One of the central challenges of historical work involves locating people and issues in their own context and not seeing them as contemporaries of the researcher or the reader. This, of course, does not mean that judgments cannot be made about what people did or did not do. Nor does it mean that positions taken might be woefully inadequate or wonderfully creative in another context. Contemporary lessons and future directions should have reasonable grounding in historical context. How then do we begin to understand and interpret this complex history?
The Seminary’s founding professors and directors gave robust and sustained support for the colonization effort and its institutional expression in the American Colonization Society. In so doing, they sought to take an almost Aristotelian middle way between the extremes of support for slavery and abolition. Ample evidence points to the fact that everyone at Princeton Seminary in the 19th century saw slavery as an evil and a blight upon humanity in general and the United States in particular. Similarly, plenty of written and published material makes clear that the Seminary leaders perceived abolitionism as a threat to the unity of both church and state.
Their solution of gradualism aided and abetted by colonization aimed for a future beyond slavery. They sought to help African Americans to have the fully human life intended for them by God. In addition, they saw the mysterious hand of divine Providence at work in the history of slavery in America as a way to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the continent of Africa. These views were not exceptional among enlightened Protestant theologians and pastors in the first half of the 19th century; many white spiritual and political leaders in this country thought along very similar or identical lines until the tensions in American society around slavery and race opened up into the apocalyptic abyss of the Civil War.
Critics of colonization and the ACS like William Lloyd Garrison clearly stand on the right side of history from a vantage point 200 years later in the 21st century. At the time, however, Garrison and his group of outspoken critics of both slavery and colonization were seen as fringe and fanatical. Moreover, they were in the minority. Even many of those who eventually went over to the abolitionists drew the line at racial intermarriage. Only a very small group of white abolitionists were both anti-slavery, pro-black, and in favor of a genuinely multiracial America. The Seminary leaders have to be seen in a context of massive and deeply ingrained white normativity at the heart of American culture.
Yet the question remains as to why the leading lights of Princeton Seminary, widely recognized among the greatest theological minds of the 19th century, seemed unable to imagine God’s transforming action to bring about an American society free from the scourge of both slavery and racism, even though they could imagine the fundamental transformation by divine action of the entire continent of Africa. Perhaps because of the privileged position that they occupied in American society, they assumed that the United States was already largely reflective of the values, practices, and norms of the reign of God while they assumed Africa was mainly pagan or demonic.
The question remains as to why the Seminary’s faculty members maintained such unwavering support across the course of six or seven decades. The colonization movement waned in the face of flagging support among the majority of whites in the 1830s, almost incalculable costs to realize the full extent of the colonization vision, and the dismal support for the effort on the part of those it was supposed to benefit. By the time Alexander wrote his massive tome on the history of colonization in Africa, the colonization movement’s heyday had long since come and gone. It was already old news by 1846. Why did Princeton Seminary leaders fail to reassess their theological and strategic assumptions and change course?
The deepest level of the relationship between Princeton Seminary and slavery has to do with race. White normativity and the panoply of assumptions that support it seem to have driven the limited theological imagination at work concerning slavery and the glaring contradictions between fears about black violence toward whites and romantic visions of black evangelization of Africa by the very same people they feared would rise up stealthily and cut their throats as they slept in their beds. Deeply embedded white normativity seems to have fused in the minds of the Seminary’s leadership with “civilization” and “progress” such that people of color—be they Native American or African American—could only rise to the level of “civilization” when they were driven away from white society long enough to see the light and become culturally white enough to interact with whites on terms set by whites.
Finally, questions as to the true meaning of “help,” “benevolence,” and “love” arise when reflecting on the involvement of the Seminary’s leadership in the colonization movement. The faculty and trustees were ostensibly concerned with “helping” blacks by sending them away to a continent that nearly all of them had never experienced and did not want to experience. The white “helpers” clearly did not take the voices of the black “helpees” very seriously. Instead, white leaders like those at the Seminary ended up blaming free blacks for being too stupid or too corrupt to celebrate white “benevolence” when it was offered to them. The behavior of overriding the expressed interests and needs of those being “helped” raises questions about the degree to which the “helpers” were really acting on behalf of those in need of help or in such a way as to serve their own interests.
While the Seminary leaders believed themselves to have been acting benevolently, even with Christian charity in their efforts, they failed to honor their black brothers and sisters as equally made in the image of God. They simply could not envision a world of radical equality, even as they condemned slavery in strong terms. The scope of their theological imagination was fundamentally distorted by assumptions about the superiority of their own culture.
Theological Reflections on Princeton Seminary’s History
As an institution of higher learning, Princeton Theological Seminary has a particular responsibility to seek the truth about its past. Pursuing truth and understanding the implications of history for contemporary reality are central values for higher education. As an institution related to the church, the Seminary has an additional responsibility to reckon with its history in a theological framework, making confession and repentance when necessary, recognizing the human failures and frailties that damage our relationship with God and the world God so loves.
In confronting this history, Princeton Theological Seminary must first acknowledge that its institutional history with regard to benefiting from slavery is sinful. Sin is not merely an individual infraction. Sin is violating the relational call to embody love and justice within community, especially measured by our engagement with the “least of these” in society. We do not exist for ourselves alone. We exist for each other, which is a form of ultimate worship to God. For much of the history of white denominations and churches in America, racism has not been denounced as sin. Historically, Princeton Seminary and its leaders did not regard forms of racial apartheid and disenfranchisement as sin, choosing to interpret this white supremacist form of social life as simply part of the cultural ethos of the era. When the Seminary confesses its historical connections to slavery, it also acknowledges the ongoing consequences of structural racism within its own institutional context.
In calling this racist history sin, it is important to understand precisely what is being acknowledged. Historically, the language of Christian faith at Princeton Seminary (and broader white society) was tied to narratives of white supremacy and segregation. Stitched into the fabric of white Christian piety and practice was the call to save the “heathen” and civilize the “savage,” which provided theological legitimation for grotesque forms of life such as slavery. Blacks were not seen as humans but as having the potential to become fully human based on their initiation into a European way of life. Unfortunately, this form of cultural intolerance and conquest was fundamentally understood as the Christian task, a task the leaders of Princeton Seminary privileged when the school first started in 1812. Consider the words of Archibald Alexander, first professor of Princeton Seminary. He delivered his inaugural address on August 12, 1812, affirming the “beneficial effects” of Christianity on other nations.73 In his address, he asserted that European nations and missionaries have uplifted the wellbeing of the poor, dispossessed, and those who are inclined to be ferocious.74For Alexander, white Christian churches possessed a religious innocence, as evidenced in white churches’ accomplishments in subduing and training non-European peoples around the world in the ways of Christianity. This included “Christianizing” African Americans within the cruel, inhumane institution of slavery. Speaking about slavery and colonization through the language of innocence made it impossible to acknowledge slavery as sin. Therefore, to name the Seminary’s historical connections to slavery as sin is to reckon with how totalizing white supremacy and colonialism were for white Christian identity and practice.
In confessing this history, Princeton Seminary repents. Within the biblical witness, there are continual calls to repent when a community violates the commands of God to treat one’s neighbors with love and justice. Consider the Hebrew prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Malachi, who remind Israel to practice justice with the poor, the widow, and the stranger. The prophetic call of the Hebrew prophets is the call to protect the vulnerable within society, which is a form of worship and obedience to God. Similarly, in the gospels, Jesus presents numerous parables on how we might treat those who experience different forms of exploitation, precariousness, and deprivation. The Seminary’s leadership and faculty have not always remembered this basic Christian command, which is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Consequently, this institution is called to repent for misconstruing and ignoring the most fundamental task of Christian witness.
In addition, Princeton Seminary must repent from whiteness itself, that is, the totalizing effects of white supremacy as ideology and practice. In talking about racism, we often assume that this issue singularly affects people of color. However, the sin of racism has deeply affected the humanity of white communities. Racial hierarchy in this country was generated by whiteness, binding people of European descent to a category that would do profound violence to their own humanity. Whiteness is a form of structural sin that white people are embedded into, a system they did not choose but nevertheless benefit from. Princeton Seminary likewise participated in structures of whiteness through benefiting from the institution of slavery. Confession and atonement must be made for participating in and benefiting from structures of whiteness and the moral wounding and pain that whiteness has produced and continues to generate in the Seminary community.
Repentance not only means telling the truth about the sin of slavery but also involves “destroying … the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14, NIV). In Ephesians, the writer speaks about the mission of the Christian church, which is about enfleshing a new humanity in Christ that challenges and transcends previous religious, social, and cultural barriers. Princeton Seminary must now bear witness to a new moment, marked by the radical work of destroying the dividing wall of racial hostility characteristic of centuries of white Christian supremacy. The only way to embody and bear witness to this new moment is to intentionally pursue a justice- making and reconciling community.
This vision of a justice-making and reconciling community confesses that previous white Christian accounts of human fellowship have been grounded in a distorted vision of racial joining and belonging. People from vastly different social and cultural worlds, lands, languages, and places were drawn together inside a white Christian vision.75 This vision not only provided a way of viewing nonwhite people, which inevitably led to social and economic oppression, but also provided and reinforced a basis of belief. It functioned as “articulated faith,” as Willie Jennings argues. That is, socially constructed categories of race were believed as biological fact, and in turn, this “truth” of racial difference informed white people’s vision of social, political, and even spiritual realities. In other words, it is the faith “that is believed (‘we are white, black, and everything in between’), and the faith that believes (‘I see people as white, black, and everything in between’).”76 This racial faith produced and maintained racial hierarchy and exploitation.77 Moving forward into the future, intentionally pursuing a justice-making and reconciling community means categorically rejecting the racial faith of white Christian identity that has previously marked the Seminary and America more broadly.
As Princeton Theological Seminary looks towards its future, it must also look toward its past, mindful that our community encompasses not only those who teach and learn and serve here in the present but also those who have come before us. We inherit a legacy from this history, in its full complexity, with all of its blessing and burden. As we have seen, many of the board members and professors in the Seminary’s early years were complicit with the institution of slavery to various degrees. The institution itself benefitted from slavery indirectly, through the wealth of many of its donors who derived their income in a national economy in which slavery was a driving force. The Seminary’s leadership and many of its alumni played a significant role in the colonization movement, unable to advocate for the equality of blacks and whites in one nation under God. The founders and faculty members were embedded in a larger culture and structure of white normativity, and they did not challenge it, nor could they see beyond it.
We confess these moral failings unequivocally. Yet we do so not as morally superior agents casting judgment on the past, but as sinners likewise in need of God’s grace. As Theodore Wright (Class of 1828) remarked regarding the support for colonization even among the pious, “good men may err; men are the same that they ever were, finite and fallible; and bad principles are very frequently found among good men.”78 The purpose of confession and repentance is to acknowledge our need for grace before God, which is a truth that requires proclamation in every generation. To be a covenant community means we must own the sins of the past if we are to repent and respond to the call to a new future together.
At the same time, part of the legacy that we inherit is also the story of those who were outspoken advocates for equality and called for the swift abolition of slavery. It is the story of the first African American graduates of the Seminary whose leadership promoted the cause of justice in the church and in the nation. Many alumni used their Seminary training to advance education and opportunity in the African American community. This too is part of the Seminary’s history, and we can learn from the example of these ancestors in the faith whose moral compass prompted them to work against injustice.
Princeton Theological Seminary’s historical connections to slavery are complicated and multifaceted, and we must never hesitate to tell the truth about our history in all of its complexity. As Francis Grimke (Class of 1878) proclaimed, “If justice sleeps in this land, let it not be because we have helped to lull it to sleep by our silence, our indifference; let it not be from lack of effort on our part to arouse it from its slumbers.” Speaking the truth is a Christian discipline. Only when we tell the truth about ourselves can we come before God in confession and repentance. This is part of what it means to be a covenant community, bound in relationship to God and to one another across the generations. May we who have inherited this history never permit justice to slumber among us.