Princeton Seminary announces plan to repent for ties to slavery


Seminary to roll out more than 20 new initiatives by 2024

by Princeton Theological Seminary | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Princeton Theological Seminary, where the Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes is president, has announced more than 20 initiatives it will carry out over the next five years as a response to an October 2018 audit report detailing the seminary’s historic ties to slavery. (Image courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary)

PRINCETON, New Jersey — Last week the Princeton Theological Seminary Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed the implementation of a multi-year action plan to repent for its ties to slavery.

The approved series of new initiatives, including increased student financial assistance, curriculum changes and added support for the Center for Black Church Studies, is a direct response to a report the Seminary published in October 2018 after conducting a two-year historical audit.

“The report was an act of confession,” said John White, dean of students and vice president of student relations, according to a seminary news release. “These responses are intended as acts of repentance that will lead to lasting impact within our community. This is the beginning of the process of repair that will be ongoing.”

White was chair of the historical audit recommendations task force, which included trustees, faculty, administrators, students and alumni. The task force led a deliberative process to provide opportunities for the campus community to discuss and respond to the audit report, hosting more than 25 events, meetings and conversations on the campus during the 2018-19 academic year. Feedback gathered from students, faculty, administrators, and alumni was incorporated in the recommendations presented to the Seminary’s board. The Board of Trustees also conducted a year-long process of study.

“From the beginning,” White said, “the Board of Trustees has encouraged a thorough process of understanding our history that would lead to meaningful response.”

With an immediate rollout of the plan and continuation through 2024, the Seminary said it intends to make “meaningful and lasting change” through more than 20 approved initiatives, including:

  • Offering 30 new scholarships, valued at the cost of tuition plus $15,000, for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups.
  • Hiring a full-time director of the Center for Black Church Studies.
  • Hiring a new faculty member whose research and teaching will give critical attention to African American experience and ecclesial life.
  • Changing the Seminary curriculum, including a required cross-cultural component and integration into the first-year curriculum for every master’s student sustained academic engagement with the implications of the historical audit.
  • Designating five doctoral fellowships for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups.
  • Naming the library after Theodore Sedgwick Wright, the first African American to attend and graduate from Princeton Seminary.
  • Naming the Center for Black Church Studies after Betsey Stockton, a prominent African American educator in Princeton during the antebellum North and a Presbyterian missionary in the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii). Prior to gaining freedom, Stockton was owned by the chair of Princeton Seminary’s Board of Trustees.
  • Enhancing community partnerships and supporting historically disenfranchised communities in and around Princeton.
  • Ensuring every member of the Princeton Seminary community understands its history.

A committee has been established to oversee the implementation of the plan and will regularly report progress to the board.  The program costs for the responses represent a commitment of more than $1 million annually on an ongoing basis. To sustain this programming in perpetuity, $27.6 million will be reserved in the endowment.

“The Seminary’s ties to slavery are a part of our story. It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society,” said Princeton Seminary President M. Craig Barnes. “We are committed to telling the truth.  We did not want to shy away from the uncomfortable part of our history and the difficult conversations that revealing the truth would produce.”

The historical audit uncovered that the Seminary did not own slaves and its buildings were not constructed with slave labor. Yet the Seminary benefited from the slave economy, both through investments in Southern banks in the mid-19th century and from donors who profited from slavery. In addition, founding faculty and leaders used slave labor at some point in their lives. Several of the first professors and board members were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending free blacks to Liberia.

“Our response to the historical audit is the beginning of our community’s journey of repair as we seek to redress historic wrongs and to help the Seminary be more faithful to our mission as a school of the church, both now and in the years to come,” said Barnes. “We are taking tangible action to write a new chapter in our story.”

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