Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bray, Thomas (1656-1730)

BRAY, THOMAS (1656–1730), divine, was born at Marton in Shropshire, and educated at Oswestry School, whence he proceeded to Oxford. He took his B.A. degree, (All Souls, 11 Nov. 1678), and that of MA. (Hart Hall, 12 Dec. 1693). Having received holy orders he served for a short time a curacy near Bridgnorth, and then became chaplain in the family of Sir T. Price of Park Hall in Warwickshire. Sir Thomas presented him to the donative of Lea Marston or Marson, and his diligence in this post introduced him to John Kettlewell, vicar of Coleshill, and also to Kettlewell's patron, Simon, Lord Digby, and Sir Charles Holt. He also made a favourable impression by an assize sermon which he preached at Warwick while quite a young man. Lord Digby was one of the congregation, and afterwards recommended him to his brother and successor to the title, William, lord Digby, who presented him to the vicarage of Over-Whitacre, and subsequently endowed it with the great tithes. In 1690 Bray was presented by the same patron to the rectory of Sheldon, vacant by the refusal of the rector, Mr. Digby Bull, to take the oaths at the Revolution. At Sheldon, Bray composed the first volume of his 'Catechetical Lectures,' which were published by the 'authoritative injunctions' of Dr. Lloyd, bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, to whom the volume was dedicated. The work at once became popular, and made Bray's name well known in London. About the year 1691 the governor and assembly of Maryland determined to divide that province into parishes, and to appoint a legal maintenance for the ministers in each parish. In 1695 they wrote to request the bishop of London to send them over some clergyman to act as his commissary, and Bishop Compton selected Bray for the post. Bray accepted it, but was unable to set out for Maryland until the return of a new act thence to be confirmed by the sovereign; the first act for the establishment of the church being rejected, because it was wrongly stated in it that the laws of England were in force in Maryland. Meanwhile he was employed under Bishop Compton in seeking out missionaries to be sent abroad as soon as the new act could be obtained. He found that he could only enlist poor men unable to buy books, and he seems to have made the help of the bishops in providing libraries a condition of his going to Maryland. From a paper still extant in Lambeth library it appears that the two archbishops and five bishops agreed to 'contribute cheerfully towards these parochial libraries.' Meanwhile Bray had extended his plans, and set himself to provide libraries for the clergy at home as well as abroad. He projected a scheme for establishing parochial libraries in every deanery throughout England and Wales, and so far succeeded that before his death he saw upwards of eighty established. No less than thirty-nine libraries, some containing more than a thousand volumes, were established in North America, besides many in other foreign lands during Bray's lifetime. His t premier library 'was founded at Annapolis, the capital of Maryland, called after Anne, Princess of Denmark, who gave a 'noble benefaction' towards the valuable library there. The library scheme soon became part of a larger scheme which took shape in the 'Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.' In 1697 a bill was brought into parliament to alienate lands given to superstitious uses, and vest them in Greenwich Hospital. Bray petitioned that a share of them should be appropriated to the 'propagation of true religion in our foreign plantations.' The petition was well received in the house, but the bill fell through; so he received no help from that quarter. In 1698 he addressed the king for a grant of some arrears of taxes due to the crown, and actually followed the king to Holland to get the grant completed; but it was found that the arrears were all but valueless. He drew up a plan 'for having a protestant congregation pro propagandâ fide by charter from the king; but 'things were not yet ripe for the charter society,' so to prepare the way he tried to form a voluntary society, laid the plan of it before the bishop of London, and found 'several worthy persons willing to unite.' The first sketch of the objects of the society, which included the libraries at home and abroad, charity schools, and missions both to colonists and the heathen, was prepared by Bray, and he was one of the first five members, and the only clergyman among them, who composed the first meeting on 8 March 1698-9. All this while Bray was entirely without any provision to support him. Two preferments were offered him at home, the office of sub-almoner and the living of St. Botolph, Aldgate; but he was not the man to be so diverted. Having waited for more than two years, he determined to set forth. He had previously, at the request of the governor of Mary land, taken the degrees of B.D. and D.D. at Oxford (Magdalen, 17 Dec. 1696), though he could ill afford to pay the fees. No allowance was made him for expenses, and he was obliged to dispose of his own small effects and raise money on credit. On 16 Dec. 1699 he set sail for Maryland. Knowing that missionaries were often detained in the seaports, he determined to found seaport libraries; he was able himself to deposit books on his way at Gravesend, Deal, and Plymouth. Arriving in Maryland in March, he 'at once set about repairing the breach made in the settlement of the parochial clergy,' and was well backed up by the governor Nicholson. But it was felt on all sides that Bray would do better service to the church in Maryland by returning home and endeavouring to get the law, which had been twice rejected there, re-enacted with the royal assent. If Bray had consulted his own interests, he would have remained in Maryland, for the commissary's office would yield him no profits if he left the country; but he returned to England at once, and found that the quakers had raised prejudices against the establishment of the church in Maryland. Bray refuted these in a printed memorial, and the bill was at last approved. Before he resigned his office of commissary he made a vigorous effort to obtain a bishop for Maryland. Bray had borne all the cost of his voyage and outfit; it was rightly thought unfair to allow him to impoverish himself for the public good. Viscount Weymouth therefore presented him with 300l., and two other friends with 50l. each; but he characteristically devoted it all to public purposes. On his return to England he found the work of the society so largely increased that it was necessary to make one of its departments the work of a separate society. Bray therefore obtained from King William a charter for the incorporation of a society for propagating the gospel throughout our plantations, June 1701. Thus Bray may almost be regarded as the founder of our two oldest church societies. The living of St. Botolph Without, Aldgate, which he had refused before he went to Maryland, was again offered to him in 1706. He accepted it, and set himself with characteristic energy to work the parish thoroughly. Meanwhile he never forgot his earliest project of erecting libraries, and in 1709 he had the gratification of seeing an act passed, through the instrumentality of Sir Peter King, afterwards lord chancellor, 'for the better preservation of parochial libraries in England.' He took a deep interest in the condition of the negroes in the West Indies and North America. When he was in Holland he had conversed much on the subject with Mr. D'Allone, King William's secretary, at the Hague, and this gentleman gave him 900l., to be devoted to the instruction of the negroes. In 1723 Bray was attacked with a dangerous illness, and, feeling that his life was very insecure, he nominated certain persons to carry out his work with him and after him. These were called 'Dr. Bray's associates for founding clerical libraries and supporting negro schools.' A decree of chancery confirmed their authority soon after Bray's death. The association still exists, and publishes a report of its labours every year, to which is always attached a memoir of Bray. He continued to work diligently in his parish. In 1723 Ralph Thoresby records in his diary that he ' walked to the pious and charitable Dr. Bray's in Aidgate, and was extremely pleased with his many pious, useful, and charitable works.' A week later he 'heard the charity children catechised at Dr. Bray's church,' and remarks on 'the prodigious pains so aged a man takes.' 'He is,' Thoresby adds, 'very mortified to the world, and takes abundant trouble to have a new church, though he would lose 100l. per annum.' The 'aged man' was not content with the work of his own parish. So late as 1727 'an acquaintance made a casual visit to Whitechapel prison, and his representation of the miserable state of the prisoners had such an effect on the doctor that he applied himself to solicit benefactions to relieve them;' and he also employed intended missionaries to read and preach to the prisoners. This work brought him into connection with the benevolent General Oglethorpe, who joined the 'associates' of Bray, and persuaded others to do so. And it was probably owing to his acquaintance with Oglethorpe that to the two designs of founding libraries and instructing negroes he added a third, viz. the establishing a colony in America to provide for the necessitous poor who could not find employment at home. He died on 15 Feb. 1730.

Bray is a striking instance of what a man may effect without any extraordinary genius, and without special influence. It would be difficult to point to any one who has done more real and enduring service to the church. His various appeals are plain, forcible, and racy. He cannot be reckoned among our great divines, but his writings produced more immediate practical results than those of greater divines have done. His first publication was entitled 'A Course of Lectures upon the Church Catechism, in 4 volumes, by a Divine of the Church of England,' Oxford, 1696. The first volume only, 'Upon the Preliminary Questions and Answers,' was published; it contains 303 folio pages, and consists of 26 lectures. In 1697 he published 'An Essay towards promoting all Necessary and Useful Knowledge, both Divine and Human, in all parts of his Majesty's Dominions.' The essay with this ambitious title is of course connected with his library scheme. In the same year he published another work on the same design, entitled 'Bibliotheca Parochialis, or a Scheme of such Theological Heads as are requisite to be studied by every Pastor of a Parish.' In 1700-1 he published his circular letters to the clergy of Maryland, 'A Memorial representing the Present State of Religion on the Continent of North America,' and 'Acts of Visitation at Annapolis;' in 1702 'Bibliotheca Catechetica, or the Country Curates' Library;' in 1708 a single sermon entitled 'For God or Satan,' preached before the Society for the Reformation of Manners at St. Mary-le-Bow. In 1712 he appeared in print in a new light. He had always been a strong anti-Romanist, and on this ground he expressed two years later his intense satisfaction at the 'protestant succession' of George I in an interesting letter still preserved in the British Museum. During the last four years of Queen Anne's reign it is well known that there was great alarm about the return of popery. Bray issued a seasonable publication, entitled 'A Martyrology, or History of the Papal Usurpation,' consisting of 'choice and learned treatises of celebrated authors, ranged and digested into a regular history.' Only one volume of this work was published in Bray's lifetime; but he left materials for the remainder, which he bequeathed to Sion College. In 1726 he published his 'Directorium Missionarium.' This was quickly followed by a work entitled 'Primordia Bibliothecaria,' in which are given 'several schemes of parochial libraries, and a method laid down to proceed by a gradual progression from strength to strength, from a collection not much exceeding in value II. to 100l.' In 1728 he reprinted the 'Life of Bernard Gilpin,' and then Erasmus's 'Ecclesiastes,' a treatise on the pastoral care, the separate publication of which he thought would be of great use, as it was not likely to be much read when it was 'mixed up,' as it had hitherto been, in Erasmus's voluminous works. Finally, Bray published 'A Brief Account of the Life of Mr. John Rawlet,' a clergyman of like mind with himself, and author of the once famous work, 'The Christian Monitor.'

[Rawlinson MSS., J. folio, in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; Report of the Association of the late Kev. Dr. Bray and his Associates, &c., published annually; Public Spirit illustrated in the Life and Designs of Dr. Bray (1746); An Account of the Designs of the Associates of the late Dr. Bray, &c. (1769); Anderson's History of the Colonial Church; and Bray's Works, passim.]

J. H. O.