Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we look at the origins of the mother of all (para-church) ministries.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 8th of March 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Recently on this show, our events have circled a few themes- that of missions work, para-church organizations, and the Enlightenment. Today’s event ties all of them together and suggests what might be the mother of all Protestant para-church organizations.

On the 8th of March in 1698, the Anglican Reverend Thomas Bray met at Lincoln’s Inn in London with four other men concerned about the general state of Christianity both home and abroad. They would form the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (the SPCK). The goal of this organization was to:

"To promote and encourage the erection of charity schools in all parts of England and Wales; to dispense, both at home and abroad, Bibles and tracts of religion; and in general to advance the honor of God and the good of mankind, by promoting Christian knowledge both at home and in the other parts of the world by the best methods that should offer.”

Over 320 years later, the SPCK is still going strong- although it has become a trans-denominational organization that also spawned the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

First: let’s look at the context of 1698 in England.

The Reformation ended with a thud. The Anglican Church was born, but the Reformation tore through Europe and ended with the 30 Years War. There had been a civil war in England. Now, with new colonies abroad, the fear was that they too might get caught up in the revolutionary spirit and emancipate themselves from possibly the crown, but more importantly, from the church.

In England, as elsewhere, the Reformation severed the church from its onetime (earthly) head. There were Puritans and Quakers and Baptists (oh my!) According to Bray and others, what was needed was a new Reformation. And Bray believed that this new reformation would come via the printed word like the last one.

The problem was local (the SPCK was not solely a missionary society) but had its eyes, particularly in the new American colonies. Bray and the SPCK would seek to build libraries, educate the illiterate, preach to the enslaved people, and consolidate the Anglican Church abroad.

Two notes here:

The SPCK would fulfill the above mission, except for consolidating the Anglican Church. In what would presage the future of modern missions, the SPCK would take on a generally trans-denominational and broadly evangelical theology.

While the hat tip to the written word looks like Bray was looking back to the early Reformation, his project was very much part of the age of Enlightenment. You might recognize that some of this Reformation meets Enlightenment thinking.

What’s the answer to vice and societal reform? Education.

The Enlightenment never found anything it couldn’t try to fix using an education.

Why do some people believe in other religions or forms of government? “They haven’t read enough” is a standard reply.

People misbehave; the argument goes because they lack the education that would allow them to flourish. While this is solid Enlightenment thinking- the education must be in all forms of learning- for the SPCK, intellectual, devotional, and practical knowledge. They would start libraries and then schools. They would engage in acts of mercy and develop a global network of charities. They would help establish organizations for students at Cambridge and other English schools borrowed by American groups such as Campus Crusade and InterVarsity (today InterVarsity and the SPCK have a joint publishing agreement).

The Protestants didn’t have centuries of religious orders used to pick up the slack in education and missions. There were no Protestant Franciscans or Dominicans.

Today, Protestant religious orders are diffuse and numerous (even if we don’t call them religious orders). Often extra-denominational and para-church- focusing on education and works of charity. Whether it’s the work of the Navigators, InterVarsity, Christianity Today, or even 1517, we can see a bit out ourselves when we look back to the foundation of the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge on this day in 1698.

The Last Word for today comes from the Gospel of Mark- chapter 12:

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 8th of March 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man for whom March 8th is first and foremost the birthday of Mickey Dolenz- the last living Monkee. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man “too busy singing to put anybody down” I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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