15 February 2007

Thomas Bray: Forgotten Visionary

February 15 is the day when the Episcopal Church remembers Thomas Bray, and so a few words about this largely overlooked hero of the past.

Thomas Bray was born at Marton, in Shropshire, in 1656 and died in London in 1730.

He was educated at Oswestry School and All Souls College, Oxford University. After leaving the university he was appointed vicar of Over Whitacre, and rector of Sheldon in Warwickshire, where he wrote his Catechetical Lectures. Henry Compton, Bishop of London, appointed him in 1696 as his commissary to organize the Church of England in Maryland, and he was in that colony in 1699-1700. There he developed a successful scheme for establishing parish libraries in England and America, out of which grew the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK).

On Bray’s return to England he found the work of his society had so increased that it seemed better to constitute one of its departments into a separate society; and thus the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) was established in 1701.

Bray envisioned a library for each parish in America, funded by booksellers and stocked with books donated by authors. These libraries were meant to encourage the spread of the Anglican church in Britain’s colonies, and as such were primarily composed of theological works. It was a major endeavor, as at the time the only other public libraries in the American colonies were at a small number of universities.

The people of the colonies seem to have taken comparatively little interest in adding to the libraries by the purchase of “good and godly books”, and as those already in the libraries became antiquated and worn out, the libraries lost their usefulness and mouldered away in the corners. Bray was in advance of his. There were two serious defects in his plan: it made no provision for addition of books from time to time to these libraries, and there was no disposition on the part of the people of the colonies to maintain and increase the libraries at their own expense.

Nevertheless, a recent writer speaks of him as “a striking instance of what a man can effect, without any extraordinary genius and without any special influence. It would be difficult to point to any one who has done more real and enduring service to the Church of England. He cannot be reckoned among our great divines, but his writings produced more immediate practical results than those of greater divines have done.”

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