Catalogue description Society for the Propagation of the Gospel

This record is held by Lambeth Palace Library

Details of SPG
Reference: SPG
Title: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Papers in Lambeth Palace Library include the minutes, financial records, and correspondence of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts from 1701 (the year of its founding) through 1711 and a later section of minutes extending from 1737 through 1750. They also include some later correspondence of the Archbishops of Canterbury relating to overseas (chiefly American) affairs. In this last group, the most important documents are those relating to the conferring of the episcopate on the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States after the Revolution.


All the minutes have lists of attending members at the beginning.


The letters in the correspondence section (vols. vii to xvii) are arranged by geographic division and by date within each division. Volumes vii and viii contain letters from the British Isles and volume ix contains those from the European Continent, plus a few relating to China and India. Volume x is composed of letters and documents relating to the American colonies or the United States, but not identified with a particular colony or state. The remaining documents are arranged by colony or state, the continental colonies first and then the West Indies. The provinces within each group are in alphabetical order.

Date: 1679-1750

I. Minutes, 1701-8


II. Minutes, 1708-11


III. Minutes, 1711-39


IV. Minutes, 1740-4


V. Minutes, 1745-50


VI. Financial Records


VII. Correspondence:


British Isles, 1679-June 1707


VIII. Correspondence:


British Isles, July 1707-undated


IX. Correspondence:


Europe and Asia






X. American Colonies and U.S.A., General


XI. American Colonies:










XII. Maryland




New Jersey


XIII. New York, 1700-6


XIV. New York, 1707-undated


XV. North Carolina




Rhode Island, 1702-7


XVI. Rhode Island, 1708-undated


South Carolina, 1702-10


XVII. South Carolina, 1711-undated






West Indies, General










Leeward Islands

Related material:

Fulham Papers colonial; MS 1124; MS 1792 Clambeth Palace Library). SPG papers (Rhodes House Library).

Held by: Lambeth Palace Library, not available at The National Archives
Copies held at:

The papers have been microfilmed

Language: English

Society for the Propagation of the Gospel

Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts

Physical description: 17 Volumes
Custodial history:

The early minutes and correspondence were probably deposited with the president of the society, Archbishop Tenison, before the organization had any headquarters of its own.

  • America
  • Canada
  • China
  • India
  • West Indies
  • Religion
  • Christianity
  • Christians
  • Church
  • Missionary work
Unpublished finding aids:

Catalogue descriptions based on calendar by W.W. Manross


Abstracts of correspondence are attached to the earlier minutes (1701-11). As the originals of these letters are in the correspondence section, and are summarized there, it was not thought necessary to summarize them. Abstracts of missionary reports (but not of general correspondence) are appended to the later minutes (1737-50). As the originals of these are not in the present collection, any matters of general interest mentioned in them are noted in the summaries of the minutes. Most of them provide only parochial information. For the benefit of those interested in local records, all the reports are listed at the end of the summaries for volume v and their location shown, both under the names of the reporting clergymen and of their parishes.


Identifying dates during the first quarter of the year presents something of a problem under the Julian calendar (which applies to all but the latest documents in the collection), because of uncertainty as to whether the year began on 1 January or the Feast of the Annunciation. Frequently both years are indicated (e.g. 1708/9). In that case, the later year is the one that agrees with modern usage and which is in sequence with the subsequent dates for that year. When only one year has been shown it was taken as given, but a notation added when subsequent references show that it is really the year following.


The same name is often spelt differently in different documents. The summaries use the spelling in the particular document being abstracted.


In addition to letters received, the correspondence includes copies of many of Secretary Chamberlayne's outgoing letters. These are fair copies which he evidently made or had made for the files, but there is always a possibility of accidental deviation from the letters actually sent. They are, therefore, designated as 'copy' in parenthesis following the date. In the correspondence relating to the consecration of American bishops there are fair copies of letters to and from Granville Sharp, evidently made for the benefit of Archbishop Moore.


In a few cases there are what appear to be original drafts of letters to be sent. These are identified by the word 'draft'. Most of the letters from Europe in volume ix, and a few from non-English-speaking correspondents in the American colonies, are in languages other than English. Secretary Chamberlayne provided translations for the most important of these, or had them made. (As he was a noted linguist, it seems probable that the translations are his own.) Other letters appear only in the original language. In every case, the original language is shown in parenthesis. If there is a translation, that is indicated also.

Administrative / biographical background:

They cover the formative years of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which were also the formative years of modern missions. It is not always realized how innovative is the (until lately) generally accepted modern practice of supporting missionary work through voluntary societies which usually have their headquarters in, and derive most of their support from, countries remote from those in which their work is carried on. The first such society, in the non-Roman Catholic world, was the Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England, chartered by the Long Parliament in 1649. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel was the second and, with its broader area of activity, was probably the first to encounter many of the problems of overseas administration and to set important precedents in solving them. Anyone studying these documents with a background in missionary history can readily recognize this process at work. To take a single example, the society, in its early optimism, appointed its missionaries for three years, hoping that local support would be sufficient at the end of that period. Finding that the actual result was to leave its missionaries without support, it adopted a rule that missionaries should serve during the society's pleasure, which ordinarily meant until they died, resigned, or were dismissed for misconduct or neglect of duty. The problem of mission weaning remains unsolved, with disastrous results in revolutionary situations.


Missionary history is only one of the fields in which the documents are important. They provide a basic source for the social history of the American colonies in the early eighteenth century and furnish significant information about the history of Great Britain and the European Continent in the same period. The second set of minutes, in addition to illuminating the work of the society at a slightly later period, have an important bearing on the educational history of the American colonies and, in particular, the West Indies, for they give an account of the society's actions in the founding of Codrington College in Barbadoes.


The four men who, as shown by these documents, provided the society with its active leadership during its formative years were: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Tenison; the Bishop of London, Henry Compton; its first secretary, John Chamberlayne; and its first treasurer, John Hodges. To describe Archbishop Tenison as the first president of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel is to understate his role. He was, next to Thomas Bray, its principal founder and its powerful backer in high places. He continued to provide active leadership throughout his life, whereas, so far as can be judged from these documents, Bray's active interest did not continue long after the founding. It is probably inaccurate to describe Tenison, as is sometimes done, as a Latitudinarian, but his advocacy of a conciliatory approach to Protestant dissenters caused him to be distrusted by the High Church party. This distrust, strengthened, perhaps, by the high favour that he had enjoyed with her brother-in-law, led to his being discountenanced by Queen Anne to such an extent that he gave up attendance at court. It is possible that this fact lessened royal support for the society, though the Queen did authorize some special collections for it, and presented church furnishings to some of its early missions.


Bishop Compton was the first Bishop of London to make any systematic attempt to exercise his supposed colonial jurisdiction, acting under an Order in Council that he believed to have been issued by James II. From evidence in the Fulham Papers, his efforts in this respect may have been less ineffective than those of any of his successors, including Bishop Gibson, who obtained a formal commission from George II. His interest in and active support of the society are shown both by the minutes and by his numerous notes to the secretary, preserved in volumes vii and viii.


John Chamberlayne, the first secretary, as the society's chief administrative officer, was probably more responsible than any other one person for shaping its operational pattern. Born in 1666, he was a younger son of Edward Chamberlayne, author of a work, well known in its day, on The Present State of England. He studied at Trinity College, Oxford, and the University of Leyden, where he specialized in languages, of which he was reputed to have mastered sixteen. In addition to continuing his father's work, he translated Brandt's History of the Reformation in the Low Countries and some other continental works into English and contributed articles to the Transactions of the Royal Society, of which he was a fellow. His earliest work, published in 1685, was in somewhat lighter vein, being devoted to The Manner of Making Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate.... He held a number of posts at court, which explains why some of his letters in the collection are dated from Windsor Castle, though most are dated from his residence in Petty France, Westminster. This information is from the Dictionary of National Biography, which also mentions that he was first secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, a post which he held only briefly, but seems to have been ignorant of his important and formative work with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.


His correspondence reveals him as a dedicated and hard-working, if slightly pedestrian administrator, coping as best he could with the then novel problem of directing missions from a distance. He certainly meant to be fair, but his zeal for maintaining the standards of the society probably led him to be occasionally unjust to missionaries under accusation. In a letter to John Bartow, minister in Westchester, New York, while admitting that a charge against him has proven unfounded, he refuses to name his accuser and warns him that the society has spies all around him of whom he knows not. The strictness of his moral views is also suggested by a letter resigning his post as justice of the peace in Westminster because his fellow justices were not sufficiently zealous in repressing prostitution. Like Archbishop Tenison, he favoured a conciliatory attitude toward Protestant dissenters, and sometimes rebuked missionaries, such as John Talbot of Burlington, New Jersey and John Thomas of Hempstead, New York, for showing too much zeal for their conversion. Some letters betray the fact that he shared the then widespread English prejudice against the Scotch, though some of the best missionaries were of that nationality. He seems to have had friendlier feelings toward the Welsh. Did he have Welsh connections? The available sources do not say.


John Hodges' name does not even appear in the index to either Pascoe's Two Hundred Years of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel or Thompson's Into All Lands, yet he certainly performed a major service in organizing the society's finances. Two biographical scraps can be garnered from the documents. Notes exchanged between him and Secretary Chamberlayne show that they were cousins, and correspondence relating to the posting of his bond indicates that his brother, Danvers Hodges, was a country gentleman of substantial property.

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