A Year of Confession

The Seminary hosted more than 20 events to engage the campus in reflection and conversation throughout the 2018-19 academic year.

a year of confession

Slavery. When thinking about this complex part of America’s history, it is a deeply painful reflection for some and for others a mere fact to which they are indifferent. Regardless of one’s position on the past, it’s hard to deny the ramifications of slavery today, particularly in the area of race relations. Racial tension has led to some of the country’s darkest moments — past and present.

In 2016, Princeton Seminary President M. Craig Barnes appointed a committee of faculty and administrators to conduct a historical audit of the Seminary’s relationship to slavery. The committee was commissioned to report the truth about the Seminary’s history and to consider the ways in which this community of faith and learning, in spite of all of its historical contributions to theological scholarship, was complacent in the racism that continues to plague our society.

“There were a number of reasons why we began the historical audit. One being a need for truth-telling in our community called for by our students and faculty,” says Barnes. “Other factors were a growing urgency to the national conversation about race, a theological imperative for repentance, and most of all a conviction that we needed to come to terms with our historical legacy in order to develop a vision of a more faithful way of life together.”

discussion on slavery
The Seminary community participated in dynamic discussions about the institution’s history at the many events hosted on campus throughout the academic year.
The Report
The historical audit report is the result of more than two years of research. The committee carefully studied the writings of the Seminary’s founders about slavery, the financing and construction of the campus, the convictions and ministries of alumni, and the role of the Seminary’s leadership in the organization of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which sought to send freed African Americans to Africa.
“[It’s] a courageous act to do this work.” — Willie James Jennings, associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School
The report reveals that the Seminary did not own slaves and there was no record of slave labor used to construct the campus buildings. However, the audit uncovered contradictions and complexities in the practices, attitudes, and theological convictions of the Seminary’s early faculty, students, and donors.
keri day
“What may have been different if the kind of theological worldview that Theodore Wright was lodged within would have been listened to by Princeton Seminary? Listening to the fringes, to the marginalized of society requires an intellectual and spiritual humility about what we are possibly getting wrong. It is a really important spiritual posture that is fundamental to the gospel. It’s about the invocation of particular kinds of virtues that allow for that radical kind of openness towards love, inclusion, and justice.” —Keri Day, associate professor of constructive theology and African American religion and member of the Historical Audit Committee

Among the institution’s leadership and faculty in its early years were slave owners and those who advocated for colonization and sending free blacks to Liberia.

Leading this movement to resettle American freed slaves to the African continent was the American Colonization Society (ACS).  Robert Finley, a member of the Seminary’s board of directors, co-founded the national level of the colonization effort in 1816 in Washington, D.C. The ACS had a significant base of supporters in Princeton. The report notes that the entire faculty and about half of the Seminary’s board members were actively engaged in the New Jersey chapter. While Princeton Seminary’s early administrators and faculty opposed slavery, they did not believe that whites and blacks could live alongside one another as part of one society.  The national ACS funded the voluntary resettlement of 13,000 people out of a total black population of two million.

“Seminary founders could not see what God could do here in America but could imagine a robust future of what God could do in Liberia,” says Gordon Mikoski, associate professor of Christian education and member of the Historical Audit Committee.

While the report acknowledges notable black and white alumni who were on the front lines of the abolitionist movement, such as Elijah Parish Lovejoy who was killed for operating an abolitionist newspaper, records show that many early administrators and alumni owned slaves or advocated for the gradual eradication of slavery with no real strategy and foreseeable end in sight.
Another aspect of the Seminary’s history to reckon with is that slavery played a role in the institution’s finances in the early years. From its founding to the 1850s, the Seminary’s funding included donations by slave owners and others who benefited from slavery.

The Process of Confession

The audit report was an act of confession, and it sparked a year-long process of conversation, deliberation, and learning by the entire campus community and the Board of Trustees about how to respond.  The Seminary’s Board of Trustees established a task force — comprised of faculty, administrators, students, alumni, and trustees — to lead the campus community in the process of deliberating on the enduring consequences of the Seminary’s history and thoroughly considering the appropriate next steps to seek repentance.

Under the leadership of John White, dean of student life and vice president for student relations, the task force hosted a series of campus events and discussions throughout the academic year to foster engagement among all members of the Seminary community.

In addition, the Board of Trustees engaged a thorough process of education and discernment about the audit report and the need for repentance.  Trustees first received the audit report at its May 2018 meeting and devoted significant time at every subsequent board meeting to conversation about its implications.  The entire board read and discussed together Edward Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, and from the beginning, they were committed to fostering a process that would lead to substantive acts of repentance.

year of confession discussion
Lectures, discussion groups, and a two-day conference were some of the many ways in which the Seminary community responded to the report on slavery developed by the Historical Audit Committee.

The audit report was shared with the Seminary community in October of 2018, and this launched a year of educational programs and events, beginning with a lecture by Dr. Willie James Jennings, associate professor of systematic theology and Africana studies at Yale Divinity School and author of The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.  “[It’s] a courageous act to do this work,” remarked Jennings. “I commend Princeton Theological Seminary and your courageous president for doing the unprecedented. Doing what few institutions in the United States would do, to look deeply into its own slavery-formed past.”

Jennings was the first of several renowned theologians known for their commitment to social justice issues and liberation theology who were invited to join the Seminary in discussion about the slavery report. Other guest lecturers have included Rev. Dr. Samuel Reeves, Jr.,  alumnus and pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Liberia; Bishop Yvette Flunder, founder and senior pastor of Refuge United Church of Christ; James Forbes, senior minister emeritus of Riverside Church; and Luke Powery, dean of Duke University Chapel and associate professor of homiletics, Duke Divinity School.

Some of the other campus programming has included listening sessions where members of the Seminary community have expressed their reaction to the report, group discussions, and a two-day academic conference on slavery and higher education that included participation from activists and scholars.

During his lecture at the academic conference hosted by the seminary in April, Darnell Moore, writer-in-residence at the Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice at Columbia University, said, “I want to mark the ways that the enterprise of slavery and institutional complicities in it, whether we choose to address it or not, haunts us. I’m interested in not just thinking about slavery, the project that we look back to and say, ‘That happened then. I’m not responsible.’ I’m interested in thinking through its afterlife. We are living in its wake, in its afterlife.”

He adds, “Throughout the history of the U.S., black people have been expected to forgive. We’ve been asked to extend charity in advance of the freedom dreams.”

kermit moss
“Repentance involves a turning to God; a new manner of thinking; renouncing old practices; turning from our idols; abandoning our tenets, motivations, and deeds. And being a radical change. The question today is this: Do we want radical change or do we want to be gradual?” —Kermit Moss, interim director of the Center for Black Church Studies and member of the Historical Audit Committee
Conversations Around Repentance

From the beginning, the task force used a theological framework to consider the appropriate recommendations to respond to the report.  If the audit report was an act of confession, the response to it calls for repentance, which requires a commitment to action and a changed way of life.

“When releasing the report, we realized there would be a wide spectrum of responses and very difficult conversations,” says Barnes. “It is our Christian responsibility to do the hard work and not shy away from addressing issues surrounding race. In doing so, we are equipping our students to lead in the church and society as they are positioned to address these issues in their ministry.”

Throughout the year, the task force gathered extensive feedback from the Seminary community in response to the report. “From the beginning, the task force has encouraged students to share their responses to the report and invited everyone to engage in the process of determining how the Seminary will repent,” says Dean White. “We value the perspectives of the entire campus community. We have collected numerous suggestions and have seriously discussed them all.”

The task force received over 100 suggestions from students, faculty, alumni, and other members of the community. The Association of Black Seminarians submitted a thorough response that called for the expansion of the Center for Black Church Studies, scholarships and loan forgiveness for African American students and alumni, and partnerships with historically black colleges and universities. The group organized town hall meetings and prayer gatherings to foster conversation and awareness.  

justin henderson speaking
Justin Henderson, MDiv ‘19, then moderator of the Association of Black Seminarians, gave remarks at a town hall hosted by the student group. Photo by Beverly Schaefer.

The task force invited leaders of the Association of Black Seminarians to present their response to the Seminary’s Board of Trustees in May 2019, at which time the task force provided a set of recommendations on how the Seminary should repent for its ties to slavery.

Learn more about the new initiatives the Seminary’s Board of Trustees recently approved to repent for its ties to slavery.


Leadership shares how God is at work through the historical audit process

Four brief episodes give overview of the historical audit report