A Case Study on the Road to Repair: Princeton Theological Seminary
John White, Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Relations, Princeton Theological Seminary
How can we effectively address grave errors committed by persons throughout history? In our current context the question can be framed in this way: “How can we possibly fix the legacy of slavery in the United States of America? This is an issue being addressed at schools across this nation. Virtually every American institution of a certain age has some level of complicity with the legacy of slavery. This is particularly the case for those located in the southeastern sector of our nation, but as our recent experience has proven to be true in Princeton, NJ, none of us are immune from the complexities (or dare I say the “sin”) of enslaving another human being.
Many of us now find ourselves scrambling around to do the right thing. We want to move beyond the mistakes of our forebearers. We want to shake the stench of the past off of our very being, but try as we must, we find ourselves slogging through many long-standing fears, assumptions, pains, financial inequities, and the anguish of overwhelming guilt. Others can understandably demand justice for the unbelievable pains that ancestors bore as enslaved people, ripped from their homeland, their dreams, and their family identity to become the property of another. We can easily and quickly become mired in the swampy mud that can quickly threaten to move us into a sense of inertia or into a battle that we feel that we must win.
William Yoo repeats a very definitive question (borrowed from Thornwell) at the very beginning of his lead article, “What then, is the Church?” He then describes the ways in which scholars of the church have struggled in the manner by which they chose to address the issue of slavery in America. Professor Yoo presents some of these efforts made to defend (or at best walk away from) the institution of slavery in ways that were intended not to offend anyone. However, many of the scholars and church leaders of the era failed to fully embrace the humanity of a large and significant group whose rights were not being considered: the humanity and the rights of the enslaved persons themselves.
Persons such as Thornwell in the South and proponents of the American Colonization Society in the North had difficulty comprehending the truth that these chained immigrants from Africa, enslaved in America, were actually women and men who were also children of God and called to be members of the same body of Christ.
What I continue to find both interesting and appalling is what I have called the arrogance and elitism of scholars within the realm of theological education. The idea that we in academia can understand the mind and will of the Almighty better than the woman who has served as a domestic or the laborer in the factory (both persons of faith) or an enslaved person working in the field or a home is against the lessons of scripture and even our doctrines penned throughout the history of the church. When we read so many of the historic defenses of the institution of slavery, it cannot escape our notice that such pieces were not from individuals who were either enslaved themselves or the descendants of enslaved people. The “middle way” proposed by Thornwell and other church leaders of his day is woefully insufficient, not only for those of us who are African Americans, but also for those amongst us who continue to struggle for justice. Essentially, advocating for anything less than a total abolition of slavery would have been (and still is) rightfully seen as a validation for the institution of slavery itself. Persons and schools that benefited from the legacy of slavery are also complicit in the practice, even if they voiced opposition to the institution.
Through the course of the study and research which produced Princeton Theological Seminary’s Historical Audit on Slavery, the choice was to say that their leaders had a “lack of theological imagination”. The founding leaders of that particular school could not possibly envision an inspired way to move into the future that God had intended for the children of the new covenant – with blacks and whites together. (We realize that our tapestry is much wider than the black/white binary, but that was the framing of the discussion in the 19th century at the time when the school was founded.)
When Princeton Theological Seminary approached the task of conducting an audit of our history as it pertained to slavery, we were not aware of the totality of issues that would be facing us. Nor did we have any idea of the scope of responses that were to come from students, alumni/ae, faculty and those outside of the immediate seminary community. These responses included protests, disruptions of worship services, writing campaigns, numerous discussions among students, at faculty meetings, alumni/ae gatherings, and plenaries during at least three Board of Trustees meetings. However, when the time came for us as an institution of the church to begin the process of crafting our recommendations and response, we quickly realized that we had the ready-made three-part framework within the language of our faith: confession, repentance and forgiveness.
Quickly stated, confession was partially expressed in the two-year writing of the audit itself, and with the acknowledgement that serious mistakes were made by leaders/founders of the school who owned or borrowed enslaved workers for their homes. Some of these same leaders were also very involved with the American Colonization Society, which sent freed African Americans back to Africa (making Liberia) in the 19th century. There were also a series of panel discussions and forums led by those on the committee charged with writing the audit in addition to worship services led by members of the seminary’s administration and board of trustees.
Repentance was marked by additional worship services of “lament and repentance” along with the drafting of recommendations, which led to the approval of specific actions by the Board of Trustees. Implementation of these actions began in 2019 and are scheduled to be rolled out through 2024. (A listing of the timeline of proposed actions can be found at (https://slavery.ptsem.edu). Some of the repairs enacted and proposed within Princeton Seminary’s response include additional scholarships for a limited number of outstanding African American masters-level students, enhanced fellowships for African American PhD students, and new funding for the Center for Black Church Studies.
We have to understand that our actions speak volumes as we live within the family of faith. The injustices of slavery have led to inequities in every level of our society: health, jobs, income and education. Theological educations should be challenged to offer additional grants to descendants of enslaved people. Historically, it has been proven that on the average, African Americans enter theological seminaries and divinity schools with larger debts than their European American classmates. Given the connection to slavery, and especially at schools that have a direct connection to sinful practice of slavery, repair is called for as African Americans should have availability to additional financial assistance in terms of grants/scholarships. This would conceivably increase the numbers of descendants of enslaved persons who have those skills necessary to lead congregations that are representative of the entirety of God’s people.
Schools must also repair their leadership structures in terms of faculty, senior administrators and those who serve on their board of directors (trustees). A truly diverse leadership team is absolutely essential as an institution affirms its commitment to serve the church of the future, building upon their history, and correcting portions of it.
As much as the above changes/repairs are mandated within a forward-thinking institution, I think that the most significant change comes in the form of what schools are called upon to do the best: teach. Part of the repair required at a forward-thinking institution is to develop a curriculum to ensure not only that its students are being prepared for leadership for a multi-ethnic church that is to come, but that the school (and thus the students) do not repeat the lessons born out of its history.
The last, and perhaps the most difficult part of our three-part theological framework previously noted was (and still is) forgiveness. Yes, we live within the forgiveness of God, but the most challenging aspect of this third part is as we have the faith and trust to forgive one another, and then have the peace to accept this forgiveness as it comes from another person and from our God.
Going through the process of the historical audit at Princeton Theological Seminary has been indescribably difficult. When we were discussing the legacies (now a bit tarnished) of some of the early professors at the schools – persons who now have their names firmly attached to buildings on the historic campus – some older alums and some staunch supporters of the school were initially outraged. When the suggestion was made that the names of certain buildings on the campus be changed, they responded to the Recommendations Task Force and the seminary’s administration with lines like, and I quote, “Who do you think you are? How can you possibly propose the changing of the names of Alexander Hall, Hodge Hall and Miller Chapel? How would you feel if someone comes along and disparages your name and writes about the mistakes that you have made?” I only responded, “When someone comes along and notes the mistakes that I have made, I will be quite fine with that, for I have made many.”
The decision has not been made by Princeton to change the names on these historical structures -yet. However, the Board of Trustees did approve the naming of the seminary’s library to be the “Theodore Sedgwick Wright Library”, in honor of the school’s first African American graduate. The question remains for all seminaries and divinity schools, “What changes are we willing to make for the sake of the reign of God?” Friends, we all need to make some changes and breaks from the past if we seek to move into the future that God has envisioned for us.
Finally, we return to the question, “What, then, is the church?” It is the body of Christ, called by the risen Lord to proclaim the good news of the Gospel. Her membership includes those as determined by the love of God: female and male, black, white, brown, Asian, speaking multiple languages, gay and straight, and the list goes on. And this leads us to a pertinent question for Columbia, “How can you become the theological seminary that God has called you to be?”