The Bray Papers

As promised, I’m posting now about what I discovered in the Bray Papers, housed at Swem’s Special Collections. There is quite a bit to learn from the papers actually, and now that I have all the basics gathered and transcribed, I am looking forward to interpreting them and seeing what new and unique conclusions I can draw!

The Bray Papers consist of about four folders. The contents of the folders range from bare-bones lists of books and supplies, to highly-nuanced letters carrying reports and assessments of the schools’ progress. Yes, I said schools’.  Dr. Bray and his Associates opened numerous schools for the education of African-Americans in the British colonies, as well as in Britain itself. The papers in SCRC include an overview of all of these schools. Actually, one of the first items I came across was a book, scholarly in nature, published in the 1930s that examines, in a broad overview, all the work of Dr. Bray and his Associates in Britain and the US.

Thomas Bray’s Associates and Their Work Among the Negroes, by Edgar Legare Pennington, is a sweetly swooning account of all the good done by the said-named Christian philanthropists for African-Americans across the globe. The “Philanthropic Designs” of Bray & co. were dual-purpose– to reform the manners of the common folk and those down-trodden by their status in a hierarchical society, and to strengthen moral fortitude and discipline among clergy members. It was thought that these two goals could be accomplished with the same program, and that their achievement would improve the status of both the motherland and her colonies, thereby attracting the right sort to live and prosper in their bounds. Or so Pennington interprets. My own later perusal of Bray & co.’s ledgers, letters, and minutes makes a strong case for these motives– though perhaps while looking through my contemporary lenses I see a little more of the paternalistic tinge embedded in the charity of Bray & co.. Bray’s Associates and Their Work is a very old, very well preserved secondary source, but I was eager to get down to the real thing (perhaps, even, regretting that I hadn’t began with it).

After Pennington came the real nitty gritty. First, there were lists. I think I may have wilted a bit around the edges, seeing something so plain and unyielding as lists. But, I am a historian (or at least I would like to be), and I know a little bit about whittling information from lists. After the first few pages, I began to see patterns, began to make inferences and ask questions. The pages didn’t answer, of course, but it was a start for me! Many, many religious titles (including, but not limited to, Bray’s Martyrology, Easy Method of Instructing Youth, Scriptural Catechism, and Bacon’s Six Sermons) seemed to add up to Christian instruction, aimed at youths with little to no literacy, and in quantities of 25-30 assuming no one shared their books.

As I moved forward, the lists of Bray & co. began to give me more clues as to what was included within the covers of the listed books. One fascinating example was Bacon’s Six Sermons. Another list, for another county, listed them as Bacon’s Two Sermons to the Negroes” and “Bacon’s Four Sermons to the Planters.” Turns out, they are actually individually directed at the two key groups in a system of slavery– masters and slaves. What I find is often assumed (and something I had perhaps believed myself) is that a Christian education for slaves meant a censored, hand-picked version of the Catechism. Obedience commandments and humility and what-not. And while I did find a fair share of that, Bacon’s sermons seemed to say there was another censored-side of Christianity, directed at slave owners. All of this, and I haven’t even gotten to the letters yet!