When Princeton Theological Seminary was founded in 1812, it was part of a national culture and a local community that were deeply entangled in slavery. The faculty and students at Princeton Seminary in its early years through the Civil War would have encountered slavery as a familiar aspect of life. It was part of the context of their theological studies in this place. Just as they were shaped by their context, the faculty and graduates of Princeton Seminary also shaped the town of Princeton and other communities around the country where they served. As theologians and religious leaders, they spoke with moral authority about the questions of their day. But they were not of one mind about the ethical evaluation of slavery. Nor did their personal practices always align with their professions of theological conviction.
The following report begins to trace the complicated story of Princeton Seminary and its relationship to slavery. From its founding aspirations, Princeton Seminary has placed high value on both rigorous scholarship and Christian faith, and a commitment to these values informs our present study of the Seminary’s history, which is both an act of faith and scholarly investigation. These efforts are part of an honest and transparent evaluation of our past. Truth-telling is an important discipline for Christian people. It is critical that we understand the truth about our history, for only then can we make confession and move toward the reconciliation that God desires for us all.
In the spring of 2016, President Craig Barnes appointed a committee of faculty and administrators to conduct research regarding Princeton Seminary’s ties to slavery. This group met regularly over a two-year period. They examined the relationship of the Seminary’s founders to slavery, the construction and financing of the facilities, activities and attitudes of alumni regarding slavery, and the participation of faculty and board members in the American Colonization Society. The committee was aided in this research by student projects that were part of Professor James Moorhead’s course in the fall 2016 semester on “Princeton Seminary, Slavery, and Race.” Daved Anthony Schmidt (PhD ’16) provided invaluable original research on the demographics of the student body during the period 1812-1865, as well as extensive investigation of the Seminary’s early fundraising efforts, especially among Southern churches. In addition, this project was in dialogue with Princeton University’s own concurrent research on connections to slavery at the university and in the town of Princeton.
President and Professor of Pastoral Ministry
Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and
African American Religion
Retired Curator of Special Collections and Archivist
Retired Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs and
Joe R. Engle Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics
Associate Professor of Christian Education
Mary McIntosh Bridge Professor of
American Church History Emeritus
Interim Director of the Center for Black Church Studies
Former Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of
African American Religion and Literature
Vice President for External Relations
Overview of Findings
The history of the relationship of Princeton Seminary and its people to the institution of slavery is a story of complexity and contradiction. The Seminary itself did not own slaves, and to the best of our knowledge, slave labor was not used for the construction of any of the Seminary’s buildings. In the early years of the school, a portion of the Seminary’s financial contributions came from Southern sources who were either slave owners or congregations involved in slave ownership. Moreover, for a brief period in the 1830s, a substantial portion of the Seminary’s endowment was invested in Southern banks, which were financing the expansion of slavery in the Old Southwest. This had disastrous consequences for the school’s finances. After the Panic of 1837, the Seminary lost half of the value of the endowment because of these investments. The Seminary thus participated, to both its profit and loss, in a larger economy that was deeply entangled with slavery.
The Seminary’s founders and first faculty members had a complicated relationship to slavery, like many of their generation. They often spoke powerfully against the institution of slavery, yet at the same time they could not imagine a world in which blacks and whites lived side by side in equality. In some cases, they used slave labor themselves. Ashbel Green, for example, the first president of the Seminary’s Board of Directors, chaired the committee of the Presbyterian Church General Assembly that authored a statement in 1818 condemning slavery as “a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature; as utterly inconsistent with the law of God … and as totally irreconcilable with the spirit and principles of the gospel of Christ.” However, Green himself owned several slaves and employed indentured servants throughout his life. Green played a role in the life of Betsey Stockton, who had been given as a slave to Green’s first wife. She was eventually emancipated, and Green encouraged her religious education and missionary work in the Sandwich Islands. She became a prominent teacher and respected leader in the African American community in Philadelphia and Princeton.
The Seminary’s first three professors, Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, and Charles Hodge, all used slave labor at some point in their lives. Alexander had acquired a slave through his wife, though by the time he came to Princeton and throughout his tenure at the Seminary he did not hold any slaves. Miller and Hodge employed slave labor while they lived in Princeton; both Miller and Hodge held slaves for a period of years under the provision in New Jersey law that allowed the gradual abolition of slavery.
Princeton Seminary faculty, board members, and alumni were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending former slaves to Africa. Though many of its members opposed slavery in principle, they feared immediate emancipation would cause social upheaval. The society was founded in 1816 by, among others, Robert Finley, a pastor and a board member of the Seminary, and in 1824 a local auxiliary was founded in Princeton on which Charles Hodge agreed to serve as a manager and both Archibald Alexander and Samuel Miller allowed themselves to be listed as honorary managers. The writings of Alexander and Hodge in support of the colonization movement point to the widely-shared assumption of the group’s leaders that blacks and whites could not live peacefully and productively in the same society and that immediate emancipation would be disruptive to the country. It was a profound “failure of theological imagination.”1 By 1867, the society had sent more than 13,000 people to Liberia.
Many Princeton Seminary alumni were also active in the colonization movement or opposed slavery in principle but did not advocate immediate emancipation. There were also some alumni, especially those from the South, who supported the institution of slavery or owned slaves themselves.
Yet many of the Seminary’s graduates held different views than their professors and were prominent leaders in the abolitionist cause. For example, Theodore Sedgwick Wright (Class of 1828), who was the first African American to attend Princeton Seminary, was a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and active in the Underground Railroad. Elijah Parish Lovejoy (Class of 1834), a pastor and newspaper editor, became a martyr in the abolitionist movement when he was killed at the hands of a mob less than three years after he graduated from Princeton Seminary. Wright, Lovejoy, and their contemporaries represent another facet of the story of Princeton Seminary’s relationship to slavery. Many of the Seminary’s graduates demonstrated courageous, prophetic leadership that had a significant influence in the lives of individuals, communities, and the national conversation about slavery.
The following report explores many dimensions of Princeton Seminary’s engagement with issues of slavery. It examines the local and national context in the 19th century, and it discusses as much as we currently know about the building and fundraising activity in the early years of the school. The report also chronicles prominent faculty members and alumni who were engaged in advocacy of various kinds in order to try to understand their attitudes towards and engagement with slavery.
The story of Princeton Seminary is the story of its people—faculty, students, alumni, and others who have been involved in the life of this institution. Thus the history of Princeton Seminary’s relationship to slavery is not one story but many stories, shaped by the individuals who taught and learned and lived here. There are stories of faithfulness and moral failure; stories of those who reflected the prevailing attitudes of their time and those who worked tirelessly to change such views. This report begins to trace some of these stories and to offer theological reflections on what we can learn from this history. The report does not represent a conclusive and definitive word, but rather a point of departure for further study, reflection, and learning, all of which must begin with an honest recounting of our past.