A brief history of USPG
We bring to our work over 300 years of experience and expertise. We are proud of our history and have learned deep lessons from it.
Our story begins in 1701, when Bach and Handel were still young men and the finishing touches were still being made to the dome on St Paul’s Cathedral.
A visionary priest called Thomas Bray was granted a Royal Charter to set up a society that would send Church of England priests to settlers in America. He called this new organisation the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). This was the start of a story that is also a part of global history.
Expanding its initial remit, SPG quickly started sending school teachers to work with slave and native American communities. SPG missionaries worked within – and challenged – the cultural understanding of their day and did their best to help marginalised communities.
Over the next three centuries, we sent over 15,000 missionaries worldwide. Many of these missionaries were pioneers, tackling slavery, championing women’s rights and opposing racism. They also helped to establish indigenous Anglican Churches in the countries where they worked, helping to build what is today the global Anglican Communion.
Power to inspire
The Rt Revd Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, has commented on how Thomas Bray’s pioneering vision still has the power to inspire.
At a special service in 2008 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Bray’s birth, the bishop said: ‘We give thanks for Thomas Bray, for his confidence in the gospel and its compatibility with reason. We give thanks for his non-exclusive but profound conviction that the Church of England is called to serve and challenge a world misled by atheists and libertines – to be an effective agent of the mystery of God’s will.’
Giving their lives for the gospel
SPG has sent personnel to over 50 countries. We sent our first missionaries to India in 1820, South Africa in 1821, China in 1863 and Japan in 1873. In those days, there was a high risk of catching malaria and other diseases, with no effective treatment available, which meant that many of these brave men and women became missionaries knowing that they might be literally giving their lives for the gospel.
In 1856, SPG broke with convention by accepting its first single woman as a missionary: Sarah Coombes, who was a schoolteacher in Borneo. At the same time, SPG was making a concerted effort to support indigenous missionaries, both men and women. The focus was on building capacity in the local church – an ethos that we continue to this day.
In 1965, SPG became USPG (United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) by joining with the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA), a society founded formed to pursue evangelistic, medical and educational work in East and Central Africa, making major contributions in the fight against slavery and leprosy.
Three years later, USPG was joined by the Cambridge Mission to Delhi (CMD), which had a history of supporting healthcare, as well as campaigning for India’s independence.
USPG history snapshots
- John Wesley (1703-1791) is widely known as the founder of Methodism. However, it is less well known that, as a younger man, he spent 21 months as a missionary in America with SPG, from February 1736 until December 1737. Back in London, in May 1738, Wesley recorded his conversion experience in which his heart was ‘strangely warmed’.
- In 1796, which was 26 years after Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay, in Australia, and eight years after convicts were first transported to Australia, SPG sent missionaries to this region. They were appointed to work on Norfolk Island, 800 miles east of Australia, which was a penal settlement renowned for hosting some of the most violent convicts.
- The smallest community supported by SPG was on Pitcairn Island, midway between New Zealand and South America. The inhabitants were descendants of Bounty mutineers. From 1828 onwards, Irishman George Nobbs devoted 55 years to the islanders, as their teacher and doctor. The islanders were keen to take Holy Communion, for which a priest was required. So Nobbs was ordained in England in 1852 and returned a year later as an SPG missionary. Nobbs continued to minister to the islanders until his death in 1884, aged 85.
- Dr David Livingstone – perhaps the most famous missionary of all – plays a key role in USPG’s history. In 1857, he gave lectures at Oxford and Cambridge Universities during which he urged the Church of England to send a mission to Central Africa, where he hoped the arrival of ‘commerce and Christianity’ would bring about the end of the slave trade. The lectures led to the foundation of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA), which was to merged with SPG in 1965 to form USPG.
- USPG has sent missionaries to some of the smallest and remotest places on earth. In the 1880s, the Society sent the Revd Edwin Dodgson – brother of Charles Dodgson, better known as the author Lewis Carroll – as a missionary to the volcanic island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic, known as ‘the lonely island’. He stayed for eight years, then transferred to the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa for another five years.
- In 1930, SPG nurse Edith Shelley contracted leprosy in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and chose to live at the Lulindi Leprosy Settlement while she was being treated. She began to study the disease and became convinced that out-patient care – setting up clinics in villages – was the way forward. Edith set up a number of clinics, which she ran herself. Then, as more clinics opened, she trained African medical staff.
- Leonora Lea was one of a tiny number of white westerners who were allowed to remain at liberty in Japan during the Second World War. She taught at Shoin Jo Gakko, a girls’ high school in Kobe. While other missionaries were deported, it is thought Leonora was allowed to stay because of the high esteem in which she was held by the Japanese authorities. Leonora, who taught in Japan from 1927 until shortly before her death in 1971, wrote of the war years: ‘The whole nation lives by the black market, or dies on the rations.’
- Evelyn Ashdown, a teacher at Queen Mary School, in Delhi, India, was returning from Bombay to England in autumn 1942 when her ship was torpedoed and started sinking. She boarded a lifeboat on which she and other passengers sailed in search of land for 14 days until being rescued. After the war, Evelyn returned to Delhi and continued her work at Queen Mary School until 1960, when she retired at the age of 74.
- Fr Roger Tennant, a USPG missionary in Korea between 1954 and 1962, was known for his humility and compassion. Once, when approached by a beggar in the market place, Fr Roger gave the man his only cassock. The beggar put on the cassock and went on his way, but found himself being continually stopped and asked for advice by market-goers who assumed he was the local priest. Fr Roger’s most lasting achievement was to establish a leprosy colony in Namyangju which became the model for subsequent government-funded projects.
- Another of our missionaries, Canon Robin Lamburn, although officially retired, dedicated 25 years to Kindwitwi Leprosy Village, in Tanzania, where he encouraged residents to be self-reliant. Their self-esteem increased and they regained dignity, despite their suffering. Canon Robin’s humanitarian work was recognised when he was awarded the Albert Schweitzer International Prize in 1985.