A Response to the Historical Audit of Princeton Theological Seminary and Slavery
A Report of the Historical Audit on Slavery Recommendations Task Force
Adopted by the Princeton Theological Seminary Board of Trustees on October 18, 2019
Our slavery audit points to the complexity and contradiction inherent in the Seminary’s story and in our national story. The wealth that funded the school in its early years was generated in an economy that was thoroughly driven by slave labor and production. Many of the school’s founding leaders both opposed slavery and advocated for a gradualism that in fact perpetuated it. At the same time, many of their students demonstrated greater theological imagination and moral clarity than their teachers. The history of the Seminary cannot be fully understood apart from the history of slavery, for it was part of the context that shaped theological study, economic development, and the mission of the church in society.
As an act of confession, the audit uncovered:
- 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 some investments in Southern banks in the mid-19th century and from donors who profited directly or indirectly from slavery.
- Several of the first professors and board members either owned slaves or used slave labor at certain points in their lives.
- The faculty and many board members were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending free blacks to Liberia.
- Even as the faculty advocated for a gradual end to slavery, there were many ardent abolitionists among the Seminary’s students and graduates.
The primary goal of the audit was to confess the ways in which our community of faith and learning, in spite of all of its historical contributions to theological scholarship, was complicit in the racism that continues to plague our society. Our concern was not just with what our founders said and did, but with the way in which their beliefs and actions created a legacy for what we may continue to say and do today.
From the beginning, the Board of Trustees has been committed to a thorough and deliberative process that will result in meaningful response, and the engagement of the Seminary community has been important to this ongoing process. The responses to the audit are intended as acts of repair, which seek both to redress historic wrongs and to help the Seminary be a more faithful witness to the reign of God as we carry out our mission as a school of the church.
As acts of repentance, we will:
- Honor the legacy of the African American experience at Princeton Seminary through the names of prominent campus spaces
- Offer 10 new scholarships each year for students from historically disenfranchised communities to ensure that a Seminary education is affordable and does not further contribute to the disproportionate debt burden of students from these communities
- Evaluate the curriculum and pedagogy in light of our history
- Enhance community partnerships and support historically disenfranchised communities in and around Princeton
- Ensure that every member of the Princeton Seminary community understands our history
Detailed Historical Audit Response
The slavery audit report called for a community-wide conversation about the ongoing implications of our history and how we ought to respond. It framed this task as a theological responsibility:
As an institution of higher education of the church, Princeton Seminary has a theological framework for reconciling our history with the commitments of Christian faith. Our faith tradition calls us to repentance after making confession. In making confession, we tell the truth about our history before God and before the community of faith. In making repentance, we seek to make substantive changes in our way of life as an act of contrition before God and those we continue to hurt through the legacy of our community’s sins. (Audit report, p. 58)
The work of the audit recommendations task force commenced with the report’s conclusion, a call to discern meaningful forms of repentance, which it defined as substantive changes in our way of life together.
In the Christian tradition, repentance is a turning away from individual and communal forms of sin and turning towards the way of life that God intends. Repentance is predicated on confession, telling the truth before one another and before God about the way in which our actions or inactions have damaged our relationships. Repentance thus requires not only spiritual atonement, but may also demand relational and material repair.
As a means of repair, repentance involves looking back to acknowledge wrongdoing in our past, but it also involves looking forward with a commitment to renew or recast relationships in the future. Accordingly, these recommendations seek both to redress historic wrongs and to help us be more faithful to our mission as a seminary of the church in the present and future.
These are costly and consequential forms of repentance, not only in the financial commitments they imply but also in the cultural change that they require. They are a means not only of contrition for what has been, but of commitment to reimagining what this community of faith and scholarship can be.
In the Reformed tradition, confession and repentance are a means of acknowledging our fundamental dependence upon the grace of God. As we make serious and substantive commitments to making change in our life together, we call upon the faithfulness of God, who is always doing the work of reformation among us through the Holy Spirit.
Particularly at a time when public debate around the legacy of slavery in our nation is often fractious and highly contested, Princeton Seminary has a significant and distinctive perspective to offer. As a community of faith and scholarship, we have an opportunity to provide thoughtful moral leadership to a conversation that is critical to our Seminary and the nation, and it is in this spirit that the task force offers its recommendations for response.
A. Academic Affairs and Programs
Princeton Seminary is a school of the church. Teaching and learning are at the heart of what we do. Accordingly, careful study of our history must inform the way that we carry out our educational mission, including the curriculum that we offer and the manner in which we teach it. An appropriate and faithful response to our history must also include advancing knowledge about the legacy of this history, both among our own campus community and in the broader academy, church, and society.
To do this we will:
Ensure that every member of the Princeton Seminary community understands our history:
- Include the history of PTS and the findings of the historical audit in the various orientations to the campus – for students, faculty and staff, and the board of trustees.
- Integrate into the first-year curriculum for every master’s student sustained academic engagement with the implications of the historical audit for theological education and theological imagination.
Evaluate the curriculum in light of this history:
- Expand opportunities for faculty training and ongoing development and enrichment in pedagogies that embody cultural humility.
- Develop a mechanism for members of the faculty to engage in a peer review of their syllabi in light of the issues raised in the historical audit (i.e., white privilege and Eurocentric normativity).
- Include a required cross-cultural component as part of the curriculum for MDiv students. This would include an international travel course or a cross-cultural experience in the United States.
Advance scholarship and promote learning about the legacy of slavery in America and African American perspectives on faith:
- Highlight lectureships focused on African American perspectives: the Geddes Hanson Lecture, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Lecture, and the Prathia Hall Lecture.
- Enhance programming of a Center for Black Church Studies as a center for ongoing critical theological research and engagement on the legacy of enslavement, as well as a means of enhancing the formative experience of our students. This will include hiring a director and support staff.
- Designate one doctoral fellowship annually as the Peter Paris Fellowship (5 fellowships in total), with a stipend valued at $5000 above the current doctoral stipend, for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups, including but not limited to African, Latino/a, Asian-Pacific Islander or First Nations descent. (Note: Current federal nondiscrimination guidelines and case law permit educational institutions to focus but not limit scholarships to particular racial/ethnic groups. Within the context of the Seminary’s complete financial aid program, the Paris Fellowship will focus on African American students to the extent permitted by these guidelines.)
- Hire an accomplished scholar whose research and teaching will give critical attention to the legacy of slavery and the African American experience and ecclesial life; and continue efforts to recruit faculty of color in all areas.
Contribute to conversations in the broader academy, church, and society about the legacy of slavery:
- Join the Universities Studying Slavery consortium of other institutions of higher education that are conducting this research and ongoing work.
- Create offerings through Continuing Education that explore the legacy of slavery in America and make the findings of the historical audit available to the broader church.
B. Campus Spaces
The spaces and buildings on campus have an important role in shaping the story of Princeton Seminary. The names that we honor on prominent buildings reflect our history and serve as ongoing reminders of those who have come before us. The audit has highlighted elements of the Seminary’s history that have been previously overlooked and added perspectives that have been missing from our historical understanding. In response, we must ensure that our campus spaces reflect the fulness of our history in all of its complexity and provide lasting reminders of the voices that have been long silenced.
To do this we will:
Honor the legacy of the African American experience at Princeton Seminary through the names of prominent campus spaces and programs:
- Name the Princeton Seminary library for Theodore Wright, the first African American graduate of Princeton Seminary (Class of 1828), who was a former slave and became a prominent abolitionist and pastor.
- Name the Center for Black Church Studies for Betsey Stockton, who was a former slave in the household of Ashbel Green, the first chair of the Seminary’s board. Betsey Stockton became a teacher and the first missionary of the Presbyterian Church to the Sandwich Islands (now the Hawaiian Islands).
Establish a permanent historical exhibit to interpret the Seminary’s history:
- Enhance the design of the Theodore Wright room in the library to become an engaging space for study and to include exhibition space to educate the campus community and all visitors about our history.
C. Community Partnerships
The audit report traces the way in which injustice breaks relationships between people and within institutions, causing inequity and exploitation. Repairing this injustice requires building relationships on new terms and demonstrating a commitment to promote equity, justice, and the sharing of power and resources for mutual benefit. As a means of repair, we will build relationships with schools, churches, and our local community in a spirit of partnership, seeking to redress historic injustices and promote God’s vision of justice and peace.
To do this we will:
Develop partnerships to promote scholarship and learning about the legacy of the transnational slave trade:
- In partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and Howard University, co-sponsor a conference in Washington, D.C., on the topic of slavery and higher education.
- In partnership with a Liberian university, co-sponsor a conference in Liberia on the topic of the legacy of the American Colonization Society.
Develop relationships with the church in Liberia and its theological education:
Given the involvement of our Seminary’s founders in the American Colonization Society, which sought to send freed blacks to Liberia, we will work to build relationships with both schools and churches in Liberia that will promote mutual learning and flourishing.
- Form a committee to explore relationships with Liberian churches and educational institutions.
Develop relationships with African American congregations and historically black colleges and universities (HBCU):
- Develop a recruitment initiative to identify, attract, and enroll African American students.
- Develop programming to learn from and support African American faith communities through the Center for Black Church Studies.
Deepen relationships with African American alumni:
- Support the leadership development of African American alumni through learning opportunities to equip for ministry and through enhancing connections within the alumni network.
Develop relationships that enhance connections between the church and the land:
The institution of slavery destroyed the proper connection to and understanding of place for many historically disenfranchised communities. The Seminary will nurture research and the development of networks that address the cultural, social, economic, ecological, environmental, and spiritual impact of slavery on communities steeped in farming and agricultural traditions.
- Through The Farminary Project, develop learning opportunities for current students and prospective students to pursue the restoration of brokenness between the church and the land. As part of the curriculum and summer programming, explore the struggle for racial and environmental justice and the interconnection between race, land, and food.
Support historically disenfranchised communities in and around Princeton:
- As a community that has benefitted from centuries of exploitation and exclusion, the Seminary will continue to support ongoing efforts of community development organizations that promote education, affordable housing, and access to fresh food.
D. Student Financial Assistance
One of the legacies of slavery is the disproportionate debt burden of students whose ancestors were enslaved. To this day, students from historically disenfranchised communities enter seminary and graduate from seminary with higher levels of debt, on average, than their peers. Part of the repair of this history is an ongoing financial commitment to make seminary education accessible and affordable for students.
We seek to measurably impact the levels of debt that students from underrepresented groups carry when they graduate by offering substantial scholarship aid that will address the gap between existing PTS grant programs, which cover 80-100% of the cost of tuition, and the total cost of seminary attendance. Through the new Francis Grimke scholarship program, we will significantly decrease the need for additional educational loans to finance seminary.
To do this we will:
Provide up to 10 new annual Francis Grimke scholarships each year (up to 30 active scholarships at a time), valued at the cost of tuition plus an additional $15,000, to students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups:
- This new scholarship program aims to assist those students from underrepresented groups pursuing ordained ministry and reduce their need to take on additional educational debt. It is named in honor of Francis Grimke, an 1878 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, who was a fierce advocate for civil rights in the United States, including in the Presbyterian Church. He served as the pastor at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. for over 40 years. In keeping with Pastor Grimke’s dedication to ministry, the scholarship seeks to assist students from various denominations in the pursuit of their call to ordained ministry. The scholarship supports students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups, including but not limited to African, Latino/a, Asian-Pacific Islander or First Nations descent. (Note: Current federal nondiscrimination guidelines and case law permit educational institutions to focus but not limit scholarships to particular racial/ethnic groups. Within the context of the Seminary’s complete financial aid program, the Grimke scholarship will focus on African American students to the extent permitted by these guidelines.) The Seminary will award up to 10 Grimke Scholarships per year, and the value of each scholarship will be the cost of tuition plus an additional $15,000.
The above initiatives are acts of contrition and repair. These are costly and consequential forms of repentance, not only in the financial commitments they imply but also in the cultural change that they require. They will require ongoing commitment over months and years to form and re-form our community in accord with God’s vision of justice and reconciliation, and we pledge our commitment to this goal.
To do this we will:
Establish a committee to oversee the implementation of the recommendations and regularly report progress to the Board of Trustees.
- The committee will include representation of students, alumni, faculty, and administrators, who will be appointed by the president.