Adrian Leak praises an 18th-century bringer of books
"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 anyone who has done more real and enduring service to the Church."
Thus wrote the church historian J. H. Overton in
The Dictionary of National Biography.
What Thomas Bray did possess, however, was a burning conviction in the
Church’s universal mission, a clear vision of how to implement it, and an
unshakeable trust in the Lord. While so many church leaders had lamented the
intellectual poverty of the clergy — Bishop Thomas Ken had written gloomily on
the subject in his Ichabod, or the Five Groans of the Church
— it was left to this relatively unknown parish priest to do something about
Books, said Bray: that’s what clerics need. Books. Without learning, they
cannot preach. Without study, they cannot learn. Without books, they cannot
study. "Books must be had," he wrote, "or religion must fall to the ground."
He persuaded bishops and leading laymen to support his plan for setting up
parish libraries, both here and in the American colonies. Two archbishops and
five bishops were among those who "contributed cheerfully towards these
parochial libraries". Princess (later Queen) Anne gave "a noble benefaction".
By the end of his life, he had set up 80 libraries in England and Wales, and 39
in America, some holding more than 1000 volumes each.
As a parish priest, he strove to improve the standard of worship. He set
about training 20 or 30 youngsters to give a lead in the singing. He taught
them "to modulate the tone of their voice to the greatest gravity . . . to
avoid the extremities of screaming on the one hand, and a grumbling on the
These young leaders, he wrote, should be "well instructed . . . for this
little leaven would soon season the whole lump". They were trained to be the
nucleus of a body of monthly communicants. By their example would be removed
the "scandalous blemish" of dull and irreverent congregations.
He pioneered the revival of the rural-deanery chapter as a way of
encouraging the parish clergy and as a forum for theological debate. To assist
in this, he drew up lists of titles for deanery libraries.
For many years, he was incumbent of St Botolph’s, Aldgate. His conscientious
ministry among his parishioners, especially the young, shone in a corrupt city.
According to a survey of London church life in 1714, Bray led morning and
evening prayer daily in his church, and preached twice on Sundays. He
catechised the charity children weekly. In addition, he preached near 30
"donation sermons" and other lectures and "fast sermons" on appointed weekdays
throughout the year. He performed all these duties without assistance, except
in his last years.
While in his 70s, Bray undertook relief work in the London prisons,
persuading his friends to provide beef, beer, and broth, and sending trainee
missionaries on prison visits. He also contributed to the agitation that
produced a parliamentary commission of enquiry into the state of the jails.
In a visitation charge to the clergy of Maryland, Bray wrote: "I conjure you
by all the love which the Son of God bore the sons of men, to feed his lambs."
He spoke with the authority of one who practised what he preached.
The Revd Adrian Leak is Honorary Assistant Curate in Worplesdon, in the
diocese of Guildford.