The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts: a timely archival collaboration

As collaborative work within the AHRC-funded Networking Archives project continues between partners in Cambridge, at QMUL, and in Oxford, EMLO has been involved simultaneously over the past year with colleagues at the University of Leeds, at Lambeth Palace Library, in the Bodleian Libraries, and at the United Society Partners in the Gospel on a separate AHRC-funded research project: ‘Pastoral Care, Literary Cure, and Religious Dissent: Zones of Freedom in the British Atlantic c. 1630–1720′. Under the direction of Associate Professor Alison Searle, and with the dedicated assistance of post-doctoral researcher Dr Emily Vine, a number of new correspondences are in the process of being published in EMLO, the first of which is a ‘starter catalogue‘ for the correspondence of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

The letters in the archive of the Society (which was known initially as the SPG and, from 1965, as the USPG) are divided between Lambeth Palace Library and—as a loan collection—the Bodleian Libraries. Following the launch of an initial listing of metadata for 109 letters to coincide with the release of an online exhibition, the fledgling correspondence catalogue may be consulted now in EMLO. The exhibition includes a fascinating and wide-ranging interview given to Rosie Dawson by Bishop Rowan Williams, and we are delighted that Alison and Dr Jo Sadgrove, Research and Learning Advisor at USPG, and Research Fellow at the Centre for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds, have agreed to contribute to this Cultures of Knowledge blog with an insight into how their research and collaborations have taken shape and developed over the course of a COVID-wracked year.

Institution and Archive: The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts

An AHRC-funded collaboration between USPG and the University of Leeds has explored themes of pastoral care both in SPG’s archive and in USPG’s contemporary global engagements during Covid-19. This collaboration attempts to take seriously the tradition of pastoral care—and the profound failures of care—for bodies and souls that SPG pioneered, and of which USPG and other faith-based organizations are inheritors. It reads the early history of SPG as offering an innovative, though often misguided and morally problematic, vision for the creation of a transatlantic community of care. The project’s aims include not only opening up to a broader public SPG’s earliest archival collections, but also understanding the struggles facing the SPG community in its earliest years and thinking about their connections to present-day mission. What was SPG doing in those early years that was distinct and deemed to be of value to those committed to its vision? How did the Society care for its members across the Atlantic? How should USPG as a twenty-first-century organization understand and communicate that history? How do the concerns of SPG as a nascent Society resonate with and continue to inform the life of the contemporary organization?

The oldest expressions of USPG’s relationships with those ministering in other parts of the world are found in their correspondence archives. For the first twenty years, the SPG was an organization connected by transatlantic letters. These letters were the means by which pastoral care was extended across the Atlantic—from the Society’s headquarters in London to missionaries in North America and the Caribbean, and through those missionaries, to a wide range of other community groups. What SPG generates in the early eighteenth century, as recorded in the letters, is an innovative, complex, deeply entangled transatlantic community of pastoral care. SPG was ambitious in its aims and limited in its attitude and approach to those whom it encountered in liminal zones across the early modern British Atlantic, but it forged a unique community seeking to engage with and care for those whom it encountered, however entangled and inequitable that ambition proved to be in reality.

Pastoral care within this diverse community was provided in a number of ways, as the letters indicate: enabling access to the sacraments for British settlers in North America and the Caribbean; resourcing communities through the provision of education; sending books and other material supports for spiritual life—both for the missionaries themselves and for the provision of spiritual care to others. Polemical works enabled missionaries to defend and differentiate the Church of England from other expressions of Protestantism in North America and the Caribbean and, in doing so, marked out the boundaries of Anglican orthodoxy. But pastoral caregiving was most powerfully expressed through the act of receiving and writing letters. Such letters offered encouragement and implicitly created solidarity, reminding missionaries and their fledgling congregations that they were part of a wider community of pastoral care, even though they often lived isolated and highly precarious lives.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, few could have anticipated that questions about care would become the key moral, political, and economic questions facing communities globally. Who is entitled to care? What does good care look like? How should care be given? How are caregivers themselves cared for? How do we pay for care? How do we care when we are not able to be physically present? How do we care for those who are isolated? How do we care for those in precarious economic situations? These questions, which are now all too familiar, are similar to those that energized and confounded the early SPG missionaries.

The longevity of these questions across time and space means that a deepening understanding of SPG’s earliest archive is able to inform and shape its functioning in the twenty-first century. This archive, which evidences a discourse and genealogy of pastoral care developed over three-hundred years, offers a different grounding for USPG as a contemporary organization, perhaps making more visible the challenging dynamics that continue to influence its functioning and relationships. Thinking about the contemporary life of an organization in dialogue with its archives offers a distinct vantage point from which to reflect on the challenges of relationships over time. Our project has embodied a highly productive process of cross-sectoral discussion between academic research and historical and contemporary organizational praxis. Collaboratively rethinking this shared but conflicted and often painful history has the potential to bring new dimensions to relationships in active dialogue with some of USPG’s oldest partners within the Anglican Communion.

Pastoral care is a highly complex and power-laden dynamic: it appears in many different guises and is expressed in various ways across cultural contexts. What is perceived as pastoral care in one context can be interpreted as brutality in another. Critical questions arise here as to whether what is offered as pastoral care, particularly across contexts, is experienced and received as care? There have been times when the priorities of USPG as an administrative organization, embroiled in Western systems of bureaucracy and accountability, have jeopardized global relationships. As with other organizations, the relational and the administrative aspects are often in tension with each other. The early archive offers a caution about the issues of power that USPG as a twenty-first century organization continues to negotiate. How then might USPG better hold the tension between the administrative and the relational in ways that protect and nurture creativity and relationship? How might USPG be better at including the voices and experiences of partners in thinking about what it means to offer pastoral care for bodies and souls, across multiple contexts and inequities? How might excavating languages of pastoral care in SPG’s early archive enable different ways of thinking about languages and practices of pastoral caregiving in the present?

The online exhibition, which our cross-sectoral collaboration has generated, is a way of interrogating the most innovative and barbaric facets of SPG’s organizational history of pastoral caregiving. It reveals the commitment with which those within SPG sought to care for certain groups across the Atlantic, whilst catastrophically failing in their duty of care for others. It invites ongoing dialogue and reflection about the ways in which faith-based organizations, like USPG, and many others, still operating within the same global networks of relationship that were established during the early modern period, work towards deeper understanding of the history explored in this online exhibition.

Jo Sadgrove and Alison Searle
University of Leeds

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