March 7, 2022
Many organizations ranging from professional guilds to universities have recently acknowledged and repented of their institutions collective wrongdoing related to complicity in the abomination that was the capturing and enslaving of African persons and their descendants in the United States. Facing past sinfulness is never easy and always feels insufficient in addressing irreparable harm. Despite all the reasons it would be tempting for Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School’s leaders to turn their backs on stories that reflect poorly upon our founders, healing wounds begins with cleaning them. The Trustees at Andover Newton Seminary join our partners in Yale University, in which we are embedded, to face painful dimensions of our school’s past.
From October 28-30, the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at the MacMillan Center at Yale hosted a conference entitled, “Yale and Slavery in Historical Perspective.” The conference presented the findings of the ongoing Yale & Slavery Research Project working group. That group included two faculty members affiliated with Andover Newton, Willie James Jennings and Carolyn Roberts.
In December, Yale Divinity School’s Dean Gregory E. Sterling; and Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Lynn Sullivan-Harmon released videos to the YDS community acknowledging Yale Divinity School’s sinful past as relates to slavery and racism. Their statements included descriptions and promises of what is being done, and what will be done, to build a future that is more reflective of God’s inclusive love through antiracist policies and investments in a diverse student body, staff, and faculty.
As the Andover Newton at YDS community hears about the history of Yale University’s ties to slavery, Andover Newton’s leaders wanted to understand and begin to address the Seminary’s own past sins. This attention was deemed especially important in light of current efforts to foster a diverse and just community, educating tomorrow’s faith community leaders to enact Gospel-inspired social justice in an array of ministry contexts.
Sharing the findings of this exploration is not something Andover Newton’s leaders take lightly, for doing so is likely to cause trauma, especially for those whose ancestors suffered. We recognize the deep wounds of slavery are still open and sometimes fresh, healing in a tenuous manner and, at times, festering environment. Furthermore, uncovering complicity with the slave trade without delving into other ways in which racism has undercut the school’s values might ring of confessing a sin of commission while perpetrating one of omission. After careful consideration, the school’s leaders chose to make an imperfect yet earnest effort at shedding light on the truth of the past in this specific, yet painful, area. Like a majority of historic and predominately white institutions, Yale Divinity School, and Andover Newton have healing work to do.
Margaret Bendroth wrote the most recent comprehensive history of Andover Newton on the occasion of Andover’s bicentennial. A School of the Church: Andover Newton across Two Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008) describes both Andover and Newton’s accomplishments in participating in the abolition of slavery and the institution’s shortcomings. While Newton graduated its first African American student George Washington Williams in 1874, the book also describes cases where Andover’s very early faculty resisted abolition and discouraged students from involvement in the movement.
Andover sent missionaries to the US Midwest to establish churches and schools with the express intention of securing midwestern states for the Union and against slavery, and yet they also sent missionaries into settings where they caused great harm, disrespecting existing religions and cultures.
In years following the publication of Bendroth’s book, it has become better known in Christian circles that Jonathan Edwards, the theologian after whom Andover Newton has named prestigious academic prizes, enslaved persons early in his life, although he came to repudiate slavery before he died. Samuel Abbot, the merchant who contributed the funds that created what is now the seminary’s oldest and most prestigious named faculty chair, employed the services of an enslaved person. Andover Newton Seminary’s leadership is engaged in ongoing discernment about how it might reconcile these commemorations with emerging historical knowledge.
Beyond specific theological positions for and against slavery, and beyond the acts of enslaving persons on the part of those whose names still live in Andover Newton Seminary at YDS in the present day, Andover Newton participated passively, yet harmfully, in sustaining systems of oppression. At various times in its 214-year history, the seminary colluded with cultural and institutional forces that centered whiteness, wealth, imperial forms of Christianity, male domination, and heteronormativity, thus oppressing some individuals and distorting the ways in which communities functioned. We fully acknowledge that we do not know the entirety of all past injustices, yet we fully repudiate and apologize for acts known and unknown. As Andover Newton’s leaders reflect in humility on that past, we repent of oppressive ways.
The Seminary’s Board of Trustees recently updated its strategic plan to highlight the institution’s firm commitment to social justice in-general, and antiracism specifically, as crucial dimensions of its mission and identity. Further steps over the months to come to implement this plan will include a review of honorary designations; undertaking a capital campaign to include endowing a new chair honoring George Washington Williams; continuing to engage Trustees, affiliated faculty, and students in antiracist endeavors; developing a social justice colloquium and an antiracism thread throughout our current colloquium; raising funds for scholarships that increase access for students from historically marginalized groups; and communicating openly with constituents about the challenges and joys of moving the school into a new way of being, where whiteness is not at the center, but only Christ.
Envisioning a new future, Trustees take seriously the biblical obligation to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Holding forth love, compassion and respect for the dignity and worth of all persons, we seek to repudiate historic injustices.
Today, Andover Newton educates a diverse group of students who are preparing for ministerial leadership and are, to a person, profoundly committed to social justice. Students, faculty, and staff are actively engaged in examining their habits of work and mind, seeking ways to enlarge the table around which the Andover Newton community sits so that none find themselves at the margins. Andover Newton’s leaders do so knowing that antiracism is not an event, an admission of wrongdoing, or even a season. It is a way of being in-community, and it is the way of love that Jesus taught us.
Hannah Kane, Board Chair
Jeffrey Haggray, Vice Chair
Michael Kellogg, Treasurer
Abner Cotto-Bonilla, Secretary
Willard Ashley, Sr.
Davida Foy Crabtree
Linda Harper Smith