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Thomas Prince Collection and Library of the Old South Church

OVERVIEW

Title page to Roger William's Key into the Language of AmericaThe Thomas Prince Collection and Library of the Old South Church -- usually just referred to as the Prince Collection -- is a group of approximately 3,500 books and 950 manuscripts assembled primarily by Old South pastors Thomas Prince (1687-1758) and Joseph Sewall (1688-1769).

One of the few colonial American libraries to survive largely intact, the Prince Collection is a major resource for studies in the history of early New England. It is also an important resource for historians of the colonial American book. The collection preserves rare and sometimes unique pieces of evidence from the earliest presses in British North America, while contemporary inscriptions, annotations, and marginalia document the reception and circulation of texts in Boston, New England, and throughout the early modern Atlantic world.

Still owned by the Old South Church, the collection has been in the custody of the Boston Public Library since 1866.

COLLECTIONS SUMMARY

Though often credited to the efforts of Thomas Prince alone, the Prince Collection is a group of separate, but closely related collections: the New England Library, the South Church Library, the books of Joseph Sewall and his family, and the general collections of the Old South Church. The largest of these collections -- the New England Library -- also includes a large group of historical papers collected by Thomas Prince. 

To fully understand the Prince Collection as it exists today, it is useful to know what these individual collections contain and how each one came to be. For detailed descriptions of each collection, click on the tabs, above.


ON THE MOVE: OLD SOUTH LIBRARY FROM 1769-1866

A great deal of information about the history of the Prince Collection has been gathered through direct examination of the books themselves. Material evidence is present in abundance and investigations into provenance can bring out connections and shared histories that are not always immediately apparent. However, much uncertainty remains with respect to the various ways that the collection was originally gathered. Many questions also remain with respect to the various moves of the collection in the decades between the deaths of Prince and Sewall and its deposit at the BPL.

Thomas Prince died in 1758, bequeathing to Old South the New England Library, as well as all of his books "in Latin, Greek, & in the Oriental languages." Joseph Sewall died 11 years later, leaving to the church a substantial collection of his own books, many of which had been handed down through his father, Judge Samuel Sewall.

By the eve of the American Revolution, however, the church's rich collections had already fallen into disarray. When the historian Jeremy Belknap sought to consult Prince's manuscripts in early 1774, he knew them to be "lying in a most shamefully chaotic state." Neither the church nor its already famous library were spared from the predations of war or the ravages of neglect that followed shortly after. By 1811, the library was found to be "in a very ruinous situation, the boxes were broken to pieces, others uncovered and the books partly taken out and laying about the floor, trodden over and cover'd with dust."

The collection was moved to the nearby parsonage, and in 1814, several hundred printed books and a dozen volumes of papers were transferred to the Massachusetts Historical Society. The bulk of the collection was moved again in 1843 -- this time to the chapel on Spring Street in Boston -- and in 1847 a catalog was prepared for the church by G.H. Whitman under the  title of A catalogue of the library of the Rev. Thomas Prince.

The church withdrew those portions of the collections it had placed at the Mass. Historical Society in 1859, and the bulk of the collection was finally deposited at the Boston Public Library seven years later, in 1866.

The New England Library is a collection of books and manuscripts assembled by Thomas Prince that relates to the history of New England. At approximately 1,500 printed books and over 900 manuscripts, it is the largest single segment of the Prince Collection.

Title page of Increase Mather's "Icabod" with an engraved portrait of the author, opposite

(Above) Thomas Emmes' copperplate portrait of Increase Mather inserted into his Ichabod. Boston: T. Green, 1702 (H.23.37)

Through the New England Library, Thomas Prince sought to document the region's history in an expansive sense -- not only from the first waves of migration and settlement, but also in relation to the broader arc of English history and to the Reformation itself. Among many other things, the collection contains books about New England, books written by New England colonists, books printed in New England, and even books printed elsewhere that influenced thought in the colonies.

The New England Library contains many of the most notable early American imprints in the Prince Collection and Library of the Old South Church as it exists today. Among these are the Bay Psalm Book and the Eliot Indian Bible, along with an extensive selection of editions from the presses of significant 17th- and 18th-century New England printers.

The Thomas Prince papers

The New England Library also contains the historical papers collected by Thomas Prince, which include the Hinckley Papers, the Cotton family papers, the "Cotton and Prince" papers, and the Mather papers. These manuscripts are listed separately in the 1870 printed BPL catalog of the collection, and, because of their unique character and discrete provenance, they are here described in their own tab, above.

Image showing a portion of: Narrative of the death of the late Squando, Sagamore of Sasho, in a letter from Joshua Scottow to Increase Mather, Oct. 30, 1683. From the Mather papers.

(Above) Detail from: Narrative of the death of the late Squando, Sagamore of Sasho [i.e., Saco, Maine], in a letter from Joshua Scottow to Increase Mather, Oct. 30, 1683. From the Mather papers. MS Am.1502 v.5 no.40.

A communal library

Though he never intended the collection to be entirely open to the public, Prince viewed the New England Library as a resource through which important knowledge could be preserved and made available to a community of interested scholars. In his will, Prince stipulates:

Whereas I have been many years collecting a number of books, pamphlets, maps, papers in print, & manuscript, either published in New England, or pertaining to its history, & public affairs, to which collection I have given the name of the New England Library, & have deposited it in the steeple chamber, in the Old South Church, and as I made the collection from a public view, & desire that the memory of many important transactions might be preserved, which otherwise [would] be lost, I hereby bequeath all the said collection to the said Old South Church forever. But to the end, that the same may be kept entire, I desire that this collection may always be kept in a different apartment from the other books, & that it may be so made, that no person shall borrow any book, or paper therefrom, but that any person whom the pastors & deacons of said church for the time being shall approve of may have access thereto, & take copies therefrom.

 

New England Library bookplate in Williams' Key unto the language of AmericaHow to identify books from the New England Library

Books from the New England Library can be identified by the presence of an early letterpress bookplate. This bookplate is typically affixed to the back of the title page. In volumes of pamphlets that are still bound together as they were during Thomas Prince's lifetime, the bookplate is usually only present in the first pamphlet in the volume.

Tips for searching the BPL online catalogs

To find books from the New England Library in the online catalogs, perform an advanced search for:

This search will only retrieve those books from the New England Library with electronic catalog records. Each copy will be described as such in a "provenance" note. There will also be a link to the title New England Library in each record. By clicking on that link, one can browse a list of all other fully cataloged books in the New England Library. As of January, 2021, electronic cataloging of the collection is ongoing.

The South Church Library contains mostly scholarly works on a variety of subjects, including theology, philosophy, science, and linguistics. The South Church Library is the second largest segment of the Prince Collection as it exists today. Where the New England Library focuses on New England History and New England imprints, this collection is far more generalized in nature.

Image showing Saturn in various positions

Above: Huygens, Christian. Systema Saturnium. The Hague: Adriaan Vlacq, 1659. From the South Church Library (H.34.7)

Thomas Prince began acquiring books for the South Church Library on his arrival at Old South in 1718. As with the New England Library, Prince viewed the South Church Library as a communal resource that would be made available to interested scholars.

Regarding this collection, Prince stipulates in his will:

"I give to the old South Church in Boston, all my Books that are in Latin, Greek, & in the Oriental Languages, to be kept, & remain in their Public Library for ever and I hereby desire the said Church to make a [blank] and order that the Key of said Library shall always be kept by one of y Pastors."

Example of a typical South Church Library bookplateHow to identify a book from the South Church Library

Books from the South Church Library can generally be identified by the presence of the letterpress South Church Library bookplate, pictured to the right. As in books from the New England Library, the South Church Library bookplate typically appears on the back of the title page.

 

Tips for searching the BPL online catalogs

To find books from the South Church Library in the online catalogs, perform an advanced search for:

In the BPL online catalog, books from the South Church Library that have been fully cataloged will be identified as such in a "provenance" note. There will also be a link to the title "South Church Library" in each record. By clicking on that link, one can browse a list of all other fully cataloged books in the South Church Library.

Many of the books in the Thomas Prince Collection and Library of the Old South Church come from Joseph Sewall. Books from Sewall's library cover the same general topics as those of Prince's, with much crossover between both the New England and South Church libraries.

Image showing John Ratcliff's binding of Sewall commonplace book, with Sewall's notes and attribution to Ratcliff.

(Above) Possibly the earliest surviving, directly attested American bookbinding. A commonplace book belonging to Samuel Sewall, in which Sewall has noted the date of binding (December 22, 1677) and the name of the binder (John Ratcliff). MS q H.25.40.

Sewall was a well-read scholar with an extensive library, much of which had been gathered by his father, Judge Samuel Sewall (1652-1730). In addition to building his own library, Samuel Sewall had inherited the collection of his father-in-law, the merchant and colonial mint-master John Hull (1624-1683). All of these books then passed to Joseph Sewall, who in turn bequeathed them to the church.

Typical example of Joseph Hull's signatureHow to identify Joseph Sewall's books

Sewall's books are most easily identified by the presence of his signature, which typically appears on a flyleaf or title page, as in the example on the right. Books from Sewall's collection can often also be identified by the presence of autographs of other Sewall family members, and in particular by the autographs of Samuel Sewall or John Hull.

Tips for searching the BPL online catalogs

To find books formerly owned by Joseph Sewall, perform an advanced search in either of the online catalogs for:

This search will retrieve books from the collection that were formerly owned by Joseph Sewall that have been fully cataloged. Each copy will be described as such in a "provenance" note. There will also be a link in each record under the "author" category for Sewall, Joseph, 1688-1769, former owner. By clicking on that link, one can browse a list of all other fully cataloged books formerly owned by Sewall.

Additional information and resources

A list of books formerly owned by Samuel Sewall, compiled by Stewart Stokes of Temple University, is kept in the Rare Books and Manuscripts department.

Many books in the library of the Old South Church pre- or post-date the collecting efforts of both Thomas Prince and Samuel Sewall. This group of books is the most difficult to quantify. Tentative identification of books in this category can be suggested based on the lack of obvious provenance evidence relating to either Prince or Sewall, or to either the New England or South Church libraries.

Heading of Richard Mather's list of books borrowed.

(Above) Detail from: Bookes borrowed of John Johnson and William Parks of Rocksbury the 10th day of 11th mon. 1647. By me Richard Mather. MS Am.1502 v.1 no.5

The historical manuscripts gathered by Thomas Prince are primarily comprised of large groups of papers from the Hinckley family, the Cotton Family, the Cotton and Prince families (together), and the Mather family. Together, these manuscripts bear witness to the public and private lives of four prominent early New England families and illuminate their times through contemporary and often first-hand descriptions of events.

"A copy of a letter from the Indians"The collection also includes small groups of papers relating to the case of Torrey vs. Gardner; a group of miscellaneous "ecclesiastical papers," that contain, among other things, substantial manuscripts in the hands of John Cotton and Richard Mather -- including a manuscript believed to be a draft of the preface to the Bay Psalm book; and two manuscripts related to 18th-century military campaigns against Canada.

Prince, who originally acquired these papers from different sources and in varying degrees of order, organized and secured many of them into fascicules. He also annotated many of the documents himself, often commenting on their contents, or supplying dates based on first-hand knowledge. At some point these papers were bound into volumes that carried the bookplate of the New England Library.

Many, but by no means all of the manuscripts in the Mather papers and the Hinckley papers were published during the 1850s and 1860s in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Sheila McIntyre and Len Larson published the correspondence of John Cotton the younger (1640-1699) in Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts LXIX (2009). See the Resources tab in this guide for links to these and other published resources.

 

Image (right): "A copy of a letter sent from the Indians," describing, among other things, the death of Mary Rowlandson's child, and suggesting terms for further exchange. Addressed to the "Governer and Counsel of Boston & pepel that are in war against us." From the Cotton papers, MS Am.1506 pt.7 no.7.


Organization

These manuscripts are currently organized according to the order in which they are listed in the BPL Prince Collection catalog, which in turn follows the order of the papers as they were formerly bound. Links below are to the Prince catalog. Modern call numbers ranges are also listed.

Collection Call number range**
Mather papers, 1632-1689 MS Am.1502 (in 7 parts)
Papers related to military campaigns against Canada, 1709 and 1759 MS Am.1503
Misc. ecclesiastical papers, ca. 1636-1706 MS Am.1504
Papers related to the case of Torrey v. Gardner, mostly ca. 1734 MS Am.1505
Cotton papers, 1631-1680 MS Am.1506 (in 6 parts, labelled 2,3, 6-9)
Cotton and Prince papers, 1651-1774 MS Am.1507 no.1-41
Hinckley papers, 1676-1699 MS Am.1508, v.1, no.1-v.3, no.5, plus appendix 1-15
  • See also, the "minor" manuscripts, which are primarily diaries, commonplace books and other bound manuscripts, many of which appear to have Sewall provenance, and are counted among the books in the South Church Library.

**Complete call numbers comprise the call number range, plus part number (if applicable), plus item number as listed in the Prince catalog. For example, the 5th item in part II of the Mather papers has call number MS Am.1502 pt.2 no.5.

Online access

As of January, 2021, the Cotton and Prince papers (MS Am.1507 no.1-41) have been fully digitized and can be accessed through Digital Commonwealth. Work on the rest of the Prince papers is ongoing.