When asked what matters to him, Dr. Jonathan Lee Walton — who, “in very good Southern fashion,” always goes by his full name — does not hesitate, not even for a moment. “Love,” he said. “Love.”
Walton clarified, “Not sentimentality. Not eros, filial, or even brotherly [love]. No, agape. A moral, ethical commitment, that keeps us bound, one to another.”
This love pervades Walton’s work and his decision to assume the presidency of Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) at the beginning of 2023. For Walton, an alum of Princeton Theological Seminary’s M.Div and Ph.D programs, assuming the position was both a next step and a homecoming.
“It is beautiful, it is wonderful, to have this opportunity to give back to an institution and a community that have given me so much. It’s hard for words to describe,” he said.
Walton’s appointment is historic. Not only is he the first Baptist president of PTS, but he is also the institution’s first Black president.
Walton’s appointment came nearly two years after the release of a historical audit report, which examined “the institution’s historic connections to slavery.” After a protest by the Association of Black Seminarians (ABS) in January 2022, PTS disassociated its chapel from Samuel Miller, a slave owner and anti-abolitionist.
“It’s a positive step that we are able to imagine and celebrate people from varying walks of life in roles that we were once excluded from,” Walton said, reflecting on his appointment. “I think that everybody will see that as a beautiful thing, and we all pray for the day where we won’t celebrate such a thing, and so we work for the day that this could be something that we take for granted.”
Hanna Reichel, associate professor of reformed theology at PTS, noted that Walton’s feelings about returning are matched by the rest of the community. “The excitement in the community is as palpable as his own enthusiasm,” Reichel wrote in a statement to The Daily Princetonian.
Walton’s path back to Princeton
Walton was born in 1973 in Atlanta, Ga. “I was part of those who were able to benefit from the incredible courage and strength and organizational actions of the civil rights movement,” he reflected. Walton describes Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s as a city “where civil rights narratives were sacred history.”
Walton grew up in a progressive family with a strong commitment to civil rights. His family regularly attended African Methodist Episcopal and Baptist churches, but he decided to become more active in church on his own in high school.
As a high schooler, he went to church with his now wife, Cecily Cline Walton. Their three children, Zora Neale, Elijah Mays, and Baldwin Cline, are named for Zora Neale Hurston, Benjamin Elijah Mays, and James Baldwin respectively — all of whom are figures Walton regards as a source of inspiration.
After graduating high school in Atlanta, Walton briefly left Georgia to attend Wofford College in South Carolina on a football scholarship. “I was a much better football player in my imagination than I was in reality,” said Walton. He subsequently returned to Atlanta and transferred to Morehouse College.
Walton entered college thinking that he wanted to become a lawyer and be involved in politics. By the end of his time at Morehouse, his interests had shifted. “It was in college that I really began learning much more about sacred narratives around churches and politics and activism.”
Walton developed an interest in “the theological underpinnings that animated the civil rights movement” and enrolled in many religion courses. He learned about the ideas, values, and leaders that would eventually inspire him to pursue seminary.
After graduating from college in 1996, Walton spent a couple of years working in a congregation in Atlanta before enrolling in the Master of Divinity program at PTS. He had planned to spend only three years in Princeton before returning to Atlanta, but, as he noted, “the spark of Morehouse was really roused [by the Master of Divinity program].”
“I had more questions than answers, and those questions remained,” Walton added. Curious to further pursue his interests in Christian social ethics and the moral issues he observed that were facing many African American Christian congregations at the time, Walton applied for and was admitted to PTS’s Ph.D. program.
Walton spoke about the aspects of the Ph.D. program that influenced him the most: “It was the way that everyone in this learning community was committed to the formative task [and] involved in the process. I had incredible faculty. But it was also those who worked in the banking office, and in the bursar’s office, and the way that members of the custodial staff would stop and ask you about your studies, talk to you about matters of faith.”
The Ph.D. program was not only an intellectually and spiritually formative experience for Walton, but it also introduced him to many of his closest mentors and friends.
Eddie S. Glaude Jr., professor of African American studies at the University, met Walton early on during Glaude’s tenure at the University.
In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Glaude wrote, “I thought he was brilliant and a bit unmoored in those early days. Jonathan had not settled on the question of whether he was going to be an academic or a preacher. I watched him eventually reject that he had to choose between the two.”
Professor Wallace Best, professor of religion and African American studies and the director of the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University, met Walton right after Walton finished his Ph.D. in 2007.
“The first thing that impressed me about Jonathan is that this is someone who had intellectual fire,” Best said. Best also commented on Walton’s generosity, saying he “has the gift of just really making you feel all important in the moments that he’s talking to you.”
After earning his Ph.D., Walton joined the faculty of Harvard Divinity School, eventually taking over leadership of the University’s Memorial Church as the Pusey Minister. In 2019, Walton headed back south and became the dean of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity.
An expanded search
Simultaneously, Walton served as a Trustee of PTS. When PTS President Emeritus M. Craig Barnes announced his intention to retire in early 2022, the institution launched a search committee for a new leader.
“[Serving as president] was not something that I would have ever thought about, because it was not possible,” Walton explained, elaborating, “It was in the bylaws that you had to be an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church (PC) of the USA — [to be president].” As a Baptist, Walton did not qualify.
Wesley Rowell, a student currently in his final year of the Master of Divinity program, served on the search committee. Rowell, reflecting on the very small number of Black Presbyterians, remembers wondering, “If we are committed to diversity, are we going to change [the bylaws]?”
After starting the search, the committee went back to the Board of Trustees with a resolution expressing that they believed they could conduct a more inclusive, expansive, and diverse search if they were permitted to consider candidates outside the PC (USA). The resolution passed.
“Immediately after the vote, I got a couple of calls asking, ‘Would you entertain this?’ I hope, and I do believe that I received those calls because it was no secret, my love for the institution,” said Walton.
Michele Minter, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity at the University and a PTS board member and member of the search committee, explained in a statement to the ‘Prince’ why she believes Walton stood out as a top candidate.
“In a competitive field of candidates, Jonathan brought a high level of higher education administrative experience, excellent scholarly credentials, a track record of thoughtful innovation, and love for the Seminary,” Minter noted. “He also has a distinctive moral voice and commitment to community.”
Rowell explains that in light of declining seminary enrollment, the search committee posed the question, “What is the role of seminary? Why seminary, why now?” to the candidates that made it to the final round of interviews.
“[Walton’s] answer was, ‘I acknowledge all that [information about declining enrollment], but that’s the wrong question. Depression is up. Suicide is up. Addiction is through the roof. What a time to be a seminary.’”
Rowell reflected, “That is the best thing I’ve ever heard. In my mind, I was like, OK, he’s got to be the president because that’s such a genius way of seeing it.”
At a dinner, the night before PTS announced their next president, Cecily Cline Walton told Best that Jonathan Lee Walton would be assuming the position. “My heart got so full at that moment,” Best noted. “It’s one of those things that you hear that seems and sounds and feels so right.”
When Glaude heard about the appointment, “I wanted to shout the news at the top of my lungs. I am just delighted he has returned home!”
Walton articulated his goals for Princeton Theological Seminary: “Number one, the African American Protestant tradition always viewed education as a sacred task. Education is something that should be cherished; it’s something that we should always pursue because a healthy democracy hangs on the hinges of equitable educational opportunities.”
Walton’s second goal derives from his perspective on education. “I have a commitment to flexibility and accessibility. We know that we can create systems and structures to provide the extraordinary resources of institutions such as Princeton seminary to a large swath of the public.”
Finally, Walton connects to his own journey of homecoming in his third goal: to emphasize PTS’s role as a lifelong learning community. “We are a learning community of which people become a part and they remain apart. A place where people can come and upskill and retool and re-engage. This is what I pray and hope for this campus — that it will be that learning community for life.”
Julie Levey is a senior Features writer for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any correction requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.