions for students to work while studying, as well as making it possible for the College to be self-supporting. He also fought in the legislature for laws which would be more supportive of the College, but these bills were vetoed. Aware that only legislative support from the colony itself would secure the educational needs of Liberia, Pinney resigned after a six-month tenure and returned to America. However, he continued to travel on behalf of the Society and made a trip to England and Scotland during the two-year period which followed.
In 1879, the Pinneys had purchased a homesteading property on the Crystal River, Montague, Florida. On this site they settled permanently in 1881 when age and the effects of paralysis curtailed a more strenuous life for Rev. Pinney. Pinney's interest and dedication to the interests of blacks continued and he conducted classes in a small private school which he built on his property. It was also used as a church in which he preached to blacks of the community until his death, at age seventy-six, on December 25, 1882. Although his efforts had appeared to be without success, eventually all of Pinney's recommendations for the College of Monrovia were adopted and he was eulogized by the Society as a man "of almost singular devotion to his work...and unwearied in labor."
Biography from Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College.