In This Article The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts

  • Introduction
  • Archival Materials and Catalogs
  • Journals
  • Founding and Metropolitan Organization
  • Sermons and Books
  • Education
  • Individual Missionaries and Members

Atlantic History The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts
by
Travis Glasson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0067

Introduction

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) was a Church of England missionary organization active in the British Atlantic world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Founded in 1701 by Reverend Thomas Bray and a small group of lay and clerical associates, it sent Anglican clergymen and religious literature to Britain’s colonies, supported schoolmasters and the establishment of new churches, and lobbied for a more expansive place for the Church of England in Britain’s burgeoning empire. In total, the SPG supported more than four hundred overseas agents in the 18th century. Bray and his collaborators believed that the colonial Church of England was underdeveloped, that it had too few properly ordained ministers, and that dissenters, especially Quakers, exercised too much influence in the colonies. Many SPG supporters also looked on global Roman Catholic missionary activity with a mixture of awe and hostility, and envisioned the organization as a counterweight to the Jesuits and other Catholic orders. The society focused its attention on British colonies without strong Anglican legal establishments. As a result, while its role in the Chesapeake and most Caribbean colonies was minimal, the SPG was continuously active in the lower South, the mid-Atlantic, New England, Bermuda, and colonies that would become part of Canada. It also operated in Barbados, where a charitable bequest aimed at establishing a college made the society owners of a slave-worked sugar plantation, and it launched the first British missionary program in West Africa beginning in the 1750s. The SPG devoted the bulk of its resources to bringing Anglican worship to European settlers and was instrumental in the long-term institutional development of the Church of England and Episcopalianism in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. It also worked, albeit with mixed results, toward the Christianization of Native Americans and free and enslaved Africans and African Americans. The society’s original charter confined its operations to Britain’s colonies, so its activities in much of mainland North America ceased with the establishment of an independent United States in 1783. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the society expanded its activities in the Caribbean and what remained of British North America, and then became an increasingly global missionary organization as the 19th century progressed. The society remains active worldwide, operating after 1965 as the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) and since a 2012 rebranding as the United Society or “Us.”

General Overviews

There are no full-length accounts of the overall history of the SPG other than those produced by authors affiliated with or commissioned by the society. The best of these Authorized Histories, Pascoe 1901 and O’Connor, et al. 2000, provide a natural starting place for investigating the organization, but readers should be aware that they are intended to further the society’s program. Independent academic historians have long been aware of the society’s importance to the religious history of the colonial United States and the British Empire, and considerations of its role have been incorporated into surveys and syntheses in those fields. The current leading accounts of early American religious history, Bonomi 1986 and Butler 1990 (both cited under Colonial American Religious History), both give significant attention to the SPG and are valuable introductions to the organization’s impact in the colonies that became part of the United States. Within the literature on British missionary history, which has tended to focus on the 19th and 20th centuries, Strong 2007 (cited under British Missionary History) is valuable for its concentration on the 18th and early 19th centuries and provides a more balanced assessment of the organization than is available in the authorized histories. Porter 2004 (cited under British Missionary History) is primarily concerned with later periods, but it is important because it incorporates the history of the 18th-century SPG into a wider argument about the relationship between missionary activity and the aims of British imperialists.

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