Skip to content

A Brief Introduction: The Records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in...

  • Home
  • Posts
  • A Brief Introduction: The Records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts
Authored by Isobel Pridmore
Published on 10th March, 2021 11 min read

A Brief Introduction: The Records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts

I. The Archives of the SPG

These documents relating to North America are true archives in Sir Hilary Jenkinson's definition of the word: that is, they came into being as a result of the work of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, and have been preserved ever since in its custody. After the first meeting at Lambeth Palace in 1701, the business of the Society was conducted from the office of the Secretary, which was at first his private house. Some of the original letters from missionaries have disappeared during the peregrinations of the Office, as is obvious to anyone who tries to collect all the letters of one man from the various series. But much the greatest part of this correspondence from overseas has, however, survived from the 18th century; and today occupies numerous bound volumes and boxes of letters. The Journals run continuously from 1701 to the present day.

II. A Brief History of the SPG, 1701-

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) was founded by Royal Charter granted on 16 June 1701. The 'circumstances which led to the establishment of the Society were closely linked with the era of expanding trade in the later 17th century and in particular with the history of the American colonies. The opening words of the charter state that many of the King's "plantacons, colonies and factories beyond the seas are wholly destitute and unprovided of a mainteynance for ministers and the public worshipp of God and for lack of support and mainteynance for such, many of our loving subjects doe want the administration of God's word and sacraments, and seem to be abandoned to atheism and infidelity..." Such a state of affairs had arisen as a result of the uncoordinated growth of the colonies. Early colonists had often expressed their intention of converting the Indian tribes and of maintaining the Christian religion; and these duties were recognised in the in the royal charters. But over the years the rigours of colonial life and the remoteness of the contact with the homeland had resulted in a decline in zeal.

Reports reaching this country of conditions across the Atlantic were few enough but such as came and, in particular, that from the Rev. John Yeo in Maryland, helped to stir Henry Compton, Bishop of London, to action. He began to appoint commissaries for the colonies; and one of these, the Rev. Thomas Bray, appointed for Maryland in 1696, was very largely responsible for the founding of the SPG. Bray, a far-sighted and energetic churchman combined zeal with a marked organising ability. In 1698 he had been instrumental in forming the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in order to supply the clergy overseas with books. After his visit to Maryland in the following year, he realized that the work to be done would be too much for one society and that another society, having a more precise and official status would be required. Bray secured the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London and the Lower House of Convocation and himself petitioned the King, while a meeting of the SPCK was responsible for the drafting of the charter.The primary object of the Society was to "ensure that sufficient mainteynance be provided for an orthodox clergy to live amongst the colonists and that such other provision be made as may be necessary for the propagation of the gospel in those parts..." The work of the Society was thus originally restricted to those parts under the British Crown, but in the instructions given to the missionaries it was made clear that apart from performing divine service, catechism, and baptism, they were to instruct heathens and infidels and to encourage the setting-up of schools for the teaching of children.

In the first half of the 18th century the Society was at work in America, Newfoundland, the West Indies (chiefly in the Bahamas, the Leeward Islands, and the Windward Islands, where General Codrington had left his estate on Barbados to the Society), and the Moskito Shore on the Bay of Honduras. The letters home come not only from priests and schoolmasters, but from private persons not directly connected with the Society, and from the governors of colonies. French and German Protestants in America were also ministered to, and the Society had some correspondence with European churches. The need for a bishop in America was sorely obvious, and the SPG made attempts to have one appointed, but with no success.

In 1751 the Rev. Thomas Thompson was, at his own request, transferred from New Jersey and sent to the Gold Coast of Africa. As a result of his sending three boys to England for their education, Philip Quaque became the first of any non-European race since the Reformation to receive Anglican ordination, and returned to labour at Cape Coast Castle.

From Canada had come requests for a minister, and in 1749 the Commissioners of Trade and Plantations asked the Society to name a minister and a schoolmaster for each of six townships for "a number of persons being sent to the Province of Nova Scotia." Two ministers and a schoolmaster were in Canada within three months. Again, they were called to work with other nationalities, including those French, German and Swiss who became members of the Church of England, using the Book of Common Prayer in their own language.

In the 19th century work expanded to other islands in the West Indies (Tobago and Trinidad) and began in British Guiana on the River Pomeroon in 1835. The See of Calcutta was founded in 1814, and in 1818 the SPG placed £5,000 at the Bishop's disposal. This sum he recommended should be used for the establishment of a mission college. So came into being Bishop's College. The Society began work in 1820 in Bengal and, in 1825, it accepted responsibility from the SPCK for the Mission in South India which had been inherited from the Danish Mission and which, for nearly 100 years, was carried on by German Lutheran agents. During the next 25 years the Society began work in the rest of India, Burma and Ceylon.

The first entry into South Africa was at the Cape in 1821, and from this start the gospel has been carried far into the heart of Africa. Mauritius, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Madagascar also saw the SPG at work within the next 30 years or so. During this same period Australia needed help, especially with the emigrant and ex-convict population, and before 1840 there were priests and congregations in all the states there. Because the Church Missionary Society (CMS) had begun to evangelise the Maoris of New Zealand, the SPG worked mainly with the European settlers from 1839. It gave heavy financial support, as Bishop Selwyn asked, not for annual grants, but for endowments so that the Church in New Zealand might strive to become self-supporting. Melanesia (with Norfolk and Pitcairn Islands) from 1796, Polynesia (centred on the Fiji Islands, but covering a vast stretch of the Pacific) 1880, and the Hawaiian Islands from 1862 (until the Diocese of Honolulu passed to the Protestant Episcopal Church in America) complete the tale of SPG interest in the Pacific travelling eastwards.

In Sarawak the "White Rajah", Sir James Brooke, had appealed to the Church for help in establishing a mission, and the Borneo Church Mission Fund (BCMF) came into being as a result in 1846. By 1853 the work and expenses had increased to such an extent that the SPG had to undertake the whole charge of the BCMF, following on with North Borneo in 1888. The Straits Settlements of Malaya had a missionary in 1861, but SPG's work there after 1866 had to wait for revival in 1872. In China the work really began in 1874 at Chefoo. Work was started in Korea in 1883 and in Japan in 1873.

The Society has always been interested in education, and sent out schoolmasters from the 18th Century. In 1863 Mrs. Winter, the wife of the missionary at Delhi, introduced the Zenana system of teaching so as to reach the women of India, and also began a simple dispensary. By 1911 a separate Medical Missions Department had been formed. Since that date the work of the SPG has widened further. Indeed, aid to the Church overseas today also includes finding agriculturists and other technical helpers to work abroad. In response to appeals from bishops of the Anglican Communion, the Society is sending funds and living agents to many parts of the world - a mighty tree has grown from the small seed planted in 1701.

III. The Letters

(a) The "A" Series, 1702-1737

This series consists of manuscript letter-books kept by the first three secretaries of the Society. Vols. 1-6 contain only in-letters, while vols 7-26 contain both in- and out-letters. Here are letters and papers from (and to) the missionaries appointed by SPG to the American Colonies, and also from governors of colonies, private persons and church-wardens there. Inland letters come from subscribers in England, and others. There are a few from churches on the continent of Europe. The letters are arranged chronologically, but there is some overlapping of dates, as inland letters were copied into the books long before those of the same date from overseas. The letter books are of considerable importance, as the majority of the originals from which the letters were copied are no longer extant. The volumes have their own contemporary index. A series of typescript Calendars is available for reference, and their two forms of index ("Letters from Mr.." and "Persons mentioned in the letters") are reproduced at the end of each volume of letters.

(b) The "B" Series, 1701-1786

This series contains original in-letters and drafts or copies of out-letters. The bulk consists of letters received from the American colonies, with a sizable number of letters sent to the colonies. Some volumes relate mainly to a particular colony, but vols. 7 & 9-20 contain general correspondence, beginning in 1738 just after the A Series ends and continuing to 1753. The volumes have contemporary indexes, and calendars have been prepared, from which the two indexes (as A Series) have been reproduced here. The following volumes contain letters mainly from:

1. New York and New England, mostly 1712-14 and 1725-33;

2 & 3. New York, 1755-82;

4 & 5. North and South Carolina, 1715-91;

6. Bahamas, Barbadoes, Newfoundland and Pennsylvania;

8. Barbadoes;

21. Pennsylvania, 1700-82; and a few letters from New York during the American Revolution;

22. Massachusetts;

23. Connecticut, 1754-82;

24. New Jersey, 1754-82;

25. Nova Scotia, 1760-86.

Owing to the nature of the original binding of the letters and enclosures, the images do not necessarily show them in their strict sequence. Researchers should therefore take special care that dates and item numbers are checked when referring to these materials.

(c) The "C" Series

This series consists of original 18th century letters from the colonies, not bound but kept in boxes. The series is similar to A and B, and it is not known why these letters were not bound up when the others were collected into volumes. There are also 65 letters (1731-33) from the Secretary of the Society, the Rev. Dr David Humphreys, to missionaries and others, mainly acknowledging letters from the addressees and giving instructions thereon. The exception to similarity with A and B is the collection of Georgia papers (80 letters, 1758-82), which constitute the bulk of SPG documents concerning this colony. The contents of the boxes are arranged chronologically by colony. A calendar was prepared about 1925, but there has been some slight re-arrangement since then, so a chronological list of contents of each box has been reproduced for ease of reference.

IV. Guide to Further Reading

(a) General Histories of the SPG

C.F. PASCOE, Two hundred years of the SPG (London, 1910)

H.P. THOMPSON, Into all lands (London, 1950)

H.P. THOMPSON, Thomas Bray (London, 1954)

(b) The SPG in the USA

R.P. BOND, Queen Anne's American kings (Oxford, 1952)

C. BRIDENBAUGH, Mitre and sceptre: transatlantic faiths, ideas, personalities and politics (New York, 1962)

F.J. KLINGBERG, Anglican humanitarianism in colonial New York (Church Historical Society, Philadelphia, 1950)

J.W. LYDEKKER, The faithful Mohawks (Cambridge, 1938)

W.J. SEABURY, Memoir of Bishop Scabury (New York, 1908)

S.C. McCULLOCH (ed.), British humanitarianism (Church Historical Society, Philadelphia, 1940)

(c) The SPG in Canada

T.C.B. BOON, The Anglican Church from the Bay to the Rockies (Toronto, 1963)

T.R. MILLMAN, Life of the Right Reverend The Honourable Charles James Stewart (Ontario, 1953)

T.R. MILLMAN, Jacob Mountain: a study in church and state, 1793-1825 (Toronto, 1947)

[This introduction was composed in the 1960s.]


Acknowledgement of Copyrights: Microform Academic Publishers gratefully acknowledge the permission granted by the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to publish materials from its extensive archives both online and in microform.

Authored by Isobel Pridmore

Isobel Pridmore

Erstwhile Archivist, The United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel

Share this article

Contextual Essays
Back to Top