Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Benjamin Franklin, the College of William and Mary, and the Williamsburg Bray School

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Benjamin Franklin, the College of William and Mary, and the Williamsburg Bray School

Article excerpt

The history of the Associates of Dr. Bray, an eighteenth-century London philanthropy dedicated to the religious education of free and enslaved blacks in the British colonies, has been well documented. But the full story behind the 1760 founding of the Bray School in Williamsburg, Virginia, perhaps the greatest success among the Associates' schools, has only recently come into focus. The discovery several years ago of the cottage, now much altered, that seems likely to have housed the Bray School seems an appropriate occasion to look at new evidence concerning the genesis of the school.

The founding of the Bray School in Williamsburg was enabled by a complex conjunction of ideas and people. The immediate cause was a recommendation by Benjamin Franklin, who in London in 1760 was invited to join the Associates of Dr. Bray. The reasons for his recommendation have been obscure, but it is now clear that he discovered in traveling to Williamsburg in 1756 that the College of William and Mary through its ecclesiastical presidents and faculty had already demonstrated in several ways something not heretofore noticed, a commitment to the religious education of local blacks. Indeed, the 1693 establishment of the college was driven in large part by evangelical motives to Christianize "heathens"; the royal charter granted by England's king and queen specified the mission of the college, "that the Church of Virginia may be furnish 'd with a Seminary of Ministers of the Gospel, and that the Youth may be piously educated in good Letters and Manners, and that the Christian Faith may be propagated among the Western Indians."

As Franklin's membership emphasizes, the Williamsburg Bray School was born from a number of the initiatives undertaken by the Associates of Dr. Bray, one of several organizations based in London and originating from the extraordinary efforts of the Reverend Thomas Bray (1658-1730). Each organization had a charge to spread Christianity, with the Associates having a focus on the "heathens" of the new world, both Indians and blacks, enslaved and free. Bray himself and then the Associates undertook to spread the gospel in a variety of ways, from encouraging missionaries and supplying them with books and other materials for libraries to underwriting the costs of schools in a number of locations in British North America. The Associates were also deeply involved with the island colonies - Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean more broadly - as well as with such larger efforts as the colonization of Georgia and South Carolina.2

From its establishment in 1760 until the death of its schoolmistress, Mrs. Anne Wager, in 1774, the school in Williamsburg, the royal capital of Virginia, was a success, though it faced indifference and even opposition from some local planters and slave owners. As many as thirty black children at a time, enslaved and free, were taught the rudiments of the Christian religion as well as skills such as reading and, in the case of the girls, sewing. They were generally encouraged in good manners and deportment and taught other social graces.

Among the confluence of circumstances leading to the Williamsburg Bray school (and the others in the American colonies) were the benevolent stirrings of the time, especially as embodied in several clergymen holding responsibilities for the Church of England in the colonies, and therefore for the souls of both the indigenous Indians and the colonialists, white and black, master and slave, free and coerced. These clergymen included Henry Compton (1632-1713), bishop of London from 1675 to 1713; Edmund Gibson (1669-1748), bishop of London from 1723 to his death; Thomas Bray, whose philanthropic entrepreneurship is of historic proportion; the Rev. Thomas Bacon (1700-1768), a powerful advocate in the colonies for religious education;3 and several presidents and members of the faculty of the College of William and Mary. An eloquent but anonymous Virginia slave seems also to have helped prepare the concatenation of circumstances in which Franklin felt able to recommend Williamsburg for a Bray School. …

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