The Correspondence of The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts

Primary Contributors:

Alison Searle and Emily Vine


The Seal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, taken from the frontispiece of A Collection of Papers, Printed by Order of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (London: printed by Joseph Downing, in Bartholomew-Close, near West-Smithfield, 1706). (Image from the copy in the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford; photograph by Emily Vine.)

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG, now USPG) was granted a Royal charter in 1701. It was established with the aim of financing and sending Church of England ministers to overseas English lands where it was reported that ‘Our Loving Subjects do want the Administration of God’s Word and Sacraments, and seem to be abandoned to Atheism and Infidelity’.1 It was a corporation by foundation and structure, managing the charity of subscribers to the Society, and redistributing this money to provide for clergy to travel across the Atlantic and establish their parishes, as well as for the sourcing and transport of books and resources to enable this ministry. The first missionaries were sent to the American colonies with the design of acting as ‘Learned and Orthodox ministers’ to live amongst and serve English settlers. The initial aim was to provide existing members of the Church with ministers and access to services and sacraments, rather than actively to seek to take the message of the gospel to non-Christian populations of indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans. From the outset the Society acknowledged the power vacuum created by a paucity of Church of England ministers, school masters, and resources in America, and that the unguided people were vulnerable to temptation from ‘divers Romish priests and Jesuits’. This would need to be combatted by the sending of both representatives of the English Church and of relevant literature, and accordingly the Society engaged in earnest in the circulation of ‘people, texts, and ideas’ across the ocean.2

In the decades after its foundation in 1701, the SPG functioned as a transatlantic community of letters, with the sending of correspondence and printed material across the ocean connecting missionaries in the thirteen colonies and the Caribbean with the Society’s headquarters in London.3 As appropriate for a Church Society which was closely linked with the workings of a commercial empire, the SPG’s administrative apparatus was central to its mission, and epistolary networks ensured that it functioned effectively over large geographical distances.4 Exchanges of letters propagated and standardized the Society’s aims, connected individual missionaries and their parishes to the administrative centre of the Society in London, and ‘enabled them to gain access to the power, resources, and intellectual capital positioned at the metropolitan centre’.5


Partners and Additional Contributors

Dr Emily Vine extracted and prepared metadata for approximately 110 selected letters to upload to EMLO as part of the AHRC-funded research project ‘Pastoral Care, Literary Cure, and Religious Dissent: Zones of Freedom in the British Atlantic c. 1630–1720’ (AH/T003197/1).

This is a starter catalogue in EMLO, and we invite scholars and students working with letters from SPG’s archives in either the Bodleian or Lambeth Palace Library to be in touch should they wish to develop the resource further.


Contents

This catalogue contains basic metadata extracted from a selection of approximately 110 manuscript letters, which are held currently in the USPG archives at Lambeth Palace Library and the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The letters are primarily in English, although several are in French, and date from 1701 to 1720. The existing calendars for these letters, e.g. W. W. Manross, S.P.G. papers in the Lambeth Palace Library, calendar and indexes (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), are dated and contain some errors of transcription and fact which are corrected here. By integrating this data-set, which was produced to support our work for the project’s online exhibition, into EMLO, we are seeking to extend the representation of transatlantic missionary correspondence within the catalogue and to alert others to the richness and breadth of this under-utilized correspondence archive.

 


Provenance

SPG’s archival material is held by both Lambeth Palace Library and the Bodleian Library. This overview deals with early eighteenth-century material pertaining to North America and the Caribbean; the end date for the AHRC-funded project was 1720, and this has shaped the overview provided here, which deals with only a small part of SPG’s extensive archival collection.

North American Material
Lambeth Palace Library contains the early papers of the SPG, including the minutes, financial records, and correspondence from 1701–1711. It also contains later correspondence of the Archbishops of Canterbury chiefly pertaining to American affairs. The letters are organized by colony. The common themes of these letters include: subscription to the Society, the proposing of suitable candidates to be sent as missionaries to North America, letters arranging a suitable posting for each missionary, and letters from missionaries in North America back to the Secretary, reporting on conditions in their remote parishes and the difficulty of their work, making requests for books or financial support or furnishings for newly built churches.

The correspondence of the SPG in the Bodleian is divided into the A, B, and C Series. The correspondence touches on similar topics to that in Lambeth Palace Library—subscription, missionary candidates, payments of salaries to missionaries and their families, reports on conditions in the colonies, requests for books, church furniture, and financial support from the Society. The A, B, and C Series have been digitized and are included in the (paywalled) British Online Archives collection ‘American material in the archives of the USPG, 1635–1928’.

The A series letter books, 1702–1737: This series consists of the manuscript letter books kept by the first three Secretaries of the Society. Volumes 1–6 contain only in-letters; volumes 7–26 contain both in- and out-letters.

The B series letter books, 1702–1786: This series contains original in-letters and drafts, or copies, of out-letters. The bulk consists of letters received from the American colonies, with a sizeable number of letters sent to the colonies.

The C series letters, 1635–1812: This series consists mainly of original eighteenth-century letters from the colonies.

Caribbean Material

Lambeth Palace Library: This collection includes early eighteenth-century material pertaining to the West Indies, which are divided into West Indies (general), Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, Jamaica, and the Leeward Islands in the archive. The letters discuss the establishment of churches and schools in the West Indies and the provision of schoolmasters, deal with the Codrington estate, the conversion of enslaved Africans, and discuss extracts from the Jamaica slave code.

Bodleian Library

The Codrington Collection 1704–1720: Upon his death in 1710, Christopher Codrington bequeathed to the SPG two plantations in Barbados ‘to maintain a convenient number of professors and scholars’. There is some indication that he wished part of this bequest to be used to educate and catechize free and enslaved Africans. This did not happen in reality. When Codrington College eventually opened in 1745, it established itself as a grammar school for white boys only. The Society continued to operate the plantations and, along with the college, to benefit financially from the labour of enslaved Africans. The collection includes records relating to Codrington’s will, the selling of the estate and building the college, details of the catechists and chaplains, and the estate management and accounts.

Papers of the Barbados Committee, 1710–1720: The Barbados Committee of the SPG was established in 1710. It was headed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London, but also included lay members, some of whom were leading West Indian planters. The Committee met frequently, at least once a month if not more often. It frequently discussed clerical matters, including Codrington College, and the role of catechists, but there was also a significant focus on the West Indian plantations and the need to secure profits from them. The Barbados Committee minutes include discussions of the management of estates / the Codrington plantation in Barbados and list the clergy and SPG members present at each meeting.

West Indies C-Series Correspondence 1704–1720: There is correspondence relating to the Leeward Islands (especially St Kitts), Barbados, the Bahamas, and Jamaica up until 1720. These letters provide evidence of the SPG’s involvement in the slave trade beyond Codrington. They include a 1716 application to the king that the SPG be given plantations on St Kitts formerly owned by the French, and letters which show that in 1720 the SPG had been left £1,000 of Capital Stock in the South Sea Company (whose main commercial activity was in the slave trade). Some of these letters focus on practical and financial matters relating to bequests and estate management, other letters include discussions relating to baptizing, educating, and catechising children of enslaved Africans.

 

Content Warning

SPG missionaries encountered enslaved people in the colonies and the Caribbean and, from 1711, the Society itself became a slave-owning organization following the bequest of a plantation in the will of Christopher Codrington. The historical records featured in this catalogue include offensive language and references to the mistreatment of enslaved people and the indigenous people groups of the Americas.

 


Further resources

An online exhibition developed in partnership with USPG, and funded by the AHRC, drawing on a selection of core correspondence items from the first twenty years of the Society’s transatlantic operations (c. 1701–20) may be accessed here.

 

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Footnotes

The Royal Charter of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1701. Accessed through British Online Archives.

Travis Glasson, Mastering Christianity: Missionary Anglicanism and Slavery in the Atlantic World (Oxford, 2011) p. 3.

Katherine Gerbner, Christian Slavery: Conversion and Race in the Protestant Atlantic World (Pennsylvania, 2018) p. 5; William A. Bultmann and Phyllis W. Bultmann, ‘The Roots of Anglican Humanitarianism: A Study of the Membership of the S.P.C.K. and the S.P.G., 1699–1720’, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, vol. 33, no. 1 (March 1964), p. 19.

Brent S. Sirota, The Christian Monitors: The Church of England and the Age of Benevolence, 1680–1730. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 224; Gary Schneider, ‘Introduction’ in Anne Dunan-Page and Clotilde Prunier, eds, Debating the Faith: Religion and Letter-Writing in Great Britain, 1550–1800 (London, 2013), p. 6.

Alison Searle, ‘“Though I am a Stranger to You by Face, yet in Neere Bonds by Faith”: A Transatlantic Puritan Republic of Letters’, Early American Literature, 43 (2008), p. 306.