In 1827 John Strachan secured a royal charter to establish the University of King’s College as an avowedly Anglican institution of higher education in Upper Canada. While in England he also obtained promises of grants of 500 pounds each from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) to assist in the formation of a Divinity Library for his fledgling colonial university. These books, to be selected by Strachan, would be stamped with the societies’ inscription and armorial bearings, respectively. The SPG gift was apparently never received, probably because it was contingent on the statutes of the university being “such as to meet the approbation of the Board,” a condition that was not to be met by the increasingly secular institution that finally became the University of Toronto. However, some 400 books were actually presented to the University of King’s College by the SPCK in 1828, fifteen years before King’s College finally opened its doors. Today those books are preserved as a special collection in the John W. Graham Library, Trinity College.
The early history of the SPCK Collection, the first directly acquired for what is now the University of Toronto Library, reflects the political turmoil surrounding Strachan’s attempts to found a university in Upper Canada. When the Anglican King’s College was superseded by the University of Toronto in 1850, the SPCK books, with the rest of the King’s College library, became the legacy of the new “godless” university. In 1852, however, after Strachan had succeeded again in founding a Church university–this time the University of Trinity College, the University of Toronto Senate adopted a resolution authorizing the transfer of the SPCK gift to Trinity, which, in retaining a Divinity faculty, was acknowledged to have the rightful claim.
The SPCK books, now treasured in the Graham Library’s Rare Books Room, served as an important part of the “working” collection of the Trinity Library for more than a century. As late as 1991, when the circulating collection was barcoded for the new automation system, two volumes stamped in gold with the SPCK inscription were discovered in the open stacks. Many of these leather- and vellum-bound volumes bear the signs of heavy use, some have been rebound in utilitarian library cloth bindings, a few have been lost over the years. The collection spans the theological disciplines–biblical studies, church history, apologetics, and systematic and practical theology. There are numerous multi-volume collections of sermons and other works of noted Anglican divines. The presence of the SPCK Collection in the Graham Library signifies Trinity’s unbroken commitment to theological study in the Anglican tradition.