The Missionary Societies
We heard earlier on how the Bishops of the Church of England, and principally the Bishop of London, managed church life in the colonies through the work of commissaries. The most famous, able, and influential of these commissaries was a Shropshire Boy, Thomas Bray, who was born in 1658. A bright boy from a boy family, Bray went to Oxford, became a school master and then was ordained, being presented to a series of livings by lay patrons who heard him preach and were impressed by his learning and good sense. By 1690 he was Rector of Sheldon in Warwickshire.
Bray took his legal responsibilities seriously, especially that laid down in the 59th Canon of the CofE’s Canon Law: the young of the parish were to be catechetized on Sunday afternoons. Bray realised that teaching the faith required resourcing, and so published his own system of teaching under the catchy title Catechetical Lectures. It was a best seller, selling 3000 copies and making a profit of £700 (equivalent to more than £100,000 today!). Even more importantly it got him the attention of the bishop of London, Henry Compton.
When in 1695 the Governor of Maryland requested the Bishop of London to provide an able clergyman as commissary for the colony, Compton knew exactly who to send.
As he was preparing to leave for the Americas Bray surveyed the clergy who would be prepared to travel as missionaries with him. Unsurprisingly he found that it was the poor, unbeneficed clergy who were prepared to go (they had no fat living to lose in England), and yet they were the clergy without libraries of their own, and the learning Bray felt was necessary for such an important task. He petitioned the Bishop Compton for assistance in setting up a charity to support buying books for clergy. He received a donation of £44 (£5000) from Princess (later Queen) Anne, and thus was born, in 1699, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. In the December of the same year he finally travelled to Maryland, taking three months to get there, and founding thirty-nine libraries, some having more than a thousand volumes.
On his return Bray realised that a more thorough effort at the evangelising of the colonies was needed. He saw the danger posed to the Anglican Church by the vigour of such groups as the Quakers, and so in 1701 he received the charter for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). Its first meeting was held in Lambeth Palace, and the Archbishop of Canterbury became its first president. It was the means by which the Church of England was able to support its clergy in the English colonies ‘for the instruction of the King’s loving subjects in the Christian religion’ and to evangelize the native peoples there. Having set up these two important societies, Bray retired to his parish, first Sheldon, and then St Botolph’s Aldgate in the city of London.
It was Bray’s foresight that enable the Anglican church to survive the shocks of the War of Independence. It was the model of the two societies which enabled the Church of England to respond to the growth of empire in the nineteenth century, with the swift foundation of other missionary societies:
- CMS– 1799, for the missions to Africa and Asia;
- UMCA (Universities’ Mission to Central Africa)– 1857 (working in Malawi and Zanzibar);
- the BFBS (British & Foreign Bible Society)– 1804;
- the LMS (London Missionary Society)– 1795 (David Livingstone’s sponsoring body);
- SAMS (South American Missionary Society originally the Patagonian Mission)– 1844.
An assessment of the missionary societies?
On the one hand:
SPG funded its missionary endeavours, in part, through the ownership of the Codrington plantation in Barbados where slaves had the word “Society” branded on their chests. Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1758 to 1768 realised that this was a dreadful responsibility: “I have long wondered and lamented that the Negroes in our plantation decrease and new supplies become necessary continually. Surely this proceeds from some defect, both of humanity and even of good policy. But we must take things as they are at present.” When slavery was abolished in 1833, the bishop of Exeter was paid nearly £13,000 (over £1 million) to compensate him for the loss of 665.
On the other hand:
Before his enthronement as Archbishop of York, John Sentamu said this:
My late parents always said to me whenever you meet a group of people who may be interested in hearing what you have to say, always tell them how grateful we are for the missionaries who risked their lives to bring the good news of God’s salvation to Uganda. It is because of that missionary endeavour that I am standing in front of you. A fruit of their risk-taking and love.1
In the end it was right and is right that a church which was founded and fostered and fed by missionary endeavour from a world-wide church contributed in turn to that missionary endeavour.
- Quoted in Stephen Bates, ‘A cleric’s journey: from Idi Amin’s Uganda to York’, The Guardian, Saturday 18 June 2005. [↩]