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United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel

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United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel

The United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) is a 300-year-old Anglican missionary organisation, formed originally as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) in 1701. It became USPG in 1965 when the SPG merged with the Universities' Mission to Central Africa (UMCA).

Working within the Anglican Communion, USPG's work involves pastoral care, social action and supporting training programmes. It also encourages parishes in Britain and Ireland to participate in mission through fundraising and prayer and by setting up links with its projects around the world. Its main focus of work is setting up and providing support for projects in various dioceses around the communion. USPG particularly supports hospitals and care centres for those suffering with HIV and AIDS.


Early history

Around the start of the 18th century, Henry Compton, Bishop of London (1675–1713), requested the Revd Thomas Bray to report on the state of the Church of England in the American Colonies. Bray reported that the Anglican church in America had "little spiritual vitality" and was "in a poor organizational condition". The society was authorised by Convocation and incorporated by royal charter.[1] On 16 June 1701, King William III issued a charter establishing the SPG as "an organisation able to send priests and schoolteachers to America to help provide the Church's ministry to the colonists". The new society had two main aims: Christian ministry to British people overseas; and evangelization of the non-Christian races of the world.[2]

The society’s first missionaries started work in North America in 1702 and in the West Indies in 1703. Its charter soon expanded to include "evangelisation of slaves and Native Americans". By 1710, SPG officials stated that "conversion of heathens and infidels ought to be prosecuted preferably to all others". In the American colonies, the Anglican church was competing with Congregational churches in New England. Especially after the Great Awakening, SPG missioners had to compete with numerous Baptist and Methodist preachers. In New England the SPG helped promote better design for new churches, including the addition of steeples. The white church with steeple was copied by other groups and became associated with New England-style churches among the range of Protestant sects.[3] Such designs were also copied in the Southern colonies.

By the time of the American Revolution, the SPG had employed about 300 missionaries in North America. It soon expanded to Australia, New Zealand and West Africa. The SPG was also important in the establishment of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America after the revolution.

Slavery and the Codrington Plantation

The SPG was a major slave owner in Barbados in the 18th and early 19th centuries, employing thousands of slaves on the Codrington Plantation, many of whom died there in terrible conditions and from overwork and cruelty. During the February 2006 meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England, bishops voted unanimously to apologise to the descendants of slaves for the church's involvement in the slave trade. The Revd Simon Bessant confirmed, in a speech before the vote, that the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts had owned the Codrington Plantation.

History of the plantation

The plantation was bequeathed to the society in 1710 by Christopher Codrington[4] and was run by managers on behalf of the Church of England, represented by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a committee of bishops. It relied on new slaves from West Africa: by 1740 four out of every 10 slaves bought by the plantation died within three years. This contrasted with some plantations in what is now the southern United States, where the death rate was lower.

It was the situation in the West Indies and at the SPG's Codrington Estates in particular, which prompted Beilby Porteus, Bishop of Chester and later Bishop of London, to use the opportunity of preaching the 1783 anniversary sermon of the SPG at St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, London to issue a call to the Church of England to cease its involvement in the slave trade. It urged formulation of a policy to draw attention to and improve the conditions of the Afro-Caribbean slaves in Barbados. At that time slaveholders used Biblical justifications for slavery. The church relinquished its slaveholdings only after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.[5]

When the emancipation of slaves took place in 1833, the government paid compensation under the Emancipation Act to their owners. The Church of England's Codrington Plantation received £8,823. 8s. 9d in compensation for 411 slaves,[6] According to the accounts of Codrington College, which had been set up (by the Church under the will by which the Plantation was bequeathed to the Church) to provide education for slaves, the compensation funds were paid into the treasury of the College.

Conditions on the plantation

Initially slaves were branded with the word "Society" on their chests with a hot iron.[7] Milton Meltzer explains that the branding practice throughout the sugar plantations was that “Already branded once by the trader, the slaves were branded a second time with their new owner's initials." On branding at Codrington, Hochschild says[8] “For nearly a decade, Codrington officials tried to reduce escapes by branding all slaves on their chests. In the end, though, the chief deterrent was the lash, plus, at times, an iron collar and a straitjacket.” Branding, the policy of one overseer and not continuous official policy of the managers, ceased within a decade of the Church taking on ownership of the Plantation.

It has been suggested that there was a deliberate "work to death" policy in operation, as was commonly the case on other plantations and in South America.[9] On this question, Hochschild makes the point[10] ...”in 1746 one third of Africans died within three years of arrival in West Indies, from the ordeal of the middle passage, and the shock of adjusting to the new life, foods, and diseases.” There is no specific evidence that on the Codrington plantation harsh treatment of slaves by its managers was the cause of the high death rate.

Hochschild goes on to say, “At Codrington, as throughout the Caribbean, new slaves from Africa were first “seasoned” for three years, receiving extra food and light work assignments. Slaves were vulnerable during this early traumatic period when they were most likely to die of disease, to run away... or to commit suicide. If you survived those three years, you were regarded as ready for the hardest labour.” Hochschild provides further detail about the policies of the SPG's managers, saying that by 1826, “As a result of changes, the Church of England's Codrington plantation, for example, had improved food, housing, clothing, and working conditions, and built a small hospital for sick and pregnant slaves.”


Expansion and merger

In 1820, the SPG sent missionaries to India and in 1821 to South Africa. It later expanded outside the British Empire to China in 1863 and Japan 1873. By then the society's focus was more on the care for indigenous people than for colonists. In 1866, the SPG established the Ladies’ Association for Promoting the Education of Females in India and other Heathen Countries in Connection with the Missions of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. In 1895, this group was updated to the Women’s Mission Association for the Promotion of Female Education in the Missions of the SPG, which enabled British and Irish women to become missionaries. During this period, the SPG also supported increasing numbers of indigenous missionaries of both sexes, as well as medical missionary work.

The SPG continued the missionary work for the Churches of England, Wales and Ireland until 1965. That year, the SPG merged with the Universities' Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) to form the USPG. In 1968, the Cambridge Mission to Delhi (CMD) also joined the USPG.

See also

Anglicanism portal



  • Bennett, J. Harry, Jr. (1958) Bondsmen and Bishops: slavery and apprenticeship on the Codrington plantations of Barbados, 1710-1838. Berkeley: University of California Press
  • Haynes, Stephen R. (2002) Noah's Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Hochschild, Adam (2005) Bury the Chains, the British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. Macmillan
  • Meltzer, Milton (1993) Slavery: a world history. Da Capo Press
  • Pierre, C. E. (1916) “The Work of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts among the Negroes in the Colonies.” Journal of Negro History; 1 (October 1916): 349-60.
  • A collection of SPG-related missionary narratives

Further reading

  • Dewey, Margaret (1975). The Messengers: a Concise History of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. London: Mowbrays. vi, 158 p. ISBN 0-264-66089-7pbk
  • Pascoe, Charles Frederick (1901) Two Hundred Years of the S.P.G.: an historical account of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1701-1900 (based on a digest of the society's records). 2 vols. London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel
  • Thompson, Henry Paget (1951) Into All Lands: a history of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1701-1950. London: S.P.C.K.

External links

  • USPG
  • Daily Telegraph story about Church of England apology
  • A Vocation to Mission - article on SPG by Canon Noel Titus (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland)
  • Records of the Society covering the years 1667-1803 are held at Lambeth Palace Library
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