RepositoryLambeth Palace Library
Alt Ref NoSSJE
Extent82 boxes
TitleRecords of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE)
DescriptionIncluding material on the governance, finances, membership and activities of SSJE.
FindingAidsCatalogued by Simon Sheppard in 2013. The project to catalogue the collection was part-funded by the Fellowship of St. John, the Charitable trust which administers the SSJE funds.
AdminHistoryFounded on 27 December 1866 when Richard Meux Benson, Simeon Wilberforce O'Neill and Charles Chapman Grafton took vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, the Society of St John the Evangelist (SSJE) became the first Anglican religious community for men established since the Reformation. Fr. Benson was appointed the first Father Superior, and under his determined guidance the 'Cowley Fathers' (as SSJE were more colloquially known) became a growing presence in the Cowley district of Oxford, with first a church bearing the name of the Society being built on land off Marston Street and then a Mission House complete with cloister, and chapels being built adjacent.

To become a member of the Society an individual would serve a Novitiate which, under the Rules of the Society, lasted not less than 1 ½ years and not more than 4 1/2. Once served, the Novice would sign a declaration of lifelong obligation to God and the Society and become a Professed Father. Although members of the Society had since 1866 lived under Rule and Statue, it wouldn't be until 1884 when a Constitution for the Society itself was drawn up and ratified by Bishop Mackarness, Bishop of Oxford. With a Constitution in place, and Bishop Mackarness becoming the first Visitor, the Society was equipped to begin an era of a more formal administration and prepare for a time when Fr. Benson would no longer be at the helm.

As well as serving the needs of the Cowley parishioners, and delivering sermons or addresses at churches around Britain, a primary aim of the Society was to carry out missionary work overseas, or in Fr. Benson's words bring 'order out of confusion'. To this end, and at the behest of the Bishop of Calcutta, Fathers Page and Biscoe left Britain in late 1873 and arrived in Bombay early 1874. With objectives defined as 'educational, pastoral and evangelical' work in 'wherever suitable', missions were soon established in the Mazagaon district of Bombay (Mumbai) and at Panch Howd, Poona (Pune), with much of the Fathers initial energies centered on the Eurasian and European population. Later the Fathers would make efforts to spread the 'word of God' amongst the Indian inhabitants of other faiths, though often the audience was less than receptive. The nature of the work varied; within and surrounding the mission schools were erected, churches were taken over or new ones built, infirmaries and dispensaries were managed (with communities of Sisters from the UK filling the nursing roles), whilst outside the mission the Fathers travelled far and wide seeking out other communities to help. Several SSJE Fathers died and were buried in India; the threat of disease was ever present. It was also expected that the Fathers keep Fr. Benson abreast of their activities via bi-weekly missives, and much of this correspondence remains in the collection today.

In 1883, and acting on a request from the Archbishop of Cape Town, Father Puller became the first SSJE member to accept regular work in South Africa when becoming Chaplain to the All Saints Sisters of the Poor at their St. George's Home, Cape Town. The great need for missionary work in Cape Town soon became apparent and following protracted negotiations SSJE began work with the city's 'Malay' population. However, expectations placed on the Fathers increased to such an extent that new properties had to be purchased/built within Cape Town, with 15 Sir Lowry Road in the St. Mark's District being secured for the purpose. In 1904 the Society further increased its undertakings in South Africa by taking control of a St. Cuthbert's Mission in Tsolo, Eastern Province. The mission, some 700 miles away from Cape Town, saw SSJE Fathers, with the help of Sisters from several communities, run a church, weaving school and hospital within the grounds and provide services to communities scattered across the veldt.

At home a London base for the Society, the merit of which was debated by Fr. Benson who believed such a venture would deprive the overseas missions of men and funds, was established c1897 to provide a base for SSJE Fathers carrying out work in the capital. Initially accommodation was found at Dartmouth Street, Westminster, before a more permanent, purpose built home was built at Great College Street in the same borough. St. Edward's House opened in 1905 and would remain a central fixture in the life of SSJE for over a century; providing a home for the Fathers as well as a place of retreat and quiet for clergy and lay alike. Further Houses were established by the Society at one point time or another in Leicester, Haywards Heath and, for a short period at the end of the 19c, on the Scottish island of Iona.

An American Chapter of the Society had been established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1870 where it became part of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. However, the relationship between the Home Chapter and America was strained from an early stage, and by 1900 the association was described as 'separate but together'. The American Chapter of the Society is now based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and continues to thrive.

In 1928 a Canadian Chapter was established in Bracebridge, Ontario, and for over 50 years the Fathers would provide service to the scattered communities of the Muskoka area of Ontario, a task which would often see them walk the not inconsiderable distances between the churches. In 1982 the Society withdrew from Bracebridge, and Canada as a whole, to seek a community 'more in need for the services which SSJE offered', re-settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A further chapter of the Society was established in Japan, whilst Fathers also carried out work in Korea.

In 1890 Fr. Benson stepped down as Father Superior, making way for Fr. Page. The exact reasons for this are not clear, though evidence suggests the nature of the Society by this point was somewhat different than how the Father Founder had perceived, and, from some quarters at least, encouragement for the move was discernible, with Fr. Congreve believing it would 'awaken some life in this Society'. Fr. Benson died on 14 January 1915, having spent the post-Father Superior years visiting the Society's missions in India and the American Chapter, before settling to life back in Oxford.

Prompted in part by India gaining independence from Britain in 1947, SSJE initiated moves to pass control of their missions to local orgainisations. As a result of a lengthy process overseen by Fr. Slade, the management of all SSJE institutions in India was divested to the Bombay Diocesan Trust Association, thus ending a period of 90 years of missionary activity. In a similar move SSJE would leave South Africa by the mid-1970s, thereby bringing an end to the Society's regular overseas missionary work. The legacy of the Society remains though; the buildings they erected still stand as reminders and churches and schools still fulfill the functions prescribed by the Fathers many years before.

The life of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist came to an end in 2012. The Fellowship of St John, the Trust in charge of the Society's funds, oversaw the disposal of the properties with St. Edward's House being the final property to be sold.

For a summary history see Peter Frederick Anson, 'The call of the cloister : religious communities and kindred bodies in the Anglican communion' (revised edition, London : S.P.C.K., 1964), pp. 72-90 [LPL H5193.A6].

See also:
Steven Haws CR, 'The Cowley Fathers in Philadelphia' (Author House, 2019).
Serenhedd James, 'The Cowley Fathers: A History of the English Congregation of the Society of St John the Evangelist' (Canterbury Press, 2019).
Luke Miller, 'A Life-Long Springtime: The Life and Teaching of Fr George Congreve SSJE' (Sacristy Press, 2022).
AcquisitionGiven to the Library by SSJE in 2012.
RelatedMaterialSSJE also gave to Lambeth Palace Library two 18th-century artefacts: the head of crozier of Bishop Kenrick Price (and possibly his predecessor, the Non-juring Bishop Thomas Deacon, 1697-1753), and a silver pectoral cross perhaps of the same provenance (ref: Lambeth Palace Library artefacts 114-115).

See Lambeth Palace Library printed books catalogue for published works on SSJE.

Audio visual material transferred to the British Film Institute: 1935 film of work at St Cuthbert's mission (South Africa); copy of contents at SSJE/11/4.

Architectural plans of the SSJE house at Cowley are held at St Stephen's House, Oxford.

For further information on SSJE and related sources see:

Show related Persons records.

Related name records
NA1589Society of St John the Evangelist; 1865-; religious community1865-
DS/UK/3145Benson; Richard Meux (1825-1915); Superior of Society of St. John the Evangelist1825-1915
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