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Concepts of Mission in Scottish Presbyterianism: The SSPCK, the Highlands and Britain's American Colonies, 1709–40

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2018

Clare Loughlin*
University of Edinburgh
*19/1 Spottiswoode Rd, Edinburgh, EH9 1BJ. E-mail:


This article examines the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) and its missions in the Highlands and Britain's American colonies. Constituted in 1709 and operating as an auxiliary arm of the Church of Scotland, the SSPCK aimed to extend Christianity in ‘Popish and Infidel parts of the world’. It founded numerous Highland charity schools, and from 1729 sponsored missions to Native Americans in New England and Georgia. Missions were increasingly important in British overseas expansion; consequently, historians have viewed the society as a civilizing agency, which deployed religious instruction to assimilate ‘savage’ heathens into the fold of Britain's empire. This article suggests that the SSPCK was equally concerned with Christianization: missionaries focused on spiritual edification for the salvation of souls, indicating a disjuncture between the society's objectives and the priorities of imperial expansion. It also challenges the parity assumed by historians between the SSPCK's domestic and foreign missions, arguing that the society increasingly prioritized colonial endeavours in an attempt to recover providential favour. In doing so, it sheds new light on Scottish ideas of mission during the first half of the eighteenth century, and reassesses the Scottish Church's role in Britain's emerging empire.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 2018 

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For their advice during the preparation of this article I am especially grateful to Alasdair Raffe, Alexander Murdoch and Gabriel Glickman. This research was supported by the Wolfson Foundation.


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19 Prunier, Strategies, 131.

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22 Gray, ‘Charitable and Religious Origins’, 184.

23 Ibid. 101.

24 NRS, GMM, GD95/1/1, 135–8; for Episcopalian reactions to this policy, see Stephen, Defending the Revolution, 261.

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30 Memorial concerning the State of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (London, 1723), 1.

31 NRS, CMM, GD95/2/4, 241; Prunier, Strategies, 21.

32 For example, An Account of the Rise, Constitution and Management of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (Edinburgh, 1720), 7.

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39 The State of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (Edinburgh, 1729), 27–33; Prunier, Strategies, 139.

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53 Grigg, ‘SSPCK's American Policy’, 44; Stevens, ‘Souls of Highlanders’, 184.

54 For instances of confessional conflict between the SSPCK and other missionary organizations, see Kellaway, New England Company, 187.

55 NRS, CMM, GD95/2/4, 303–4. In 1730 the Philadelphia synod declared its enthusiasm for the project, but by this point the SSPCK had settled on New England: NRS, GMM, GD95/1/3, 206–8.

56 NRS, GMM, GD95/1/3, 198.

57 Ibid. 213–14.

58 Ibid. 214.

59 Ibid. 373–4.

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61 NRS, GMM, GD95/1/4, 57.

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69 NRS, GMM, GD95/1/4, 17.

70 NRS, GMM, GD95/1/3, 452.

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72 Hamilton, Truth and Excellency, 28.

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