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Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge

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The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) is the oldest Anglican mission organisation, and the leading publisher of Christian books in the United Kingdom.[1] It was founded in 1698 by Thomas Bray (an Anglican priest), and a small group of friends including Lord Guilford, Sir Humphrey Mackworth, Mr Justice Hooke, and Colonel Maynard Colchester. The emphasis was on setting up schools. The SPCK was influential in setting up church schools across Britain, when there were few schools for poor children. In the 21st century, the SPCK is most widely known for its publishing of Christian books.

Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.jpg
FounderThomas Bray
TypeChurch of England
Christian media
Headquarters36 Causton Street
United Kingdom

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. A related Scottish society was founded in 1709. It sent missions to Scotland's Highlands, and a handful to Indians in the American colonies.



In its first two hundred years, the Society founded many charity schools for poor children in the seven to 11 age group. It is from these schools that the modern concept of primary and secondary education has grown. The Society also provided teacher training.[2] SPCK continues to support education in the UK by provide free assembly resources via its website.[3]


Thomas Bray believed passionately in the power of the printed word. From its earliest days, the SPCK commissioned tracts and pamphlets, making it the third-oldest publishing house in England. (Only the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses have existed longer.)

Throughout the 18th 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. At present, key authors for SPCK include Anglican New Testament Scholar N. T. Wright, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Paula Gooder, and Alister McGrath. Recent exciting additions to SPCK's list include Guvna B, and Ben Cooley, founder of Hope for Justice.

In the early 21st century, SPCK's publishing team 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. SPCK also raises funds for and project manages a number of charitable programs, including books for prisoners via Diffusion,[4] and other forms of mission. Recent publishing innovations include the launch of a fiction imprint, Marylebone House, in 2014,[5] and a move to support the InterVarsity Press UK (IVP) in 2015/16.[6]

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 19th century, members had organized local district committees, many of which established small book depots—which at one time numbered over four hundred. These were overseen by central committees such as the [Committee of General Literature and Education]. In 1899 the addresses of their 'depositories' in London were given as Northumberland Avenue, W.C.; Charing Cross, W.C. and 43 Queen Victoria Street, E.C.[7] Six years later in edition 331 the depository was closed at Charing Cross, but a new one 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. At its peak, the SPCK bookshop chain consisted of 40 shops in the UK and 20 overseas. The latter were gradually passed into local ownership during the 1960s and 1970s.

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 2004, when they relocated to London Diocesan House in Causton Street, Pimlico. The bookshop relocated to Tufton St in 2003.

On 1 November 2006, St. Stephen The Great Charitable Trust [SSG] took over the Bookshops but continued to trade under the SPCK name, under licence from SPCK. That licence was withdrawn in October 2007. However, some shops continued trading as SPCK Bookshops without licence until the SSG operation was closed down in 2009. After October 2006, SPCK 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 books were frequently shipped across the Atlantic by sail throughout the 18th century. By 1709 SPCK was spreading further afield: a printing press and trained printer were sent to Tranquebar in East India to assist in the production of the first translation of the Bible into Tamil. This was accomplished 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. The 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 19th 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.

During the twentieth century SPCK's overseas mission concentrated on providing free study literature for those in a number of ministerial training colleges around the world, especially in Africa. It also supported translation in India through its sister organisation there, ISPCK. Today, SPCK is working with a number of partner institutions across Africa to assist in funding and launching an African Theological Network Press, designed to facilitate the writing and distribution of contextual African theology.

Prominent membersEdit

SSPCK in ScotlandEdit

The Scottish sister society,[8] the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), was formed by royal charter in 1709[8] 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. It was intended to counter the threat of Catholic missionaries achieving "a serious landslide to Rome" and of growing Highland Jacobitism.[9] Their schools were a valuable addition to the Church of Scotland programme of education in Scotland, which was based on a tax on landowners to provide a school in every parish. Some—but by no means all—Society schoolmasters were inferior in comparison to burgh and parish schools, however, "particularly in [their] acquaintance with the Evangelical System" rather than more pragmatic literacy, numeracy and teaching ability.[10] The SSPCK had five schools by 1711, 25 by 1715, 176 by 1758 and 189 by 1808, by then with 13,000 pupils attending.[11]

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.[12] SSPCK rules from 1720 required the teaching of literacy and numeracy "but not any Latin or Irish"[8] (then a common term for Gaelic on both sides of the Irish Sea), and the Society boasted "that barbarity and the Irish language ... are almost rooted out" by their teaching.[13] In 1753 an act of the Society forbade students "either in the schoolhouse or when playing about the doors thereof to speak Erse, under pain of being chastised".[10]

In 1741 the SSPCK introduced a Gaelic–English vocabulary, then in 1767 introduced a New Testament designed with facing pages of Gaelic and English texts for both languages to be read alongside one another,[14] with more success. In 1766 they allowed their Highland schools to use Gaelic alongside English as languages of instruction.[10] In 1790, a Society preacher still insisted that English monolingualism was a Society goal[15] and a decade later Society schools continued to use corporal punishment against students speaking Gaelic.[8] In the early 19th century the Society's activity declined. Its educational work was taken over by the Gaelic Societies of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "IPG Independent Publishing Awards". Retrieved 2017-08-24.
  2. ^ "Schooling before the 19th Century". Living Heritage. UK Parliament. Retrieved 1 December 2014.
  3. ^ "". Retrieved 14 March 2018.
  4. ^ "Diffusion Books".
  5. ^ "Marylebone House - About Us".
  6. ^ "IVP and SPCK Partnership revealed".
  7. ^ "The Dawn of Day", 256th edition
  8. ^ a b c d Marcus Tanner (2004). The Last of the Celts. Yale University Press. p. 35. ISBN 0-300-10464-2.
  9. ^ Andrew Porter (2004). Religion Versus Empire?: British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700–1914. Manchester University Press. p. 9.
  10. ^ a b c John Mason (1954). "Scottish Charity Schools of the Eighteenth Century". Scottish Historical Review. 33 (115): 1–13. JSTOR 25526234.
  11. ^ Michael Hechter (1977). Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536–1966. pp. 113ff.
  12. ^ Anthony W. Parker (2010). Scottish Highlanders in Colonial Georgia: The Recruitment, Emigration, and Settlement at Darien, 1735–1748. University of Georgia Press. p. 33.
  13. ^ "Our Gaelic Bible". The Celtic Magazine. Edinburgh. 4: 43. 1879. Cited in Tanner (2004).
  14. ^ Kenneth MacKinnon (1991). Gaelic: A past and future prospect. Saltire Society. p. 56.
  15. ^ J Macinnes (1951). The Evangelical Movement in the Highlands of Scotland, 1688 to 1800. Aberdeen. p. 244. Cited in Tanner (2004).

Further readingEdit

  • 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 linksEdit