Princeton Theological Seminary will set aside $27.6 million from its endowment to fund a set of initiatives — including scholarships, curricular reforms, and community outreach — intended as atonement for the Presbyterian institution’s historical entanglement with slavery, the seminary announced Oct. 18.
When fully implemented in 2024, the plan is expected to cost $1 million a year, with that cost supported “in perpetuity” by the reserve of nearly 3 percent of the seminary’s $986 million endowment.
The seminary was created as an offshoot of Princeton University (Princeton president Ashbel Green 1783 led the seminary’s board for its first 30 years), and the findings of the seminary’s research into its ties to slavery closely track those of the University’s Princeton & Slavery Project.
“In our theological tradition, repentance is about turning to a new way of life.”
— The Rev. Anne Stewart, seminary vice president for external relations
Although dozens of institutions of higher education have issued reports detailing their historical ties to slavery, and some have taken symbolic or concrete steps to acknowledge that history, the seminary’s financial commitment appears to be the largest ever made.
“In our theological tradition, repentance is about turning to a new way of life,” said the Rev. Anne Stewart, the seminary’s vice president for external relations. “It’s about meaningful action, and I think that’s what this plan represents.”
But the student leader of the seminary’s Association of Black Seminarians said the institution’s plans, while a good first step, don’t yet go far enough. “We’re asking for more because of the harms that were done,” said ABS president Nicholas Young. “Our arguments come from a place not of just political logic but of Christian logic. There’s biblical precedent for someone paying for the debts of their ancestors.”
In an online petition launched in March, the ABS called for the seminary to dedicate 15 percent of its endowment — or about $148 million — to slavery reparations, symbolically matching the 15 to 40 percent of the institution’s pre-Civil War revenues that are believed to have derived directly or indirectly from slavery. The petition called for spending that money on a range of programs, including not only scholarships for future students but also loan forgiveness for current students and alumni. The petition also advocated renaming campus buildings, diversifying the faculty and administration, and reforming the curriculum.
The seminary’s action plan includes the establishment of 30 scholarships and five doctoral fellowships for students who are descended from slaves or who are members of underrepresented groups. The plan also proposes hiring a full-time director for the Center for Black Church Studies, integrating audit findings and cross-cultural studies into the curriculum, enhancing community partnerships in Princeton and with institutions such as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and renaming the seminary library after the institution’s first African American graduate, Theodore Sedgwick Wright.
The announcement came a year after the release of a report that determined that from the seminary’s founding in 1812 until the Civil War, between 15 and 40 percent of the institution’s revenue derived directly or indirectly from slavery. Although the seminary did not own slaves or rely on slave labor to construct its buildings, the audit concluded, founders and early faculty members owned slaves at some point.
The Princeton & Slavery Project found that while the University itself did not own slaves or exploit their labor, there were many slaveholders among early presidents, trustees, and faculty members. Slave money also helped shore up the finances of the fledgling institution.
This is an expanded version of a story from the Nov. 13, 2019, issue.