Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge

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Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.jpg
Abbreviation SPCK
Formation 1698
Founder Thomas Bray
Type Church of England
Blue Coat School
Christian media
Headquarters 36 Causton Street
United Kingdom

The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) is the oldest Anglican mission organisation. It was founded in 1698 by Thomas Bray (an Anglican priest), and a small group of friends. The most important early leaders were Anton Wilhelm Boehm and court preacher Friedrich Michael Ziegenhagen. The emphasis was on setting up schools, and the SPCK was a major factor in setting up church schools across Britain. Today, the SPCK is most widely known for its publishing of Christian books. A Scottish branch[dubious ] was founded in 1709. It sent missions to Scotland's Highlands, and a handful to Indians in the American colonies.

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.


In its first two hundred years, the Society founded many charity schools for poor students in the 7 to 11 age group. It is from these schools that the modern concept of primary and secondary education has grown. It was also an early provider of teacher training.[1]

SSPCK in Scotland[edit]

The Scottish wing,[dubious ] 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 and other "uncivilised" areas of the country, thus countering the threat of Catholic missionaries achieving "a serious landslide to Rome" and of growing Highland Jacobitism.[2] Their schools were a valuable addition to the Church of Scotland programme of education in Scotland 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.[3]

At first the SSPCK avoided using the Gaelic language with the result that pupils ended up learning by rote without understanding what they were reading.[4] 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.[5] In the early 19th century their activity declined and the work was taken over by the Gaelic Societies of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness.


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 and Cambridge University Press 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.

Distribution (bookshops)[edit]

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]. In 1899 the addresses of their 'depositories' were given in the 256th edition of their "The Dawn of Day" publication as London: Northumberland Avenue, W.C.; Charing Cross, W.C. and 43 Queen Victoria Street, E.C. Six years later in edition 331 they no longer used Charing Cross, but had added Brighton: 129, North Street.

In the 1930s a centrally co-ordinated network of SPCK Bookshops was established, offering a wide range of books from many different publishers.

Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone, Westminster, London is a former Anglican church, built in 1828 by Sir John Soane. By the 1930s, it had fallen into disuse and in 1936 was used by the newly founded Penguin Books company to store books. A children's slide was used to deliver books from the street into the large crypt.

In 1937 Penguin moved out to Harmondsworth, and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) moved in. It was their headquarters until 2006, when they relocated to Tufton Street, Westminster (they have since moved again to Pimlico).

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)[edit]

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 done by the German Lutheran missionaries Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg 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.

Prominent members[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Schooling before the 19th Century". Living Heritage. UK Parliament. Retrieved 1 December 2014. 
  2. ^ Andrew Porter (2004). Religion Versus Empire?: British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700-1914. Manchester UP. p. 9. 
  3. ^ Michael Hechter (1977). Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966. p. 113ff. 
  4. ^ Anthony W. Parker (2010). Scottish Highlanders in Colonial Georgia: The Recruitment, Emigration, and Settlement at Darien, 1735-1748. University of Georgia Press. p. 33. 
  5. ^ Kanneth MacKinnon, Gaelic: A past and future prospect (Saltire Society, 1991) p 56.

Further reading[edit]

  • Allen, William Osborne Bird & McClure, Edmund (1898) Two Hundred Years: the History of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1698-1898 online
  • Clarke, W. K. Lowther (1959) A History of the SPCK. London: SPCK
  • Smout, T. C. (1985), A History of the Scottish People, Fontana Press, ISBN 0-00-686027-3
  • 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.
  • Nishikawa, Sugiko. "The SPCK in defence of protestant minorities in Early Eighteenth-Century Europe." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 56.04 (2005): 730-748.
  • Simon, Joan. "From charity school to workhouse in the 1720s: The SPCK and Mr Marriott's solution." History of education 17#2 (1988): 113-129.
  • Threinen, Norman J. (1988) Friedrich Michael Ziegenhagen (1694–1776). German Lutheran Pietist in the English court. In: Lutheran Theological Review 12, pp. 56–94.
  • Withrington, D. J. "The SPCK and Highland Schools in Mid-Eighteenth Century." Scottish Historical Review 41.132 (1962): 89-99. in JSTOR

External links[edit]