The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK)
is the oldest Anglican mission
Christian missionary activities often involve sending individuals and groups , to foreign countries and to places in their own homeland. This has frequently involved not only evangelization , but also humanitarian work, especially among the poor and disadvantaged...
organisation. It was founded in 1698 by Thomas Bray
The Reverend Dr Thomas Bray was an English clergyman, who spent time in Maryland as an Anglican representative.-Life:...
(an Anglican priest), and a small group of friends. The most important early leaders were Anton Wilhelm Boehm and court preacher Friedrich Michael Ziegenhagen. Today, the SPCK is most widely known for its publishing of Christian books.
The Society was founded to encourage Christian education and the production and distribution of Christian literature. SPCK has always sought to find ways to communicate the basic principles of the Christian faith to a wider audience, both in Britain and overseas.
Thomas Bray believed passionately in the power of the printed word and from its earliest days SPCK commissioned tracts and pamphlets, making it the third oldest publishing house in England. (Only the Oxford
Oxford University Press is the largest university press in the world. It is a department of the University of Oxford and is governed by a group of 15 academics appointed by the Vice-Chancellor known as the Delegates of the Press. They are headed by the Secretary to the Delegates, who serves as...
and Cambridge University Press
Cambridge University Press is the publishing business of the University of Cambridge. Granted letters patent by Henry VIII in 1534, it is the world's oldest publishing house, and the second largest university press in the world...
have existed longer.)
Throughout the eighteenth century SPCK was by far the largest producer of Christian literature in Britain. The range of its output was considerable—from pamphlets aimed at specific groups such as farmers, prisoners, soldiers, seamen, servants and slave-owners, to more general works on subjects such as baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion, the Prayer Book and private devotion. Increasingly, more substantial books were also published, both on Christian subjects and, from the 1830s onwards, on general educational topics as well.
SPCK's publishing team currently produces around 80 titles per year, for audiences from a wide range of Christian traditions and none. Books range from the academic to the popular, from devotional literature and works on spirituality to books addressing contemporary issues in the Church and society.
SSPCK in Scotland
The Scottish wing, the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge
(SSPCK), was formed by royal charter in 1709 as a separate organisation with the purpose of founding schools "where religion and virtue might be taught to young and old" in the Scottish Highlands
The Highlands is an historic region of Scotland. The area is sometimes referred to as the "Scottish Highlands". It was culturally distinguishable from the Lowlands from the later Middle Ages into the modern period, when Lowland Scots replaced Scottish Gaelic throughout most of the Lowlands...
and other "uncivilised" areas of the country, thus countering the threat of Roman Catholic missionaries achieving "a serious landslide to Rome" and of growing Highland Jacobitism
Jacobitism was the political movement in Britain dedicated to the restoration of the Stuart kings to the thrones of England, Scotland, later the Kingdom of Great Britain, and the Kingdom of Ireland...
Their schools were a valuable addition to the Church of Scotland
The Church of Scotland, known informally by its Scots language name, the Kirk, is a Presbyterian church, decisively shaped by the Scottish Reformation....
programme of education in Scotland
Scotland has a long history of universal provision of public education, and the Scottish education system is distinctly different from the other countries of the United Kingdom...
which was already working with support from a tax on landowners to provide a school in every parish. The SSPCK had 5 schools by 1711, 25 by 1715, 176 by 1758 and 189 by 1808, by then with 13,000 pupils attending. At first the SSPCK avoided using the Gaelic language
Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language native to Scotland. A member of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages, Scottish Gaelic, like Modern Irish and Manx, developed out of Middle Irish, and thus descends ultimately from Primitive Irish....
with the result that pupils ended up learning by rote without understanding what they were reading. In 1741 the SSPCK introduced a Gaelic-English vocabulary, then in 1767 brought in a New Testament with facing pages of Gaelic and English texts for both languages to be read alongside one another, with more success and in this year also changed the language of instruction in their Highland schools from English to Gaelic . In the early 19th century their activity declined and the work was taken over by the Gaelic Societies of Edinburgh
Gaelic medium education is a form of education in Scotland that allows pupils to be taught primarily through the medium of Scottish Gaelic, with English being taught as the secondary language. Education projects in other Gaelic countries; Ireland Gaelic medium education (G.M.E. or GME; Scottish...
, Glasgow and Inverness
Inverness is a city in the Scottish Highlands. It is the administrative centre for the Highland council area, and is regarded as the capital of the Highlands of Scotland...
SPCK's early publications were distributed through a network of supporters who received books and tracts to sell or give away in their own localities. Large quantities of Christian literature were provided for the Navy, and the Society actively encouraged the formation of parish libraries, to help both clergy and laity. By the nineteenth century, members had formed themselves into local district committees, many of which established small book depots—which at one time numbered over four hundred—these being overseen by central committees such as the Committee of General Literature and Education
The Committee of General Literature and Education was a British publishing organisation set up by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge in 1832 to produce school books. It also published The Saturday Magazine.-References:...
In the 1930s a centrally co-ordinated network of SPCK Bookshops was established, offering a wide range of books from many different publishers. On 1 November 2006, St. Stephen The Great Charitable Trust took over the Bookshops but continued to trade under the SPCK name under licence from SPCK. That licence was withdrawn in October 2007. However, shops continued trading as SPCK Bookshops without licence. After October 2006 SPCK itself no longer owned or operated any bookshops.
Overseas Mission (Worldwide)
SPCK has worked overseas since its foundation. The initial focus was the British colonies in the Americas. Libraries were established for the use of clergy and their parishioners, and frequent shipments of books were sent across the Atlantic throughout the eighteenth century. By 1709 SPCK was spreading further afield: a printing press and trained printer were sent out to Tranquebar in East India to assist in the production of the first translation of the Bible into Tamil
Tamil is a Dravidian language spoken predominantly by Tamil people of the Indian subcontinent. It has official status in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and in the Indian union territory of Pondicherry. Tamil is also an official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore...
done by the German Lutheran missionaries Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg
Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg was a member of the Lutheran clergy and the first Pietist missionary to India.-Early life:...
and Heinrich Pluetschau from the Danish-Halle Mission. For its time this was a remarkably far-sighted example of ecumenical co-operation, and SPCK has continued to work closely with churches of many different denominations, whilst retaining a special relationship with churches within the Anglican Communion.
As the British Empire grew in the nineteenth century, so SPCK developed an important role in supporting the planting of new churches around the world. Funds were provided for church buildings, for schools, for theological training colleges, and to provide chaplains for the ships taking emigrants to their new homes.
Today SPCK's overseas mission concentrates on providing free study literature for those in a number of ministerial training colleges around the world, especially in Africa, and supporting translation in India through its sister organisation there, ISPCK.
- Allen, William Osborne Bird and McClure, Edmund (1898) Two Hundred Years: the History of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1698-1898
- Grigg, John A., “‘How This Shall Be Brought About’: The Development of the SSPCK’s American Policy,” Itinerario (Leiden), 32 (no. 3, 2008), 43–60.
- Threinen, Norman J. (1988) Friedrich Michael Ziegenhagen (1694–1776). German Lutheran Pietist in the English court. In: Lutheran Theological Review 12, pp. 56–94.
- Threinen, N. J. (2008) Friedrich Ziegenhagen: the London Connection to India and America. In: 'Grabbe, Hans-Jürgen (ed.) (2008) ´Halle Pietism, Colonial North America, and the Young United States. USA-Studien; Band 15. Stuttgart; pp. 113–134.