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Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge

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The greatest and most important society within the Church of England. It was founded 8 March, 1698, when four laymen, Lord Guildford, Sir H. Mackworth, Justice Hook, and Colonel Colchester, and one clergyman, Dr. Thomas Bray, met on the initiative of the last-named and agreed among themselves "as often as we can conveniently to consult, under the conduct of the Divine providence and assistance, to promote Christian Knowledge". Dr. Bray had been the Bishop of London's Commissary in Maryland, and was a man of wide experience, energetic zeal, and ability for organization. The society soon received the countenance of several Anglican bishops, including Gilbert Burnet of Salisbury. Other well known men also took a speedy interest in the work, such as Strype the antiquary, Gilbert White of Selborne, John Evelyn, and the Rev. Samuel Wesley, father of John and Charles Wesley. The first aim of the society was the education of poor children. Within two years they had founded six schools in London, and by 1704 there were 54 schools with over 2000 scholars. Eight years later the schools numbered 117, the scholars 5000. The movement spread, and by 1741 the charity-schools of the S.P.C.K. reached the number of nearly 2000. This educational work at length became so great that a new society, "The National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church", was formed to undertake it. Since 1870 this work has been done by the State, and the society has turned its educational efforts to the training of teachers. It entirely maintains St. Katharine's College, Tottenham, supports the various diocesan training-colleges, and contributes towards the foundation of Sunday-school buildings and mission-rooms. The educational branch of the society's work has not been confined to England, but in India it has founded scholarships for native Christians, both in the boys' colleges and in the schools provided for the higher education of women. It also provides technical training for the native Christians by means of industrial schools. The same work is being developed in Australia, Japan, Africa, Burma, and among the American Indians of the North- West. Besides providing for children, the society has done much for "unlettered adults". From almost the beginning of its existence it has established evening schools and provided for the instruction of prisoners in penitentiaries or prisons. For a time the society paid chaplains to help prisoners, in an age when the government often neglected this duty.

Another branch of the society's activity is the hospital work. The members visit the sick and dying, and supply the hospitals with Bibles, prayer books and other religious work. Important under this head are the medical missions, which aim at winning the soul of the heathen by caring for his body. These medical missions have been founded in Sierra Leone, Madagascar, South Africa, India, Palestine, China, Japan, Korea, and British Columbia. Students, male and female, are specially trained for this work, and hospitals are built and furnished.

Perhaps more widely known than any is the work of the S.P.C.K. as "the great publishing house" of the Church of England. Simultaneously with the foundation of it first schools it began to print and circulate cheap and good books. One of its first subscriptions was begun "for promoting Christian knowledge by raising Lending Libraries in the several Market towns of the kingdom and by distributing good books". The first publication was an edition of 600 copies of Dr. Bray's "Discourse concerning Baptismal and Spiritual Regeneration" which appeared in 1699. The society, while maintaining its position as the great Bible and Prayer Book society of the Church of England, has not confined itself to purely religious works. Its catalogue includes volumes of popular science, travel, biography, and fiction, as well as the special class devoted to theology and history. Even translations of Catholic books are not excluded, and though Catholics, objecting to publications such as Dr. Littledale's "Plain Reasons", in which mis- representation becomes a fine art, cannot approve of much that is issued in the society's volumes, they can acknowledge the general good taste of the society's publications even when directed against themselves. They may also be excused for regarding as objectionable the versions of English church history which are popularized throughout the country, not only attractively produced manuals, but also by popular lantern lectures. Besides the books published, popular tracts, pictures, and illuminated texts are issued in great numbers. The latest figures available show that, exclusive of Bibles, prayer books, and tracts, the circulation of the society's publications in 1905 amounted to 11,078,135.

An important development of recent growth is the organizing of lay help. In 1889 the society opened a Training College for Lay workers, in Commercial road, in the East End of London. Here there is accommodation for 40 students, who are trained to assist he parochial clergy in holding mission services, giving classes to adults and children, and conducting temperance and other meetings. Such students, on completion of their course, are formally set apart to the office of Reader in the Church, and are licensed for the work by their respective diocesans.

Yet another branch of work is concerned with emigrants. This was under taken in 1836 at the request of Mr. Gladstone, who had been acting as Under-Secretary for the Colonies, and who was impressed by the spiritual destitution of the crowds of emigrants. The society's "port chaplains" undertake a systematic visitation of out-going vessels, and the chaplains at the ports of departure give letters of introduction to the chaplains at the ports of arrival, and often the long-voyage chaplains accompany the ships.

Missionary work was, from the first, aimed at by the S.P.C.K. Dr. Bray's personal experience of the condition of those members of the Church of England who were scattered through what are now the Northern and Southern States of the Union convinced him that the work to be done was so gigantic that it called for a special society, and therefore, in 1701, the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel" was founded. This did not prevent the parent society helping on the work in every way. Since those days its field of labour has been extended to Canada and Australia and it has been active in spreading the influence of the Church of England. During the reign of Queen Victoria the society expended £100,000 in helping to found and endow colonial and missionary bishoprics. Besides this, large sums have been voted for the building of colleges, churches, and schools. One aspect of this missionary work which calls for special notice is the translation of the Bible into foreign languages. Beginning in 1713 with a Bible in Welsh, it proceeded in 1720 to the dissemination of 10,000 Arabic New Testaments, and at the present day it claims to publish Bibles and other books in a hundred different languages and dialects. In regard to some of these the difficulties are great, as it sometimes happens that a dialect has never been reduced to writing, and the missionary has to put the syllables into some written form and send them home to be printed again and again until it is found that they finally represent the inflexions of the dialect and are capable of conveying the impressions desired. The society also supplies printing presses and types to missions which are in a position to use them. The first effort in this direction was the S.P.C.K. Press in Madras, founded in 1728, and now employing 400 work-people.

The organization and management of the society is efficient and vigorous, and there can be no doubt that it remains today one of the chief means of preserving for the Church of England its hold over the people. Remarkable, too, is the manner in which it has managed to keep on good terms with the various warring sections in the Anglican Church. A recent writer has observed, "The society comes in for a little friendly criticism from time to time from one side or the other of the Church, but it should be borne in mind that it has always striven to be the handmaid of the Church, not the tool of a section." (Cochrane, "An Important Chapter in English History",13.) The influence of the society, especially displayed in the colonies, has also made itself felt in the drawing together of the entire Anglican episcopate. Speaking of the S.P.C.K. and the S.P.G., Dr. Lewis, the first Anglican Archbishop of Ontario, one of the originators of the Lambeth Conferences, declared that the influence of those two societies did much to make such conclaves possible. The magnitude of the work annually accomplished, of which the main branches have been here indicated to the exclusion of many minor activities, justified the eulogy by the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Benson, when he wrote: "Of all our societies in England, this is the oldest and grandest, and its work the very largest ever conceived".


SEWELL, The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: a Short Account of its Work and Organisation (London, 1885); An Important Chapter in English Church History: S.P.C.K., 1698-1905 (London, 1905).

About this page

APA citation. Burton, E. (1908). Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Burton, Edwin. "Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Ted Rego. Praying for the Unification of Churches.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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