15 February 2013
With the Saints in Lent (3): Thomas Bray, 15 February
The Revd Dr Thomas Bray (1658-1730), an Anglican priest who spent time in Maryland as a missionary, was the founder of both the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG, now the United Society or Us) and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK). He is commemorated on this date [15 February] in several Churches in the Anglican Communion, including the Church of England and the Episcopal Church.
Thomas Bray was born into a humble Shropshire family in 1658 in Marton, near Chirbury, the son of Richard and Mary Bray. The house on Martin Crest is now known as Bray’s Tenement.
The local bishop took notice of young Thomas and felt that with his bright mind he should receive a good education. The bishop sponsored him and paid for his education. Thomas Bray He was educated at Oswestry School, matriculated at All Souls’ College, Oxford, as a “poor boy” on 12 March 1675, and graduated BA in 1678. He later received the degrees MA at Hart Hall (now Hertford College) in 1693, and BD and DD at Magdalene College, Oxford, in 1696.
Thomas Bray was ordained priest in 1682, and he was curate at Bridgnorth before becoming a private chaplain and then Vicar of Over Whitacre and from 1690-1695 Rector of Saint Giles, Sheldon, in Warwickshire, in the Diocese of Lichfield. There he wrote his Catechetical Lectures, which was dedicated to William Lloyd, Bishop of Lichfield. While he was in Warwickshire, he married is first wife, Eleanor.
He appears to have been widowed by 1695, when the Bishop of London, Henry Compton, appointed him as his commissary to organise the struggling Anglican presence in the colony of Maryland.
But his visit to Maryland was long delayed by legal complications, and during that delay, the widowed Thomas Bray married Agnes Sayers of Saint Martin’s-in-the-Fields in Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, Holborn in 1698.
Thomas Bray eventually set sail for America in 1699 for his first and only visit. Although he spent only ten weeks in Maryland, Bray was deeply concerned about the neglected state of the Church in America and the great need for the education of the clergy, the laity people and children.
He radically reorganised and renewed the Church in Maryland, providing for the instruction of children and the systematic examination of candidates for pastoral positions. He also took a great interest in colonial missions, especially among the Native Americans.
At a general visitation of the clergy in Annapolis before his return to England, he emphasised the need for the instruction of children and insisted that no clergyman be given a charge unless he had a good report from the ship he came over in, “whether … he gave no matter of scandal, and whether he did constantly read prayers twice a day and catechise and preach on Sundays, which, notwithstanding the common excuses, I know can be done by a minister of any zeal for religion.”
As a result of his visit to Maryland, he proposed a successful scheme for establishing parish libraries in England and America. Bray’s vision was for a library in each parish in America, funded by booksellers and stocked with books donated by authors. These libraries were to encourage the spread of the Anglicanism in the colonies, and were primarily composed of theological works. It was a major endeavour, as at the time the only other public libraries in the American colonies were at a small number of universities.
Back in England, he raised money for missionary work and influenced young Anglican priests to go to America. But his efforts to secure the consecration of a bishop for America were unsuccessful.
In England, he also wrote and preached in defence of the rights of enslaved Africans, and of Indians deprived of their land. He also worked for the reform of prison conditions, and for the establishment of preaching missions to prisoners. He persuaded General James Oglethorpe to found a colony in Georgia for the settlement of debtors as an alternative to debtors’ prison.
In response to his experiences, Thomas Bray was instrumental in establishing both SPCK in 1699 and SPG in 1701.
From 1706 until his death in 1730 he was Vicar of Saint Botolph Without, Aldgate, London, where he continued his philanthropic and literary pursuits. He served the parish with energy and devotion, while continuing his efforts on behalf of African slaves in America and in founding parish libraries.
By the time he died on 15 February 1730 at the age of 74, Bray had succeeded in establishing 80 libraries in England and Wales and 39 in America.
Thomas Bray’s most widely circulated work is his four-volume A Course of Lectures upon the Church Catechism, published in 1696.
Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 102: 15-22; Philippians 2: 1-5; Luke 10: 1-9.
O God of compassion, who opened the eyes of your servant Thomas Bray to see the needs of the Church in the New World, and led him to found societies to meet those needs: Make the Church in this land diligent at all times to propagate the Gospel among those who have not received it, and to promote the spread of Christian knowledge; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Tomorrow (16 February): Onesimus.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin).