Some men accomplish or inspire more good in one lifetime than most of us would in three lifetimes. Thomas Bray, who died on this day, February 15, 1730, was such a man.
Born in Shropshire, England, he trained at Oxford and became an Anglican rector. His life took a dramatic turn when Bishop Henry Compton of London received a letter from Maryland pleading for religious instruction. The bishop chose Thomas Bray to investigate religious conditions in the American colony.
Various complications kept Bray from sailing at once. He used the delays to enlist missionaries to travel with him. He soon found that the older, more established clergymen were not interested in transplanting to the colonies. Bray found that only young men, usually poor, were willing to venture forth. But lack of funds meant that these men could not afford the costly books they desperately needed if they were to continue their studies and respond in an educated manner to critics. The immorality of the colonists could only be combated by tearing away the veils of ignorance, which meant books were needed. To provide them, Bray organized the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK). With the help of many contributors, he acquired books and shipped them across the Atlantic.
Bray spent only ten weeks in Maryland. He saw at once that he would be more useful as a resource man in England. While in the colony, however, he reorganized the Maryland church, established a better system for examining candidates for the ministry, set in motion a system of parochial schools, and established thirty-nine libraries. In a day when fifty books were considered a sizable private collection, the SPCK put together collections of sixty and more volumes to ship overseas.
Bray also gathered data on the state of religion in the colonies and wrote an impassioned plea for Anglican missionaries in America. "My design is not to intermeddle, where Christianity under any form has obtained possession; but to represent rather the deplorable state of the English colonies, where they have been in a manner abandoned to atheism...for want of a clergy settled among them." His practical and foresighted plan received little attention, however. Neither did his appeals for the rights of Indians and of slaves.
Back in England, Bray founded another Society--this one for the Propagation of the Gospel. He continued his work with the SPCK. Long an advocate for placing lending libraries of religious works in all British deaneries, he saw his dream fulfilled as the SPCK and its faithful allies supplied England's churches with books. Bray also took a leading role in prison ministries. It was he who convinced General Oglethorpe to found the penal colony of Georgia. From 1706 until his death, he served as rector of Saint Botolph's Without in Aldgate, London.
- "Bray, Thomas." Encyclopedia Americana. Chicago: Encyclopedia Americana, corp., 1956.
- "Bray, Thomas." Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1967.
- "Bray, Thomas." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- Chalmers, John P. "Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge." (www.gslis.utexas.edu/~landc/bookplates/18_1_SPCK.htm).
- "Thomas Bray, Priest and Missionary." (http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/102.html).
- Thompson, Henry Paget. Thomas Bray. London: S.P.C.K., 1954.
- Various internet articles.
Last updated May, 2007.