The Revd Dr Thomas Bray
Founder of the SPG
1658 - Feb 15th 1730
Tucked away in a fold of some gentle hills on the Welsh borders near a village called Marton-in-Chirbury there is a farmhouse called "Brays Tenement". It seems strange that a man born in that house 345 years ago, in what is still a fairly isolated rural community, was the inspiration for aspects of education in this country and for mission and development work still going on in many parts of the world today.
Thomas Bray was educated at the local school in Oswestry and then in 1675, at the age of seventeen, went up to All Souls Oxford as a ‘poor student’. In 1681 he was ordained and became Rector of Sheldon (1690 - 1706) on the edge of Birmingham and then became the incumbent at St Botolph's, Aldgate, London.
In the 17th century, clergy working in America were under the authority of the Bishop of London, one Henry Compton. Reports from the colonies showed that there were "scarce four ministers of the Church of England in all the vast tract of America" and so, in 1696, Compton appointed Bray as the Commissioner for Maryland with the specific remit of finding ways to encouraging clergy to go to the new world. Bray immediately appointed a curate for his parish in Sheldon and moved to London. He gathered a group of very influential people around him and gained the support of Princess Anne for his work.
Since his University days Bray had been convinced of the power of Christian catechism to assist in the development of individuals and communities. He had even written a five volume tract on the subject which had turned into a best seller. He was also convinced that the Church of England as an institution had a unique ability to convert and make disciples of individuals. He therefore set about his task with these two things in the front of his mind.
His first concern was to provide clergy already resident in the New World with literature, secular, theological and devotional. He was remarkably successful in persuading English clergy to venture to the New World (twenty-nine missionaries went within three years) and in order to attract the cream of graduates, put a lot of effort into making sure they were provided with books. Records from the time state that missionaries were kitted out with gown, cassock, hat, a box of fifty-two books and tracts for distribution as freebies! By 1699 The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) was born in order to formalise this work. Bray went on to expand his horizons providing lending libraries for poor clergy both home and abroad.
In 1700 Bray went to Maryland for two months. His chief task was to argue with the Quakers and Roman Catholics about the status of the Church of England in that part of the world. Again he was remarkably successful and the Church of England gained settlement status through the Maryland Church Act that he wanted. On his return Bray decided the general support for clergy, beyond the provision of books, not only needed formalising but could do with a bit of help from the Crown. He wrote a petition to the King for a Royal Charter for his work. He was then asked to write a draft of the Charter which was duly signed on 16th June 1701. The Charter gave authority ‘for ever thereafter to collect and administer funds for the better support and maintenance of an orthodox clergy in foreign parts’. The SPG was born.
Thomas Bray’s creative work was done and in 1704 he returned to Sheldon. His belief in education as an instrument in the fight for equality and progress never dwindled however. In 1717 he formed a group called ‘The Dr Bray Associates’ which provided funding and support for the education of plantation slaves. This work went as far as to found the ‘new colony’ of Georgia USA in 1733.
Thomas Brays portrait hangs alongside portraits of many other worthies in one of the large meeting rooms in Partnership House, the base of many current mission agencies in the UK including USPG. His face and his hairstyle have provided me with many energy-giving moments of distraction while in meetings. There’s a definite quiet calm about him which is missing from many of his earnest bearded and quoifed companions. Urban myth has it that he had quite a sad family life - his first wife died quite young and he brought up two small children on his own until he married again - and quite a sacrificial nature. The story goes that just before his journey to Maryland his wife heard a commotion, went to the window and caught him selling all their furniture out in the street. There is also something thoughtful, to the point of prophetic about him. He once had a huge row with the philosopher and Dean of Derry, George Berkeley about methods of mission. Berkeley wanted to set up a college in Bermuda for people to be trained for mission and then sent back into their home communities. Bray argued that they would be rejected on their return as pompous ‘know it alls’; far better, he said, for people to simply live among others and teach by sharing their life.
Thomas Bray was a visionary with a passion for books and learning, which he wanted others to share. He was also a person who had used education to take him up in the world and then used the contacts he had made to help make the lives of others easier. It is interesting that in his writing he identified the importance of young people in the life of the church; he stressed the family as a place where faith could be nurtured and transmitted and he also emphasised the place of worship and the Eucharistic community as a vehicle for mission.