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The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge

Bray founded a society to assist poor clergymen to acquire books.

THE SOCIETY for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) is the third oldest publishing house in England. Only the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have published longer. It came into existence on this day, 8 March 1698. 

The bishop of London had chosen Thomas Bray, an Anglican priest with a reputation for character and drive, to investigate religious conditions in the American colony of Maryland. Unable to sail for America at once, Bray used the delay to recruit young clergymen to travel with him as missionaries. Because these young men tended to be very poor, they could not afford the libraries they would need to continue their studies and meet the needs of their people with sound knowledge. Books were needed. 

The founders of the SPCK believed their primary purpose was to “counteract the growth of vice and immorality,” which they ascribed to “gross ignorance of the principles of the Christian religion.” With the help of many contributors, and the donation of £500 of his own money, Thomas Bray led the SPCK in acquiring books, and was able to donate small libraries of sixty titles for the use of churchmen. 

Bray sailed to Maryland, establishing thirty-nine libraries there and in other colonies. The library he established at Annapolis was the largest collection of books at the time in Britain’s American holdings, and was the first lending library in its colonies. Bray quickly realized, however, that he was more useful in England than in America. He sailed back after only ten weeks in the New World. 

From that small beginning, the SPCK provided the first printing presses for India, published religious books, pamphlets, and tracts for farmers, sailors, prisoners, military men and other groups, and continued its work of establishing Christian libraries both at home and abroad. 

The society also backed schools for the poor in Britain, sent the first printed books to Australia, helped produce the first New Testament in the Tamil language of India, and engaged in many other projects, almost all involving literature or literacy in some form.

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