Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, transcripts of letters relating to Delaware

Biographical and Historical Notes

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) was established in London in 1701 through a charter from King William III. The organization was created as a vehicle for sending priests and teachers to North America, in order to improve and expand the ministry of the Church of England to the colonists. The SPG's mission was soon broadened to include the evangelization of slaves and Native Americans. The first missionaries arrived in 1702, and by the time of American independence the Society had sponsored approximately 300 missionaries and made significant progress in the spread of Anglicanism. The Revolutionary War brought conflict and division to the American missionaries and their followers, as many were Loyalists to the crown. After the Revolution, the SPG terminated its financial support of the missionaries, but several remained with their parishes and played a significant role in the establishment of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

While there was no official church in colonial Delaware, the SPG helped ensure that the Church of England had a strong presence in the colony prior to the Revolution. Yet the SPG was often hard-pressed to serve its faithful constituents. The Society's missionaries, who were often young and inexperienced, were assigned large geographical areas and could not provide regular weekly church services to their widely scattered congregations. In addition, they faced primitive living conditions, an unhealthy climate, and scare funding. Many ministers, overwhelmed by these circumstances, did not stay in the New World for long, and the SPG struggled to find replacements. Nevertheless, a few notable clergy established long-standing ministries in Delaware, including George Ross of New Castle, William Beckett of Lewes, and Philip Reading of Appoquinimink. Their letters to the SPG are among the extensive missionary correspondence that makes up this collection.

Sources

Reed, Henry Clay. Delaware, a History of the First State.. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947.

Thompson, Henry Paget. Into All Lands: The History of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1701-1950. London: S.P.C.K., 1951.

"History of the USPG" from the web site of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG), previously the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Retrieved in April of 2003 from http://www.uspg.org.uk/about/history

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Online finding aid to the Papers of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, held by Lambeth Palace in London. Retrieved in April of 2003 from http://www.mundus.ac.uk/cats/12/254.htm

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Scope and Contents

The University of Delaware's collection of Society for the Propagation of the Gospel Transcripts consists of one box of typescript letters related to the Delaware activities of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), a London-based missionary society created in 1701 to broaden the ministry of the Church of England in the North American colonies. The majority of the letters were written by missionaries posted in America and were directed to SPG administrators in London. The collection, which dates from 1703 to 1782 (bulk dates 1703-1776), was given to the University of Delaware Library in 1964 by noted Delaware historian Henry Clay Reed. Reed created these transcripts and the accompanying index from a collection of copies, microfilm, and transcripts at the Library of Congress. It is likely that most of the original letters reside in the Lambeth Palace Library in London, the principal repository for records related to the Church of England. More information about these records, including permission to quote from them, can be obtained through the Manuscript Department of the Library of Congress.

Reed organized his transcripts according to the same series-volume-number arrangement given to the parent collection at the Library of Congress. However, he only transcribed select letters, so there are significant gaps in this order. For context, researchers may want to consult the finding aid to the Library of Congress papers, available in the collection folder. Series A covers the first seven years of the SPG ministry in Delaware and Series B encompasses the years 1713-1782, although the letters are not in precise chronological order. Lastly, Reed's unpublished index provides a thorough record of all personal names and places mentioned in the transcripts. The index includes the date of the letter beside each index entry, and is an indispensable tool for navigating through the transcripts. Unfortunately, however, it occasionally references letters that are not included in this collection.

The letters reveal much about the Society's operations and the work of its missionaries. Recurrent subjects include the need for additional priests; reports on progress or setbacks in the ministry; requests for financial support and other business matters; the personal health of the missionaries; reports on the number of parish members and recent converts; the state of other local churches, including Presbyterian, Catholic, Quaker, and other Anglican congregations; and activities of other SPG missionaries.

These were the principle concerns of SPG missionaries prior to the Revolution. Letters written during the early period of the ministry are especially vivid in depicting the colossal challenges facing the SPG clergy. One desperate letter, written by John Talbot in 1709 (Series A, Vol. 5, No. 42), lists ten Delaware ministers who had either died or run away, for few could withstand the extreme weather and the disease-carrying mosquitoes. Indeed, the retention of missionaries was an issue discussed throughout this collection. Letters from the 1730s and 1740s (Folders 6 and 10) reveal that ministers were occasionally driven from their congregations due to illicit activities.

Because of the date span of this collection, little information is available here about the difficulties that the Revolutionary War brought to the missionaries. However, one ten-page letter (Series B, Vol. 21, No. 186 in Folder 12) offers a vivid account of one loyalist priest's trying experience proselytizing during the Revolution, and his efforts to renew his ministry in New York 1782. Another letter from 1779 (Series B, Vol. 21, No. 36 in Folder 11) also emphasizes the desperate situation of the Anglican missionaries during the War. The collection is most valuable, however, as a means for studying the development of the Church of England in colonial Delaware before the Revolutionary War. The collection may also interest Delaware genealogists, for Henry Clay Reed's index allows researchers to efficiently search this collection for names of early Delawareans.