Monday, February 16, 2009

Bray and His Books

I think I would have liked Thomas Bray (1658-1730). Obviously, he liked books as much as I do. In addition, he was a scholar, writer, philanthropist, and libraries were his “thing”, in fact, so much so that he envisioned and turned his efforts to setting up lending libraries in both England and in the new American colonies.

Born in Marton, Shropshire, he later attended Oswestry School and Oxford University, earning a B.A. degree from All Souls College, and an M.A. from Hart Hall. After serving as vicar of Over Whitacre, and during his tenure as the rector of Sheldon, Warwickshire, he wrote
A Course of Lectures Upon the Church Catechism, in nine volumes, no less. In 1699, before he was sent to America, he founded the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), still in existence today.

Bishop Henry Compton, of London, invited the young country parson to be his commissary in organizing and overseeing the Anglican Church in the American colony of Maryland. Though his only visit to Maryland lasted but about 10 weeks, Bray picked up at once on the neglected state of the American Church, particularly in the area of education. Before returning to England, Bray met with the clergy at Annapolis, and stressed the need for them to instruct their children. He said that no clergyperson should be in charge unless he had good recommendations from the ship in which he came over “
whether...he gave no matter of scandal, and whether he did constantly read prayers twice a day and catechize and preach on Sundays, which, notwithstanding the common excuses,” he said, “I know can be done by a minister of any zeal for religion.

Thomas Bray also displayed a remarkable understanding of and concern for the needs of Native Americans and black slaves, long before those causes ever became popular. Eventually, he succeeded in setting up 39 lending libraries and a number of schools in America. In addition he raised money for missionary work and encouraged young English priests to take their ministry to America.

Back in England, Bray continued his mission of setting up libraries in both England and Wales and his ministry in education. The Bishop of London, Bishop Compton, had asked Bray, upon his return from America, to report on the state of the Church in the colonies. Bray related that the Anglican Church in America had "
little spiritual vitality" and was "in a poor organisational condition". On June 16, 1701 King William III issued a charter, at Bray’s urging, establishing the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) as an organisation to send priests and schoolteachers to America, and to help minister to Anglican colonists. The society’s first missionaries started working in North America the following year, and in the West Indies in 1703. The provisions of its charter were later expanded to include evangelizing black slaves and Native Americans. By the time of the American Revolution, SPG had employed about 300 missionaries in North America, soon expanding to Australia, New Zealand and West Africa. The SPG was also important in the establishment of the American Episcopal Church. In 1965 the SPG merged with Universities’ Mission to Central Africa to form the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG), as it is known today.

At this time there was only haphazard feeding of many inmates in English institutions, especially in prisons. Thomas Bray took on this cause also, trying to influence public opinion and to raise money to better the plight of prison inmates. Thanks to his and others‘ efforts, a recognized scale of rations, known as “dietaries”, was adopted in the 18th and 19th centuries, both to inform inmates of their feeding rights and to eliminate corruption by the staff. “Beef and Beer” dinners in the prisons became a widely known reference in England. It was also Thomas Bray who suggested to British general, James Oglethorpe, founder of the American colony of Georgia, the idea of founding a humanitarian colony for the relief of honest debtors, although Bray died before Georgia became a reality.

Bray was also a “long-term rector”, serving St. Botolph Without, Aldgate, London, from 1706-1730, when he died at age 72 (Yikes! Same age as I’ll be on February 27!) He was loved for the energy and devotion with which he cared for his people, and also for his continuing efforts for black slaves in America and the founding of parish libraries.

Those of you who are “friends of the library” in your community may be interested in something Thomas Bray said in a sermon, preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral, December 19, 1697. Referring to those who were generous and proactive in “
expend[ing] most in fixing libraries of necessary and useful books”, he commented:

...those who shall make such a lasting provision for
the instruction and conversion of any considerable part
of mankind may, in so doing, be very well looked upon as
a sort of apostle to those parts of the world...
hence we may clearly gather that, proportionately as persons
shall approach nearest to the apostles in evangelising mankind,
they shall be placed nearer and nearer to them upon the
several ascents to the highest stations in the kingdom of heaven...

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