The end of November marked the completion of an 11-month project to catalogue the records of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE). The Cowley Fathers, as SSJE were more popularly known, were founded by Richard Meux Benson in Oxford in 1866, when Benson and two other Fathers took vows of silence, poverty and obedience and began the first Anglican male monastic order since the Reformation. The brotherhood would last almost 150 years before, sadly, coming to a close in England in 2011 (although a thriving community still exists in America).
The Society expanded from its Oxford base and established houses in London, India, South Africa, America, Canada and Japan. From each of these houses the Fathers ventured out into the community, ministering wherever asked, as well as welcoming people into their midst – providing safety and education for children and places of retreat and contemplation for clergy and lay people alike.
It is from India and South Africa that perhaps some of the most fascinating material in the collection emanates, with letters sent back from the ‘missionary frontier’ by pioneering Fathers in the 1870s and 1880s providing a vivid recollection and glorious image of the early work of the missions of the Society. Under particularly harsh conditions – cholera was just one ever present threat – the Fathers would cover large swathes of land carrying out the work of God wherever and whenever the opportunity arose.
That is not to say the activities of SSJE were well received in all quarters, with letters revealing confrontations with the Indian establishment arising when Fathers took to the streets to distribute ‘religious material’. Further challenges came from within the life as a monk living under Rule, with Fathers tasked to undertake ‘active evangelicalization’ whilst at the same time adhering to their vow of silence. Nevertheless, the legacy left by SSJE is clear across several continents, with many of the schools and churches built by the Fathers still fulfilling the same functions as they had so many years ago.
In addition to the wonderful correspondence, the collection also features a comprehensive set of the Society’s Rule and Statue books and minute books which combine to explain the governance of the Society, a large number of photographs and slides showing the Fathers at work at the missions, and a large volume of religious texts, particularly from its renowned leader Fr. Benson, in the form of sermons, addresses and meditations.
The project was jointly funded by the charitable trust administering SSJE funds, the Fellowship of St. John, and the Trustees of Lambeth Palace Library, and the collection is housed at the Church of England Record Centre, South Bermondsey. To access the material, please consult the Lambeth Palace Library archives and manuscripts catalogue.