Thomas Bray

When Thomas Bray was born in 1656, England was under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.  The theaters were closed, public entertainment was severely limited, and church-going was mandatory.  Much of the public was still illiterate, and national and political news mostly came from the pulpit.  Clergy had a privileged place in society.  They were among the most educated, well-informed, and politically astute members of the British public.  However, there were very few of them on the continent of North America.

Bray was educated at All Soul’s College, Oxford, and graduated from there in 1678, eighteen years after Oliver Cromwell died and Charles II was restored to the throne of England.  This was an age of preferment, when one’s career as a priest depended on family connections and personal influence.  Bray had enough influence to become a country curate and chaplain, and eventually to obtain the rectorship of Sheldon, Warwickshire.  It was there, in 1690, that he wrote his Catechetical Lectures, a book of instructions for teaching the catechism.  It was a successful book, and brought Bray to the attention of the Bishop of London, who appointed him the Ecclesiastical Commissary for Maryland.  The colonies had no bishops of their own, and these Ecclesiastical Commissaries were the closest they would get until after the revolution.  They could do everything that a bishop could do, except perform confirmations and ordinations.

Maryland’s first settlers were English Catholics, led by Leonard Calvert, and although Protestant settlers soon followed, the colony was predominantly Roman Catholic through much of the 17th century.  A good number of Quakers settled there.  In 1649 the colony passed the Maryland Toleration Act, which protected Catholics and Quakers from Anglican discrimination, and which lent some of its language to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution more than one hundred and fifty years later.  But the law was repealed in 1692, after the Glorious Revolution pushed the Catholic James II off of the throne of England and brought in the Protestant supported William and Mary.  This is somewhat ironic, since William was a champion of toleration, but Maryland’s new governor, Francis Nicholson, was not.  In 1696, Nicholson led the colonial assembly in the passage of a law that would establish Anglicanism as the state religion of the colony.  It was the passage of this law that prompted the Bishop of London to offer Thomas Bray the appointment of Ecclesiastical Commissary.

But the law had a problem.  It was obnoxious to both Quakers and Catholics, and the Quakers could block it’s ratification in England.  The law required that every citizen of Maryland pay forty pounds of tobacco per year as a tax that would support the Anglican church.  It also required a pledge of loyalty to the church.  Quakers refused to make this pledge, and their refusal barred them from holding political office or representing themselves in court.  But since King William was a strong advocate of toleration, they were able to use their influence in England to keep the law from being enacted in Maryland.

This meant that for the first three years of his appointment, Thomas Bray had nothing to do.  However, he was one of the most dauntless men in the world.  Rather than sitting on his hands, he set about studying and predicting the challenges he would face when he reached Maryland.  The major challenge was that there were very few priests in the colony.  In 1694 there were only three, and although this number increased a little every year, it was obvious that the Anglican congregations were underserved.  Parishes were usually geographically large, and priests found themselves having to travel twenty or thirty miles to visit sick parishioners.  To do this, they had to own a horse or two, which was expensive, particularly since they didn’t get paid much and had to supplement their incomes by working plantations of their own.  They usually left their families back in England, and the hardship and loneliness must have been severe. Needless to say, not many priests were eager to go to the colonies, and those who went usually did so because they had no other choice.  Lacking a church in England, and any influence that could help them obtain a church, their options were severely limited.  The priests who did go to Maryland were sometimes men who had lost their preferment by their own fault, and they arrived in the colony with a reputation for scandalous behavior and every intention of continuing in that behavior in their new home.

Bray wanted to correct these problems, and he put his faith in education as the means of correction.  During the three years he spent waiting to finally go to Maryland, he established the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK).  His plan was to establish libraries in every parish in Maryland.  His society grew and gathered money, and was open to some criticism.  Why, people asked, were they collecting money to establish parish libraries in the colonies, when many parishes in England didn’t have libraries, and had clergy as ignorant and disreputable as any colonial parson?  Bray accepted this critique and made sure that the SPCK’s work also benefitted people at home.  His grand vision was of having at least one good library per rural deanery, where the clergy could gather to read and discuss the books, and support each other in their ministries.

In 1699, at the age of 43, Bray finally got tired of waiting and left for Maryland, where he hoped to hurry along the process of revising the Act of Establishment so that it would meet with King William’s approval.  On his way out of the country, he stopped at three seaport towns, establishing libraries as he went.  His luggage must have been comprised mostly of books, because when he arrived in Maryland he presented a library to each of the thirty-one parishes that then existed.  He found seventeen clergy waiting for him, and a Colonial Assembly that was more than willing to accept his help in revising the law.  He set to work, meeting with the governor and the assemblymen, visiting parishes, and taking his own census of the number of Anglicans, Quakers, and Catholics in the colony.  On the political front, he found speedy success.  On the parochial front, he sometimes had to be quite severe with his priests, especially one who was a known polygamist.  The political and the parochial worlds were deeply intertwined, because the Act of Establishment concerned itself with the nitty gritty of parish life, dictating how many times vestries must meet, how clergy could be chosen, and other internal matters of the parishes.  One provision of the law was for insuring the morality of clergymen by appointing committees to meet each incoming ship that carried a clergyman and interview the captain and other passengers to ascertain the appropriateness of the clergyman’s behavior while he was on board.  Bray also established the first missionary effort of the colony, but it wasn’t for the benefit of the Native Americans or African slaves.  Missionaries were supposed to go into Pennsylvania and convert the Quakers.

By the summer of 1700, Bray had the new law neatly in hand and took ship to England, where he could use his influence to get it ratified by parliament.  His experiences in the colony had convinced him that the spread of Anglicanism required people as well as books, and he established a new organization, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.  This group became the backbone for Anglican missionary efforts throughout the world.  The English system of engaging in missionary activity was wholly different from the French or the Spanish.  Many of the English colonies had been established as business ventures.  The people who put up the capital for these ventures saw no need to supply priests, or to worry about missionary activity.  Ferdinand and Isabella might send out missionaries to convert the heathen, but the English trading companies failed to see how it would benefit the bottom line.  If missionary activity was to succeed, it wouldn’t be because it was instigated by the crown, but by confederations of individuals like Bray and his supporters.

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts was tremendously successful, but the revised law to establish Anglicanism as the religion of Maryland was not.  Once again, Quaker interests blocked its ratification, and it had to be revised for a third time by the Maryland Assembly.  Finally, in 1702, a version that tolerated Quakerism was past, and was accepted by King William and his parliament.  He died that year, and his wife Mary’s younger sister, Anne, became Queen.

Bray never went back to Maryland.  Once the law was finally past, he found a worthy successor and settled down in London, accepting the living of Saint Botolph without Aldgate in 1707.  He lived there until his death in 1730, working with feverish and committed energy in his parish and in the wider church.  He continued to be interested in libraries, and in 1724 created the Dr. Bray Associates, a group dedicated to founding clerical libraries.  The Church of England remained as the established church in Maryland until 1776.

But Bray’s real legacy wasn’t the establishment of Anglicanism as a state religion in one of England’s colonies.  It was the culture that he brought to that colony, and to the seedbed of the future United States, when he went about establishing his libraries.  At a time when few people could read, it became part of the clergy’s care of souls to educate their parishioners, to make them aware of the important political and cultural issues of the time, and to bind them together into a citizenry by propagating a common culture.  It was also a way of honoring the inherent intelligence of the illiterate colonists, who could come and discuss important ideas with their clergymen, and argue points from books that they couldn’t read, but that a good, caring priest would willingly read for them.


Klingberg, Frank Joseph. Anglican Humanitarianism in Colonial New York,. Philadelphia: Church Historical Society, 1940. Print.

Click to access bray.pdf

Samuel Clyde McCulloch. Dr. Thomas Bray’s Trip to Maryland: A Study in Militant Anglican Humanitarianism. The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Jan., 1945), pp. 15–32

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