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Princeton seminary report examines its historical connection to slavery

Research provides opportunity for truth-telling, confession, repentance

By Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Princeton Theological Seminary, where the Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes is president, continues to grapple with the seminary’s historic connection to slavery. (Courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary)

LOUISVILLE — Work on the Princeton Seminary and Slavery report began in the spring of 2016.

The Rev. Dr. M. Craig Barnes was in his third year as president — and wanted to make more progress in seminary conversations on race.

“Some thought race was an optional concern, for people of color,” Barnes said. “Others didn’t want the conversations to be too binary” — expressing concern for Latino and Asian American students.

With racial tension rising in the country, Barnes felt it was critical for Princeton seminary, a residential campus where 40 percent of its 450 students are nonwhite, to deal with its story of race.

So he commissioned a committee of faculty and administrators to examine Princeton’s historic connections to slavery. For more than two years the committee met regularly. When its 115-page research report was released in October, the committee had examined:

  • The relationship of the seminary’s founders to slavery
  • Construction and finance of the facilities
  • Activities and attitudes of alumni regarding slavery
  • The participation of faculty and board members in the American Colonization Society.

Barnes talked with Presbyterian News Service this week about what the research revealed.

“There were never slaves on Princeton’s campus — and none of their facilities were built with slave money,” he said.  “But that doesn’t mean our founders were courageous. Even though they believed (slavery) was wrong, they believed the nation would grow out of it. Some even had slaves in their earlier lives.”

Barnes said the seminary’s founders were afraid of abolitionists, and as a result were passive in their approach to slavery. Because they couldn’t see a society that wasn’t dominated by whiteness, they didn’t believe blacks and whites could live together as equals — which is why they supported the colonization project in Africa, by which slaves were shipped back to Liberia.

Even though Northern church member donors’ weren’t selling slaves and then giving gifts to the seminary, their businesses benefited financially from the cotton fields and were flourishing because of the slave driven economy. The seminary also received financial contributions from southerners — and more importantly — as the audit tries to make clear the entire financial system of the country was so caught up in a slavery driven economy that all institutions were complicit.

“You can’t shy away from it. We are entangled in the sin of racism,” Barnes said. “We didn’t receive any funds directly from human trafficking, but by the middle of the 19th century slavery was the primary driver of the national economy.”

“We kept using our theological language to effect change,” he said. “Effecting change is repentance, but you can’t repent unless you confess. You can’t confess without telling the truth.”

When the report was released last month, the seminary spent the day together discussing it. Barnes said the dominant emotion expressed was sadness, with appreciation for the seminary taking the risk and telling the truth.  African American students were not surprised. Some felt anger.

“One student even used the word ‘traumatized’ to describe how he felt,” Barnes said.

Barnes said he also saw a sense of excitement, that maybe real change was about to happen. Even though the report dealt with slavery, Asian American and Latino students had their own stories to tell of marginalization — and dealing with a white normative culture.

“It all comes back to racial sin,” he said.

Barnes has put together a task force of trustees, faculty, administrators and students to get input from the larger community. That group will make recommendations to the board on what repentance might look like and what changes might occur as a result of the report.

Knowing that their founders couldn’t see a society that wasn’t dominated by whiteness, the seminary is asking questions, Barnes said, including:

  • How much of the current curriculum is white normative?
  • How much of it assumes whiteness?
  • How much is focused only on the Eurocentric history of theology?
  • Are faculty members talking adequately about the rising church in Asia and Africa — or indigenous churches not supported by white missionaries?
  • How does the seminary ensure that all  voices in the body are represented?

“We have to act proactively at honoring diversity,” Barnes said. “Cultural competence must be developed. It doesn’t happen naturally. As a white male on campus I am now burdened appropriately by our story.”

As a result, Barnes wants to make sure that Princeton doesn’t make the same mistakes that were made 150 years ago. He’s working with others to think imaginatively about how the seminary might repent and change its structure.

He said mistakes made on race on Princeton’s campus usually occur when diverse students are in smaller groups and someone around the table unintentionally says something that is racially insensitive.

“It’s because they’re thinking only of their racial lens,” he said.  “They’re not seeing how someone across the table has a whole different experience of Christ as a result of his or her racial identity.”

Barnes said he commissioned the report because he didn’t know another way to make the kind of changes the seminary needs to make. While acknowledging “it’s a bit scary,” he said he’s excited about the possibility of living into theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s notion of “the rightness of striving for the proclamation of good.”

“Each generation has a chance to do that,” Barnes said. “We may not get it right, but that doesn’t mean we can’t move it in the right direction.”

“History has judged our founders’ moderate stance on slavery as wrong,” Barnes said. “You do not outgrow injustice.  The abolitionists turned out to be on the right side of history.”


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