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Reference group
Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor (act. 1750–1920s), later known also as the Book Society, was an interdenominational group of lay people, dissenting ministers, and Anglican clergy, of an evangelical, moderate Calvinist persuasion, whose aim was the free distribution of bibles and religious books to the poor. It was the first evangelical tract society, and the precursor of the Religious Tract Society (founded 1799) and the British and Foreign Bible Society (founded 1804). Some of the most famous names among evangelical dissenters and Church of England evangelicals were members. In some ways its objectives were similar to those of the most important distributor of religious books in the eighteenth century, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, but much of that society's material was concerned specifically with the practices of the established church, and its devotional literature did not promote what evangelicals regarded as the essential doctrines of the gospel.

The Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge was founded in August 1750 by a group of young lay dissenters in the City of London. Their instigator, Benjamin Forfitt, had begun in a small way in 1749 by sending bibles to the dissenting minister and academy tutor Philip Doddridge in Northampton for him to distribute to the poor. The society held its first meeting on 8 August 1750 under the wing of the dissenting minister Thomas Gibbons in the vestry of his meeting house at Haberdashers' Hall. Gibbons began attending its monthly meetings regularly from November 1750, and on 4 November 1751 he preached the first anniversary sermon at Haberdashers' Hall. He summed up its objectives: ‘The Design of this Society is to distribute Bibles, Testaments, and other good Books, which may be judged useful, gratis among the Poor; and particularly to send such Books to such Ministers and Gentlemen in the Country, as the Society may have Reason to believe will faithfully distribute them among those who most need, and may be most likely to improve them’ (Gibbons, 36). He explained that it was ‘founded upon a Catholic Plan’ (ibid., 37); the society as such had no interest in the differences between the established and the dissenting churches, its aim being ‘to promote vital and experimental Religion’ (ibid.) and to unite protestants against the Church of Rome (ibid., 39–40).

Prominent dissenting ministers and evangelical clergy who preached the society's anniversary sermon in London included Andrew Kippis at Salters' Hall (1762), George Whitefield at the Tabernacle, Moorfields (1767), Martin Madan at St Sepulchre's (1772), William Romaine at St Mary le Bow, Cheapside (1777), Henry Venn at St Peter's, Cornhill (1778), Samuel Palmer at Salters' Hall (1781), John Newton at St Mary Woolnoth (1787), Rowland Hill at Surrey Chapel (1791), Abraham Rees at Old Jewry (1792), and John Rippon at Carter Lane, Southwark (1796). The sermons were usually published in the year following delivery. Rippon preached the sermon again in 1802, and expanded his two sermons into A Discourse on the Origin and Progress of the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor, from its Commencement in 1750, to the Year 1802. This, and the annual reports the society published, of which twenty survive for the years between 1759 and 1797, provide full information about its activities in its first fifty years.

Dissenting ministers who supported the society in this period included (with the year of joining) Samuel Chandler (1750), Philip Furneaux (1753), Kippis (1753), Caleb Ashworth (1755), John Ryland of Northampton (1758), Caleb Evans (1760), Samuel Morton Savage (1761), Abraham Rees (1773), Rippon (1775), and Job Orton (1776). Dissenting lay people included the prison reformer John Howard (1759) and the bookseller Joseph Johnson (1763). Evangelical clergy included Venn (1753), Madan (1759), Thomas Haweis (1763), Whitefield (1767), Newton (1768), Romaine (1762), Rowland Hill (1772), and Joseph Milner (1792). Church of England evangelical lay people included the preacher Richard Hill (1761), the philanthropist John Thornton of Clapham (1762), his wife, Lucy (1722–1785), who joined in 1775, and their four children, notably Samuel Thornton and Henry Thornton, Hannah Wilberforce (1762), aunt of the abolitionist William Wilberforce (1786), and Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon (1763). The society also had American members, such as the Presbyterian ministers Samuel Davies of Hanover, Virginia (1754), and John Joachim Zubly (1724–1781) of Savannah (1774), and the physician Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia (1768). Rippon boasted that ‘Few are the societies in the Metropolis, if any, in which all the denominations of protestants so generally and cordially unite’ (Rippon, 48). Lay support was extremely important: Rippon reckoned that the society had about 1000 subscribers, of whom 10 per cent were gospel (that is evangelical) ministers of different denominations. Despite the fact that some subscribers were liberal or rational dissenters, it is fair to assume that the majority were moderate Calvinist evangelicals, whether dissenters or Anglicans.

The society was a run by a committee of ministers, clergy, and laymen, of which the minister Samuel Stennett [see under Stennett, Joseph], Gibbons, and Madan were long-serving members; later members included Newton and Rippon. The society's successive booksellers were also members: John Ward (d. 1760), Thomas Field (d. 1794), and Thomas Wiche or Wyche (d. 1821). The committee received contributions from subscribers; the bookseller was responsible for distributing nominations of books. The subscriber of a guinea (the minimum annual subscription) was entitled to a nomination of books worth 40s., and the subscriber of two guineas to a nomination of £3. The full list of books, their prices, and the numbers distributed, both in the year concerned and cumulatively, were set out in tables in the annual reports.

The Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge did not commission specially written tracts; it arranged for the printing and distribution of established classics. According to the rules of the society as they evolved, books could only be chosen or withdrawn by the unanimous consent of members of the committee. This strictly democratic method of choosing books seems to have had a very conservative effect: between 1763 and 1797 there were remarkably few changes. The society was first and foremost a bible society: by 1797 (the last surviving eighteenth-century list) it had distributed 152,863 bibles and testaments in a total of 574,760 books distributed. The other books fall into two main categories, those by seventeenth-century nonconformists and those by eighteenth-century dissenters: they were evidently as important for evangelical Anglican readers as they were for dissenters themselves. The most popular seventeenth-century books were Protestant's Resolution against Popery, that is the anonymous A Protestant's Resolution: Shewing his Reasons why he will not be a Papist (earliest surviving edition 1679); A Token for Children (1671 or 1672?) by James Janeway; A Call to the Unconverted (1658) by Richard Baxter; and An Alarme to Unconverted Sinners (1672) by Joseph Alleine. Works by eighteenth-century dissenting ministers predominated. Several works by Isaac Watts, including his Hymns (1707, enlarged 1709), Divine Songs … for the Use of Children (1715), and Psalms (1719), taken together reached a larger audience than all other titles distributed by the society including the Bible. Other popular works were A Compassionate Address to the Christian World (1730 or earlier) by John Reynolds (1668–1727); The Pleasantness of a Religious Life (1714) by Matthew Henry; and a group of five tracts by Isaac Toms (1710–1801), dissenting minister of Hadleigh, Suffolk.

Ministers and clergy who received nominations wrote regularly to the society with information about how they had distributed the books and how their readers responded, and some of these letters were published in the annual reports. These letters came not only from the British Isles but also from North America. The 1763 report, for example, contains letters from Charlestown, South Carolina; New Jersey College; Maryland; and New York; while the 1788 report contains one from St John's, Newfoundland. In reply to a questionnaire the evangelical rector of Hotham, Yorkshire, James Stillingfleet (d. 1826), explained that he gave away the bibles but lent the other books to his parishioners for a fixed term: ‘by this means, the several persons are enabled to receive greater instruction; for, when they bring back a book of one sort, they have another in exchange; and so they are enabled to go through many books instead of only having one or two’ (An Account of the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor, 1795, 44). Toms recounted in a letter of 1759 how he gave Reynolds's Compassionate Address to an aged poor man who said after reading it, ‘I would not take a golden guinea for this book’ (Rippon, 17). Eliza Toms, his daughter, described in 1795 the ‘ardent desire’ the poor villagers had for the society's books, especially A Compassionate Address, and her father's attempts over the years to satisfy it (Account of the Society, 44).

The reports from the 1830s and 1860s and the centenary essays of 1850 make it clear that at the turn of the century the society considerably altered its practices. In the absence of the intervening reports it is impossible to determine why this happened. The Account for 1830 contains a statement on the origin and progress of the society from 1750 to the present that suggests that from about 1799 gratuitous distribution was discontinued, so that instead of books being sent to persons and places nominated by the subscribers they were issued only to the subscribers themselves. The society seems to have metamorphosed from an organization devoted to giving or lending books to the poor, to a publishing club whose members bought books primarily for themselves, to the embarrassment of the writers of the reports; it stopped keeping records of yearly and cumulative sales for individual items, and it no longer published records of the reception of its books once free distribution had ceased to be its main function. Although the survival of some publications shows that the society was still functioning in the 1920s, the nature of the records means that the names of members are unknown.

In its first fifty years the society considerably increased the number of subscribers and of books it distributed, though with a deliberately short list of titles, and met a recognized need. It performed a different function from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge by supplying books that met the approval of an eclectic and influential group of evangelical dissenters and Church of England evangelicals, and served a different constituency from the Methodists. But with the formation of new single-issue societies at the beginning of the nineteenth century the wind was taken out of its sails. The 1830 Account noted that there had been a division of labour in the last twenty to thirty years: the Religious Tract Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the Sunday school societies had ‘embraced, as their specific and exclusive objects, some of the plans combined in the original constitution of this Society’ (p. 4).

Isabel Rivers

Sources  

I. Rivers, ‘The first evangelical tract society’, HJ, 50 (2007), 1–22 · J. Rippon, A discourse on the origin and progress of the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor, from its commencement in 1750, to the year 1802, 2nd edn, enl. (1804?) · An account of the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor [annual reports of which 20 survive for the years 1759–1797] · An account of the Book Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor [annual reports of which six survive for the 1830s and 1860s] · T. Gibbons, The excellency of the gospel … preached at Haberdashers-Hall, Nov. 4, 1751: to the Charitable Society, for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor (1752) · J. Blackburn, Centenary retrospect of the Book Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor (1850) · E. O. Jones, Religious knowledge among the poor, not less important in 1850 than in 1750: with an account of the rise, progress and present state of the Book Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor (1850) · F. W. B. Bullock, Voluntary religious societies, 1520–1799 (1963) · K. R. Manley, ‘Redeeming love proclaim’: John Rippon and the Baptists (2004) · R. H. Martin, Evangelicals united: ecumenical stirrings in pre-Victorian Britain, 1795–1830 (1983)