Feeling three hundred when you’re
only thirty six - the USPG celebrates

I thought I’d take some time out to update you on one of the biggest scams in Anglicanism that I’ve discovered. It turns out that, although USPG is spending a lot of money and time celebrating their Tercentenary this year, they are in fact only thirty six years old! It seems to me that it’s only in the world of Christians that adding two hundred and sixty four years to your age makes sense!

The United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) came into existence on 1st January 1965 when SPG (the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts) merged with UMCA (the Universities Mission to Central Africa) to form a united missionary society. Later on in 1968 the Cambridge Mission to Delhi became part of the Society.


The SPG was the inspiration of Revd Dr Thomas Bray. He visited Maryland, USA at the end of the 17th Century on behalf of the Bishop of London and found the Church of England in the American Colonies had little spiritual vitality and was in a poor organisational condition. At first Dr Bray contented himself with providing educational resources for the clergy in America and it was in order to fully organise this aspect of his work that he and four friends formed SPCK - the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge - in 1699. But it was not enough and so Dr Bray set about getting the support of the king - William III. The support came on the 16th June 1701 when William issued a royal charter establishing the SPG as an organisation able to send priests and schoolteachers to America to help provide the church’s ministry to the colonists and to take the message of the gospel to the slaves and native Americans. The SPG didn’t just send people but recruited people in America as well, particularly women, to help teach. By the time the USA claimed independence the SPG had supported the work of about 300 people and had made a substantial contribution to the foundation of the Episcopal Church.

Soon after 1701 the SPG’s horizons began to expand, first to countries which hosted large numbers of British migrants such as the West Indies, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and West Africa and then further afield to places such as China (1863) and Japan (1873).


The UMCA was founded as the direct result of David Livingstone’s return from Africa in 1857 and his challenge to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge to do something about the horrors of the slave trade. The cathedral in Zanzibar was built on the area of the slave market and the altar stands on the site of the block where slaves were auctioned. One of the UMCA’s major contributions to medical work was its involvement in the fight against leprosy.

The Cambridge Mission to Delhi was also a university initiative. It was inspired by B. F. Westcott’s vision of a serious and respectful engagement with the Indian tradition. Much of its work has been done by the Brotherhood of the Ascension and St Stephen’s Community for women. In recent years its most striking innovation has been the Brotherhood’s bold ministry among the disadvantaged in Delhi.

Joining forces

Joining forces was a direct response to many challenges faced by all the mission societies - the necessity for different patterns of mission emerging out of the experience of partition of India and the growth of the independence movements in many African countries, the growing stability of the structures of autonomous churches and the decline in interest in mission in the churches of Britain and Ireland.

Concepts and people

Of course within the flow of history there are concepts and there are people. As to concepts, the work of the USPG has always been two-edged. Firstly there is a commitment to partnering other members of the world church, facilitating the movement of people, resources and ideas. That is why the USPG is unique in that a large proportion of its financial assistance is in the form of gifts to be used as the receiving community sees fit. Secondly there is a commitment to engaging with specific issues of advocacy for the poor, the marginalised and the unjustly treated. That is why the USPG continues to support the campaign for debt relief. Indeed it was a former Chairperson of the USPG Council, Bill Peters, who along with Martin Dent set up Jubilee 2000. As to the people one of my favourites is the plantation owner who left everything he owned to the USPG in his will; including his slaves! Imagine the spin doctoring that went on over that until the slaves could be given a sustainable start to a different occupation along with their freedom. Another is a woman called Dorothy Maud whom the SPG Candidates’ Secretary described with the words ‘She lacks many of the things we look for in our candidates. She could not be appointed to an educational post, she would never make a teacher or a nurse’. Dorothy went on to work on the outskirts of Johannesburg, establishing a centre offering nurture and support for women and children and facilitating community regeneration for the people of Sophiatown.

On June 15th 2001 St Paul’s Cathedral will be packed to overflowing with people giving thanks for the work of the USPG. If you are interested enough to read more from a historical perspective there’s a book called ‘Three Centuries of Mission’ and a booklet specifically about some of the people called ‘Pioneers and Pilgrims’. If you are into computers more than books the all singing all dancing USPG Tercentenary exhibition will be in Southwell Minster 18th July to the 3rd August (my exhibition assembly skills permitting!)

Esther Elliott

USPG website

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 2nd June 2001