Princeton Theological Seminary's chapel, formerly known as Miller Chapel.

Princeton Theological Seminary’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously on January 25 to remove Samuel Miller’s name from the building designated as the institution’s spiritual center.

The decision followed demonstrations organized by a student group, the Association of Black Seminarians (ABS), who called attention to the fact that Miller, the theology school’s second professor, “employed slave labor” and held slaves.

Now to be referred to as the Seminary Chapel, the building’s titular transformation is a reflection of recent strides to move forward following a 2016 committee’s investigation into the institution’s connections to slavery.

Six years ago, Seminary President M. Craig Barnes, alongside a team of faculty and administrators, led efforts to extensively research the early beginnings of the institution. The ensuing historical audit report established Miller’s views and sentiments.

The overview explained that while the Seminary as a whole did not own slaves or utilize slave labor for the construction of its buildings, the school did financially benefit from the contributions of those who did. As the report details, “the Seminary thus participated, to both its profit and loss, in a larger economy that was deeply entangled with slavery.”

ABS posted a petition in response to the audit that called for 15 percent of the Seminary’s endowment to be used as reparations, primarily as annual monetary support for Black students through, among a list of things, full tuition, fees, and loan forgiveness for all African American alumni — now, in 2022, it has more than 700 signatures.

The Seminary’s endowment at the time was valued at approximately $1 billion.

This petition paved the way for a new system in 2019 that, in acknowledgement of the findings, became an “action plan” for not just the next year, but with goals for measurable success by 2024. Some of the proposed ideas described partnerships, scholarships, and improved programming to be implemented over time.

But in a statement from January 26, ABS referred to the initial language about the Seminary’s proposal for renaming campus buildings as “vague.” One of ABS’ requests was that any campus building’s title including someone who was historically in support of slavery would be promptly renamed “with distinguished African American or pro-equality alumni.”

“The discontentment of students, division around attending chapel services, and need for spiritual fortification is what catalyzed students across all organizations to begin effectively organizing around this issue to ensure the Board of Trustees took the matter seriously and acted urgently,” ABS said in the press release.

On December 1, 2021, ABS brought their latest petition, comprising about 300 signatures and “letters of approval from every student organization,” to school officials.

In subsequent protests on January 18, students, alumni, faculty, and members of the community gathered together, showcasing “one of the most diverse demonstrations in seminary history with over 120 attendees,” their statement continued.

Giving the Seminary a deadline of January 31, the start of the spring semester, to take action, attendees at the gathering fasted and prayed together. Senior students “refused to preach their senior sermons in the Seminary Chapel as long as it held the ‘Miller’ name. The community was prepared to declare the Seminary Chapel vacant until the name was removed and host an alternative chapel service location,” ABS said, with those in agreement also having penned letters to the president’s office and trustees.

In response, at the same time they decided to take Miller’s name off of the chapel, the Board of Trustees created a task force around “developing guiding principles and decision-making rubrics for naming, renaming, and the conferring of honor on all other physical sites and objects related to the Seminary,” according to their statement.

“All official conversations concerning the names of buildings, old or new, and other forms of honor on sites and objects will cease until the Seminary officially adopts a set of governing principles based on the work of this task force,” the Board of Trustees added, thanking students, the ABS in particular, as well as faculty and alumni for their endeavors.

The Seminary Chapel is not the first change made as part of the institution’s efforts to combat a legacy closely entwined with slavery. The Center for Black Church Studies was renamed in honor of former slave, missionary, and teacher Betsey Stockton.

In October of 2021, the campus library amended its name by paying tribute to another notable figure, Theodore Sedgwick Wright, the first African American graduate of the Seminary.

In addition to those developments, the Seminary dedicated 35 full scholarships with stipends for “descendants of the enslaved and those from historically underrepresented groups to pursue masters’ and doctoral degrees,” as mentioned in the January 25 release from the Board of Trustees.

President Barnes released his own announcement on how the chapel’s new designation advances the “journey of repentance” the Seminary has been vowing to maintain.

“It has been a moving testimony of [the] covenant community to see how diverse students united to lament the pain of having to worship in a chapel named for a slaveholder, opponent of abolitionism, and advocate for the American Colonization Society,” he said, noting that the latter’s mission was to send free Black Americans to Africa.

Still, Barnes recognized that Miller’s role in the Seminary’s story or history could never be completely erased, but the latest move is a step in the right direction “to ensure future generations will always know Samuel Miller’s story and the reasons why this generation believed that it was no longer appropriate to have his name synonymous with community worship.”

For ABS, the latest developments are just the beginning.

“We hope that this decision serves as a catalyst for more action steps in the seminary’s journey of repentance and reconciliation. The student body remains unified and will continue in these efforts until their promises are fulfilled and Princeton Theological Seminary becomes a true ‘covenant community,’” the ABS statement affirmed.

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