Q&A with Jonathan Lee Walton President of Princeton Theological Seminary
Interview by Donald Gilpin | Photo courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary
Jonathan Lee Walton became the eighth president of Princeton Theological Seminary on January 1, 2023. He is the first African American and the first Baptist to hold that position.
Walton earned his Ph.D. (2006) and Master of Divinity (2002) degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS). Before his return to PTS, he served as dean of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, where he was the Presidential Chair in Religion and Society, and before that as the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University.
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), He has published widely in academic journals, books, magazines, and newspapers, and has been featured in the New York Times and Time magazine and on CNN and PBS.
I asked Walton a few questions as he nears the end of his first year back at PTS.
As a Princeton Theological Seminary graduate, you’ve been treading on familiar ground since you began your presidency in January. Can you say a few words about why you came back and what that return has been like so far for you and your family?
It’s been amazing. I’ve had the privilege of working at some wonderful institutions. Yet, if I’m honest, I often looked at colleagues who were alums of those schools through a green haze of envy. One could see their love and commitment to serving a school that served them during their formative years. I never had that feeling until now. I’m deeply humbled to return to an institution that played such a significant role in shaping me professionally and personally. I earned my Ph.D. and Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. Most importantly, my wife Cecily and I began our marriage here, our twins were born here, and now my youngest son is growing up here. The chance to give back to this transformative community is more than just a role — it’s a glorious call.
Princeton Theological Seminary Chapel in fall. (Photo courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary)
Could you also comment on the town of Princeton and how you see your relationship and the Seminary’s relationship to the larger Princeton community?
Princeton Seminary has been rooted in the town of Princeton since 1812, and our institution remains deeply committed to its welfare and vibrancy. As our Princeton neighbors seek intellectual and theological resources to wrestle with the more significant questions of life — meaning, purpose, and enduring values — we hope to remain a welcoming and inclusive learning community where people can come and connect, collaborate, and continuously engage. We also seek to be an institution that partners with the community to make the extraordinary offerings of this town even more equitable and accessible.
Could you tell us about an unexpected challenge or difficulty you’ve had to confront here?
Prior to assuming the role of president, I served on the board of trustees. My work on the board prepared me, to some extent, for understanding our challenges. For example, Princeton Seminary, like many institutions, always has a long list of capital projects, including some buildings in need of significant repair and rehabilitation. I am grateful to our incredible facilities and maintenance team for the work they do, and I look forward to building on their work. Our project will take time, but I am committed to making sure our institution offers a safe, healthy, and modern learning environment for our entire community.
Cornel West has described you as “both public intellectual and prophetic preacher.” You have also been described as a social ethicist with a commitment to evangelical Christianity. How do those descriptions apply to your views of yourself and your role?
The description that matters most to me is to be a person of Christian service. Here, I’m thinking of the grand figures of the progressive American tradition of evangelicals, such as Princeton Seminary graduates like Elijah Parish Lovejoy and Prathia Hall. Whether fighting to abolish slavery, advocating for women’s suffrage, or driving the civil rights movements, such figures leveraged the power of institutions to leave legacies that were bigger than any individual accomplishment. I hope to do the same. I’m an educator animated by my Christian faith. My goal is to ensure that Princeton Seminary continues to offer transformative learning opportunities to subsequent generations yet to be born. So, when my time is up, I pray that I am remembered as a faithful steward.
A lot of freestanding divinity schools have closed or merged in recent years. Tell us your thoughts on the future of theological education and its challenges. How might you and Princeton Theological Seminary meet those challenges?
I ask myself this question every day, and working toward the answer is what drives my service.
The church is changing. Higher education is changing. Society is changing. As the mission of Princeton Seminary, we are committed to preparing serious faith-informed professionals to serve the church and society through ministries marked by faith, integrity, scholarship, competence, compassion, and joy.
Yet how and who we prepare must always be an open question. And our answers must reflect current realities that all higher education institutions are facing — demographic trends, rising costs, the growing use of technology, pressing social problems, and culture wars that feed anti-intellectual currents.
Given all these challenges and demands, where does our learning community for life go from here?
Experts tell us that the most significant pool of learners over the next generation are those once called “nontraditional learners.” People who are committed to developing faith-informed solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges. We are creating flexible and accessible programs that will inform and enrich a person’s Christian witness.
I’ve been fortunate to witness and work with the Extension School at Harvard and the School of Professional Studies at Wake Forest. These institutions and others offer various opportunities and credentials through online, hybrid, and intensive residential experiences. The future is not a binary choice of “online vs. residential.” It’s offering learners from across the globe access to our unique resources. We are committed to using our resources to meet people where they are in order to keep our mission thriving.
What are some things you’re looking forward to in the months and years ahead in your presidency and your life in Princeton?
There is so much to be excited about, especially as we grow our reach around the world.
Princeton Seminary has long been a leader in continuing education and convening the world’s best theological minds. We are scaling our offerings to reach new learners in all fields seeking to integrate their Christian faith with their professional lives. We already see evidence of this learner in our offerings at the intersections of faith and ecology at the Farminary — our 21-acre agricultural learning laboratory off Princeton Pike. Similar is the case for our recently launched hybrid degree in justice and public life. Current students in the inaugural MAT cohort range in age from 23 to 63, and include legal professionals, a finance professional on Wall Street, and a nonprofit leader, among other faith-informed professionals.
At Princeton Seminary, we’re bridging faith with a future-ready educational portfolio.
I am confident that this work together will solidify our role as a leader in theological education at Princeton Theological Seminary. We are neither confined to the constraints of an “online” school nor limited to the walls of a traditional residential campus.
We engaged more than 1,000 learners from across the globe last academic year. We can expand this number exponentially with a better alignment of resources to enhance our digital learning environment to benefit learners, whether they live in Brown Hall for three years or stay at Erdman Hall for three days.