October 23, 2019

Theological Seminary Will Pay $27M For Slavery Reparations

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton Theological Seminary has announced a commitment of more than $27M to be spent on scholarships, new hires, and a multi-year action plan as “acts of repentance” for its ties to slavery.

Amidst a national debate, which has involved presidential candidates, legislators, educational institutions, and others, over what is owed to the descendants of slaves by those who benefited from slavery, last Friday’s announcement was a response to a report published by the Seminary in October 2018 after conducting a two-year historical audit.

“The report was an act of confession,” said Dean of Students and Student Relations Vice President John White. “These responses are intended as acts of repentance that will lead to lasting impact within our community. This is the beginning of the process of repair that will be ongoing.”

The Seminary’s historical audit on slavery “points to the complexity and contradiction inherent in the Seminary’s story and in our national story,” the report noted. The audit revealed that the Seminary, founded in 1812, did not own slaves, and its buildings were not constructed with slave labor, though it benefited from an economy that “was thoroughly driven by slave labor and production.”

There were investments in mid-19th century banks and donors who profited 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.

Many faculty advocated for a gradual end to slavery, the audit also discovered, and there were many ardent abolitionists among the Seminary’s students and graduates. 

In enumerating the Seminary’s planned acts of repentance, the report emphasized the Seminary’s responsibility as an institution of religious education. “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.”

The audit report continued, “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.”

Princeton Seminary President M. Craig Barnes noted, “We are committed to telling the truth. We did not want to shy away from the uncomfortable part of our history and the difficult conversations that revealing the truth would produce. The Seminary’s ties to slavery are a part of our story. It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society.”

The Seminary’s plan, to be started immediately and continued through 2024, promises to “make meaningful and lasting change” with more than 20 initiatives, including 30 new scholarships, valued at the cost of tuition plus $15,000 for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups; a full-time director of the Center for Black Church Studies; a new faculty member to focus on the African American experience; curriculum changes to ensure engagement with the implications of the historical audit; five doctoral fellowships for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups; naming the library after Theodore Sedgwick Wright, the first African American to attend and graduate from Princeton Seminary; naming the Center for Black Church Studies after Betsey Stockton, prominent African American educator in Princeton, who, prior to gaining her freedom, was owned by the chair of the Princeton Seminary’s Board of Trustees; enhancing community partnerships and supporting historically disenfranchised communities in and around Princeton; and ensuring every member of the Princeton Seminary community understands its history.

The Seminary noted that these responses to the audit would cost more than $1M annually on an ongoing basis, requiring that $27.6M be reserved from its endowment of approximately $1B to sustain this reparation plan.

“Our response to the historical audit is the beginning of our community’s journey of repair as we seek to redress historic wrongs and to help the Seminary be more faithful to our mission as a school of the church, both now and in the years to come,” Barnes said. “We are taking tangible action to write a new chapter in our story.”