On 8 March 1698 a group of five friends met at Lincoln's Inn to prepare for the departure of one of their number for America. Thomas Bray, an Anglican priest, was to visit the colony of Maryland on behalf of the Bishop of London. Not knowing how long he would be away, the friends resolved to form a society to ensure that the many good works with which he was involved could continue in his absence.
In the event Bray only stayed in Maryland for a few months, but the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge which was formed that day is still active over three hundred years later. The aims of the founders, to communicate the Christian faith to a wide audience through education and the provision of Christian resources, remain at the heart of all that we do.
Over the years, SPCK has distributed over 30 million books and has provided the means for translating the Book of Common Prayer into more than 200 languages. We sent the first printing presses to India, opened the first British schools for poor children (with equal education for boys and girls), sent the first printed books to Australia, provided tracts for sailors in Nelson's ships, established libraries for clergy and missionaries in many countries, helped to set up teacher training colleges, and published the first Braille books.
SPCK has been continuously active as a publisher since 1698, making us the third oldest English publishing house still operating today. From the 1830s we were also booksellers both in the UK and overseas. By the 1970s the overseas shops had all been handed over to be run by the local church or diocese and during the early years of the 21st century our chain of UK shops fell victim to commercial and financial pressures and sadly did not long survive a change of ownership which we had hoped would give them a new lease of life.
Today we fulfil our historic objectives through a vibrant publishing programme, which provides a broad range of resources in a variety of media across the church spectrum. Education continues to be a key element of our mission, and our role as a catalyst in the charity school movement in the 18th century has its modern equivalent in our Assemblies website, which helps teachers provide a time of spiritual reflection for hundreds of thousands of children every day. Many of our Programmes also have their roots in Thomas Bray's vision for helping the poor and disadvantaged to have a better life.
Long before Queen Elizabeth II became our Royal Patron, there have been relationships between royalty and SPCK. Links between the Society and the Crown go back to the time of Queen Anne who in 1695, while still a Princess, subscribed £44 to support Thomas Bray's scheme for sending books to encourage learning and religion in the American colonies. This project led to the foundation of the SPCK a few years later. Anne's consort, Prince George of Denmark, also had links with the Society, and it was largely through the encouragement of his chaplain that SPCK became involved with a Lutheran mission to East India which it was to support for over a century. The Hanoverian kings all showed support for the Society and its work. In 1720 George I donated the sizeable sum of £500 towards the SPCK's publication of the Bible and Prayer book in Arabic.
In 1839 a more formal link was established when Queen Victoria agreed to become Patron of the Society, a role which has been continued by each of her successors. We are honoured and privileged to have the support of our present Queen, Elizabeth II, and are grateful for the interest she has always taken in our affairs.
To mark our tercentenary we received the following message from the Queen:
As Patron I am delighted that the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge is celebrating its three hundredth anniversary.
During the past years I have visited the Society's offices in London and seen examples of its work in many parts of the Commonwealth. I have been impressed by the range and quality of its publications, and by the many ways in which it provides support to churches overseas in their own ministries of communication and education.
Training the leadership of tomorrow's Church and ensuring that the Christian message is passed on to future generations are important roles, particularly when the pace of change is as fast as it is today. For three centuries SPCK has adapted successfully to changing times and has faithfully carried forward its mission. I am sure it will continue to adapt and I hope it will have many more anniversaries to celebrate in the years to come.
Did you know that SPCK provided texts for seamen? Horatio Nelson wrote to us in January 1801 saying "I am again a Solicitor for the goodness of the Society ... to hope that the Society will again make a present of Books ..."
Perhaps you've heard that SPCK founded church schools for both boys and girls in the 18th Century? Or that we helped produce the first Tamil New Testament in 1714? Maybe your ancestors worked for SPCK or were involved in their projects both here in the UK and overseas and you'd like to know more?
Whatever your query about SPCK's history, our archives, which date back to our origin in 1698, are now part of the collection of the University of Cambridge. The Manuscripts Department holds all non-printed materials, including the following and grants.
- Minutes, including various Committees and Sub-Committees.
- Annual and monthly reports.
- Accounts books.
- Correspondence, mostly in the 18th century, as later correspondence has unfortunately been destroyed.
- District committees.
- Foreign missions and bishoprics.
- Charity schools.
The Rare Books Department holds printed materials, mostly, but not exclusively, SPCK publications, in four categories:
- Children's books
- General books
- Tracts, from the 17th to 19th centuries.
- Foreign language material, e.g. Bibles and prayer books.