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Published: March 31, 2011

Thomas Bray (1656–1730)



English-born Anglican priest responsible for establishing the first lending libraries in the American colonies. He also founded the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPK), which grew into the influential SOCIETY FOR THE PROPAGATION OF THE GOSPEL IN FOREIGN PARTS (SPG).
Bray only spent three months in the colonies as commissary, or chief representative of the Church of England in Maryland, and, in effect, the clerical ruler of the region. Prior to his arrival, however, he had developed what he considered an ideal library of about 1,000 books that he described in his own work The Country Curate’s Library (1699). Designed partly to propagate Anglicanism, the library was heavily weighted with religious texts, but also included a large number of books on politics, law, history, mathematics, medicine, trade and commerce, carpentry and home building, poetry and other practical and entertaining works.
Bray formed SPK to raise funds to establish libraries in the colonies and encourage education and conversion to the Anglican church of the children in the colonies. Bray’s first library—and indeed the first lending library on the American continent—was established in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1696, with 1,095 volumes. By the time Bray arrived in America in early 1700, more than 30 similar libraries had been established in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and other major cities, as well as in rural areas of Maryland.
By then, many of the libraries had also assumed parallel functions as schools. Recognizing the need for missionary teachers, he returned to England in the summer of 1700 to form the SPG, with the archbishop of Canterbury as its head. The SPG won the full financial support of both the church and the crown and, in the ensuing seven decades, it established about 170 schools stretching from the northern reaches of New England to Georgia and South Carolina and westward into Pennsylvania. More than 80 teachers and 18 religious instructors helped teach thousands of children to read, write, calculate and pray in English and assured the place of English as the dominant language in colonies peopled by French, Dutch, German, Native Americans and African slaves, as well as English. The SPG remained a major force in education until the end of the Revolutionary War, when American colonists severed their official ties to the mother church as well as the mother country.
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