October 19, 2022

Theological Seminary Selects New President; Jonathan Lee Walton to Take Helm January 1

By Donald Gilpin

Jonathan Lee Walton

Jonathan Lee Walton says that Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) helped to shape him, starting more than 20 years ago when he enrolled as a young divinity student, and now he will have a chance to return the favor.

Walton, currently Dean of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C., has been elected by the PTS Board of Trustees to be the Seminary’s eighth president, effective January 1, 2023, succeeding President M. Craig Barnes, who announced his retirement earlier this year.

“Princeton Theological Seminary changed my life,” said Walton in a October 17 telephone interview. “It is one of the communities that helped to shape me. It provided me the opportunity to explore intellectual worlds and traditions that I knew not of. And it expanded my horizons in many ways.”

Walton, 49, who will be PTS’ first African American president and first non-Presbyterian president, is an ordained Baptist minister. He continues to serve his “two beloved alma maters” — Morehouse College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science in 1996 and is a member of the Humanities Advancement Council, and PTS, where he earned his M.Div. in 2002 and his Ph.D. in 2006 and has been on the board of trustees.

Before coming to Wake Forest, where he holds the Presidential Chair in Religion and Society, Walton served on the faculty at Harvard Divinity School and was the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University.

A PTS October 14 press release described Walton as “a gifted preacher” and “a social ethicist whose scholarship focuses on the intersection of evangelical Christianity, mass media, and political culture.” He is the author of two books, Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (2009) and A Lens of Love: Reading the Bible in Its World for Our World (2018), as well as many articles in academic journals, books, magazines, and newspapers.

“Theological education is at an inflection point,” said Walton in the PTS press release. “The church is changing. Society is changing. So we need clear-minded, faith-informed professionals who can speak hope, equity, and healing in all fields of human endeavor.”

Walton discussed some of his priorities, affirming his commitment to flexibility, accessibility, and amplifying the voices of the faculty, as he leads PTS in the coming years.  “We have to think about new and creative ways to offer the rich, life-transforming competencies of theological education to more learners and to get our faculty involved at even greater levels into public discourse around religion and society and politics and social change,” he said.

“We have to think about new models of learning,” Walton continued, noting that the pandemic had accelerated certain trends in higher education, and theological education in particular. “Princeton Seminary is known for being a residential institution, but the thought of people uprooting their families, coming and spending three years or longer to pursue a degree, is not quite as sustainable as it once was.”

Walton went on to emphasize some of the challenges in the larger society that are reflected in the religious community. He noted that “disaffiliation” is on the rise, “people not affiliating with communities of faith in the way they did in previous generations.”

“This has impact,” he said. “It impacts church budgets. It impacts professional opportunities for clergy. These are some of the trends and challenges that theological education has to address, and we know from public health data that there is a relationship between disaffiliation and isolation, anxiety, and depression.”

He continued, “Coming out of this global pandemic, we know that mental health, particularly for our young people, is a national crisis, which the resources of theological education and communities of faith are well equipped to address. We just have to find new and creative ways of engagement. Princeton Seminary has much to teach and much to learn from other industries such as public health, entrepreneurship, community development. I want us to be a part of those conversations in helping to heal this next generation.”

Walton expressed his excitement about returning to the seminary and the town where his three children were born and “the precious people that I’ve been blessed to know” who have “enriched my intellectual and spiritual life.” 

He stated, “It’s about the community of Princeton Seminary and the larger community. The entire town, whether we’re talking about professors or dining hall workers, classmates or custodial staff — the beautiful people who constitute the community past and present have enriched my life in innumerable ways. Every time I set foot on Nassau Street my heart beat slows down a little, and it almost feels meditative. It calms my spirit being in this community that meant so much to me.”

Walton praised the PTS faculty and emphasized his eagerness to work with them. “I’m really excited because the faculty at Princeton Seminary is as diverse and dynamic as it’s ever been, and these scholars are bringing intellectuals to campus to engage the spiritual and social worlds of our students,” he said. “I look forward to being part of those conversations and opening up the campus to the larger Princeton community.”

Praise for Walton, as quoted in the PTS press release, poured in from many different quarters. “Dr. Walton’s profound commitment to scholarship and strong leadership experience perfectly position him to advance Princeton Seminary’s mission to serve as a vital and engaging hub for pastoral formation, Christian theology, and leadership generally,” said PTS Board of Trustees Chair Michael Fisch.

Calling Walton’s selection “a historic appointment,” Princeton University African American Studies Professor Eddie Glaude stated, “I have had the blessing to witness the career of Dr. Walton. From his time as a graduate student to his leadership roles at Harvard and Wake Forest, I have marveled at his skill and grace. I know he will bring to Princeton Seminary visionary leadership for these complicated times. He will model excellence for the students and faculty, and he will help lead the way.”

Former PTS Board of Trustees member the Rev. Ruth Faith Santana Grace added, “I could not be more hopeful and encouraged about the future of Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Walton represents Princeton Seminary’s vision and willingness to lean into this moment in history — by forging a new road, a road that seeks to rise to the challenges of a time such as this.”