Witherspoon Press Release 11.11.15

A 100-Year Old Act of Ecclesiastical Lynching Exposed

Synod of the Northeast Clears Debt as Act of Racial Reconciliation with Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, Princeton, NJ



CONTACT: Rev. Mieke Vandersall 917-776-0292 — mieke@wingo.nyc

East Syracuse, NY: As an act of racial reconciliation, the Synod of the Northeast will clear $175,000 of debt for the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church during their 175th anniversary celebration, scheduled for Sunday, November 15, 2015. This one-time grant is in response to the ecclesiastical lynching of the Rev. William Robeson in 1901, who was pastor of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and was outspoken in his advocacy for racial justice. The Rev. William Robeson is the father of Paul Robeson.

The Rev. Dr. Harold Delhagen, Synod Leader, says “As a regional community of over 1,100 Presbyterian churches committed to racial justice, this story has compelled us to do justice and not simply talk about it.”

Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church was started by the slaves who used to sit in the balcony at First Presbyterian Church, Princeton (now Nassau Presbyterian Church), after a fire that hit First Church destroyed the balcony where the slaves sat to worship. In 1879, the Rev. Robeson, an African-American and former slave himself, became their pastor. Outspoken in his efforts to end racism and Jim Crow laws in Princeton and beyond, he was deeply beloved by his congregation.

Because of his advocacy, the Rev. Robeson was forced out of his position by white members of the presbytery. This resulted in a significant loss in funding for Witherspoon Street Church and also the destruction of the Rev. Robeson’s career. Due to this loss, the manse at the time of the Rev. Robeson, which was bought for $1,000, had to be sold.

This manse was repurchased by Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 2005 for $435,000. There are two mortgages for approximately $175,000. The space is now called the Paul Robeson House and is a meeting place for people to study and advance human rights.

The Synod investigated this story and in September recommended that there be a formal apology by the Presbytery of New Brunswick. A letter of affirmation has been sent to the Presbytery of New Brunswick for making amends for the injustice committed by the Presbytery, and for issuing the apology. The Presbytery of New Brunswick is contributing $2,500 towards this effort and encouraging its member churches to also assist.

The Rev. Dr. Harold Delhagen, the Synod Leader, and members of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church are available for interview upon request.


About the Synod of the Northeast: The Synod is the regional community of Presbyterians from the top of Maine to the bottom of New Jersey, which holds 22 presbyteries, over 1,100 congregations and 180,000 individuals. We gather our presbyteries together to nurture innovation and strengthen communities.