Thomas Bray, an English country parson, was invited in 1696 by Henry Compton, the Bishop of London, to have oversight of the Church’s work in Maryland as the Bishop’s Commisary. Long delayed by legal complications, Bray set sail for America in 1699 for his first, and what would be his only, visitation. Though he spent only two and a half months in the Maryland, Bray was deeply concerned about the neglected state of the Church in America and the great need for the education of clergymen, lay people, and children. At a general visitation of the clergy in Annapolis prior to his return to England, he emphasized the need for the instruction of children and insisted that no clergyman be given a charge unless he had a good report from the ship he came over in, “whether…he gave no matter of scandal, and whether he did constantly read prayers twice a day and catechize and preach on Sundays, which, notwithstanding the common excuses, I know can be done by a minister of any zeal for religion.” Implementing a plan for the provision of free libraries that he had worked out while awaiting his departure for America, Bray founded thirty-nine free libraries in the colony as well as a number of schools. Back home, he raised money for missionary work and influenced young English priests to go to America. Bray’s endeavors for the consecration of a bishop for America were unsuccessful.
Among Bray’s educational endeavors was the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK), founded in 1698 by him and four laymen “to promote and encourage the erection of charity schools in all parts of England and Wales; to disperse, both at home and abroad, Bibles and tracts of religion; and in general to advance the honour of God and the good of mankind, by promoting Christian knowledge both at home and in the other parts of the world by the best methods that should offer.” The work of the SPCK developed to such dimensions that, on his return to England, Bray founded the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in 1701 as a separate society for foreign missions.
In 1706 Bray was appointed Vicar of St Botolph Without, Aldgate, where he ministered until his death in 1730 at the age of 74. He served the parish with energy and devotion, while continuing his efforts on behalf of African slaves in America and in the founding of parochial libraries. Before his death he had been instrumental in the establishment of some eighty parochial libraries.
When the deplorable condition of English prisons was brought to his attention, Bray set to work to influence public opinion and to raise funds to alleviate the misery of the inmates. He organized Sunday “Beef and Beer” dinners in prisons and advanced proposals for prison reform. It was he who first suggested to James Oglethorpe the idea of founding a humanitarian colony for the relief of honest debtors, though Bray died before the Georgia colony became a reality.
Bray’s most widely circulated work was A Course of Lectures upon the Church Catechism, published in 1696. He is commemorated in several Churches in the Anglican Communion on this date.
adapted from material in Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980) and
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
O God of compassion, you opened the eyes of your servant Thomas Bray to see the needs of the Church in the New World, and led him to found societies to meet those needs: Make the Church in this land diligent at all times to propagate the Gospel among those who have not received it, and to promote the spread of Christian knowledge; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Thomas Bray, Priest and Missionary, are published on the Lectionary Page website.