For the love of libraries

Yesterday was the commemoration of Thomas Bray, who founded scores of lending libraries and founded the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Promulgation of the Gospel. The gospel reading appointed for his festival is Luke 10:1-9, the sending of the seventy(-two). I was invited to preach at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral’s Evensong.

When I was a child, the public library was a place of great power and influence in my life. It was a place of discovery and of purely voluntary adventures into knowledge; where curiosity was encouraged and questions were not considered talking back. It was a place where a child received recommendations without coercion, and direction without correction. It was a place where the choices, decisions, predilections even of a child were respected and accepted. It was a secret hotbed, a nursery, a hothouse for independence and agency, for a child’s dignity.

The library was my weekly ritual, my Saturday morning church before I ever stumbled across the Sunday morning sacrament. I wonder whether, without that grounding, I would have found my way as a child alone into the church, or had the courage to cross its imposing threshold, had I not been encouraged, admitted, and welcomed as a child with her own agenda and will into the great cathedral of learning that was the children’s room in the basement of the Penarth Public Library.

One of the gifts of this Evensong service is the opportunity to explore the examples of the holy women and holy men who went before us as pioneers and pilgrims of the faith. It’s like being back in the basement of the public library, where I read every biography of every classical composer on the shelves. Now I get to pick up and read people like Thomas Bray, whose bookish activism earned him accolades as a father of the modern public lending library.

It is apparent, from Bray’s own writings, that he recognized that democratic levelling of libraries that affected my childhood, since he said,

This is certain, that Knowledge does more to distinguish the Possessors of it, than Titles, Riches, or great Places;

so that his plans to extend the network of libraries in the colonies under his care beyond private collections to publicly useful lending libraries were intended to extend the learning and the status of persons beyond those who might normally be expected to afford a library: the landed and the gentry. His provision for his English countrymen in the colonies did not, either, limit his vision for the education and instruction in the gospel of their slaves, and of the Native Americans on whose lands they made their plantations.

Still, Bray was not himself a librarian, but a priest, and his devotion to learning began and was founded in the gospel. He argued not only for providing books to Maryland and the other areas of the country that he found to be in need, but also pastors, priests, and missionaries. He considered it incredible, for example, that Newfoundland had been abandoned by the church, writing,

Can any one believe it, when he is told, that … so little Care has been taken, with respect to such a Colony, that there never was, nor yet is, any Preaching, Prayers, or Sacraments, or any Ministerial and Divine Offices, performed on the Island; but that they should be suffered to live as those, who know no God in the World!

Thomas Bray, the Doctor of Divinity, was not content with the Saturday rituals of the library; he wanted the Sunday sacrament to be provided to all who might have need of it. No one, he felt, should need to live “as those, who know no God in the World.”

He must have suffered his fair share of colonial myopia. Missionary zeal is not in itself a bad thing; but it has tended, over the centuries, to be misapplied in many cases.

Still, the Christian missionary movement itself might be said to have started with Jesus himself, sending his disciples out ahead of him to the places where he intended to follow. It was this vision that inspired Thomas Bray: that his clergymen would be wise and helpful guides to their American flocks; and that they would assure the people that the kingdom of God is near; that Jesus is coming, and already is not far away.

The disciples are told to travel light; to hold themselves accountable not to their own baggage, but to the people whom they encounter, and visit, and serve. They are encouraged to receive as well as to give, and to live in peace with all, as far as they are able. They are to get to know the people to whom Jesus is coming, in their own homes, in the midst of their everyday lives. They are to breathe their air, eat their food, share in the risks and rewards of living on their land. They are not to hold themselves apart.

They are not to hold themselves apart.

It was said of Thomas Bray, that he was, “a striking instance of what a man can effect, without any extraordinary genius and without any special influence;” which is a description that might be applied also to any one of those disciples of Jesus, the twelve, the seventy, those of us gathered today, with appropriate apologies to the extraordinary geniuses in the congregation.

To be Christ’s emissaries in the world, to go where Christ intends to follow, we are called not to be exceptional, nor to hold ourselves apart, but to occupy those very public spaces where all may meet on level ground; and to place ourselves at the service of those we find there. We are to greet with peace those with whom we find ourselves in line at the coffee shop. We are to share in the hunger and the reward of those who seek learning in the libraries. We are to offer our selves and our service to those we pass in the supermarket aisles, and on the sidewalks, recognizing each one as sacred, a child of God, created with dignity, and agency, and love.

We do not reserve our reverence for one another, as fellow children imprinted upon God, only for the Sunday sacraments; but we find the gospel, we borrow and lend it to the Saturday rituals, the secular spaces, the cathedrals of our common, oh so common life.

For this is just where Jesus will come to, and is to be found: at the bottom of the basement stairs; in the imagination of a child; in the welcome of a stranger; in the unexpected grace of a greeting of peace, offered almost in passing; the touch of the divine in the middle of an ordinary day.


Photo: Penarth Public Library, by Jaggery [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Bernard C. Steiner, “Rev. Thomas Bray and his American Libraries,” in The American Historical Review, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Oct., 1896, Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association), pp. 59-75 via

“A Memorial Representing the Present State of Religion on the Continent OF North-America”, by Thomas Bray, D.D. (London: Printed by John Brudenell, for the Author, 1701), via Project Canterbury

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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