The Puritans were a bookish people. Printing was one of the first commercial enterprises of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. So it is no surprise that the Old South Church, established in 1669, quickly became one of the chief repositories of historical and theological books in New England. Of course, the first books in the Church’s library would not have been collected as artifacts; they would simply have been part of the “furniture and fixtures” of an active congregation. One explanation—perhaps the only plausible explanation—for the Old South’s having at one time five copies of the Bay Psalm Book is that several of them were probably there since the beginning, as utilitarian hymnals of founding members. The Church also undoubtedly made an effort to stay current with the published sermons and other pamphlets of the principal Congregationalist ministers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including the prolific Mather family. Bequests of various sizes also helped to fill the shelves of the Old South’s steeple chamber.

Thomas Prince. Portrait by Joseph Badger, after John Greenwood, oil on canvas, circa 1750. Gift of Henry Prentiss, 1836. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society

During the first half of the eighteenth century, the book collecting of the Old South Church became a bit more systematic and scholarly. This was due to the conjunction of two remarkable co-ministers, the Reverends Thomas Prince and Joseph Sewall. From 1713 through 1769, one or both of these men filled the pulpit at Old South, and each left a legacy not only of ministry, but also of bibliography. At his death in 1758, Thomas Prince bequeathed to the Church his self-designated “New-England Library,” which likely included two copies of the Bay Psalm Book. (Prince has popularly been credited with having collected all five copies of the 1640 Whole Booke of Psalmes once belonging to Old South, but this is certainly not the case.) Sewall survived Prince by eleven years, and a major portion of his library was also left to the Church.

Thomas Prince (1687–1758) grew up with access to the library of his grandfather, Thomas Hinckley, the last governor of Plymouth Colony, and he early developed an appreciation of books. In addition to printed books, the young Prince learned the importance of preserving manuscripts and ephemera, much of which he utilized in compiling his Chronological History of New-England in the Form of Annals (Boston, 1736). Prince had begun his New-England Library shortly after entering Harvard in 1703; he wrote in the preface to his Chronological History that his passion for collecting was inspired when he “chanced in my leisure Hours to read Mr. Chamberlain's Account of the Cottonian Library: Which excited in me a Zeal of laying hold on every Book, Pamphlet, and Paper, both in Print and Manuscript which are either written by persons who lived here, or that have any Tendency to enlighten our History.”

The binding and title-page of Thomas Prince's 1758 edition of The Psalms, Hymns, & Spiritual Songs ... Being in New-England Psalm Book, Courtesy, Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Following his graduation from Harvard, Prince travelled through the West Indies and Europe for two years before settling in England. During this period, and until his return to Massachusetts in 1717, he gathered a sizeable theological library, which he augmented with the works of many of his colonial contemporaries, particularly the Mathers, with whom he was closely associated. Prince had two distinct bookplates made, one for his New-England Library and the other denominated for his “South-Church-Library in Boston, Begun to be collected by Thomas Prince upon his being ordain’d their colleague Pastor with the Rev. Mr. Joseph Sewall, Oct. 1. 1718.”

The 1640 Whole Booke of Psalmes, of course, united Prince’s two bibliographical interests. He can rightly be adjudged the Cardinal Mazarin of the Bay Psalm Book, being the first to promote, if not to recognize, the primacy of the work in American printing. His final bibliographical work was his own edition of the Bay Psalms, incorporated into The Psalms, Hymns, & Spiritual Songs of the Old and New Testament, faithfully translated into English Meter. Being the New-England Psalm-book, revised and improved, which was published in Boston by Henchman and Kneeland in 1758, just in time for selections to be read at his funeral.

Joseph Sewall. Portrait by John Smibert, oil on canvas, circa 1735. Bequest of Ruby P. Woolsey. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

Following Prince’s death, His “books and papers,” according to the 1870 catalogue of the collection, “were deposited on shelves, and in boxes and barrels in a room in the steeple of the church, under the belfry, which according to tradition had been Prince's study. There this valuable deposit was left for many years without care, and subject to many vicissitudes. During the siege of Boston in 1775-6, the Church, being used as a riding-school by the British troops, was often frequented by idle spectators, who must have had access to the collection, and may be responsible for some of the loss it has sustained. In heating the building, it is known that the pulpit and pews were consumed, and the parsonage which stood adjoining and had been the mansion of Winthrop, the first governor of the Colony, was demolished to keep up the fires during the long winter.”

Beginning in 1814, several attempts were made to compile a catalogue of the Library of the Old South Church. Perhaps because of his penchant for better organization, including having bookplates for many of his books, Prince’s fame in the nineteenth century had eclipsed that of the Rev. Sewall and others of his contemporaries. During this period, the term “Prince Library” came to be used as a convenient generic designation for all of the books belonging to the Old South Church, regardless of their individual provenances. Because of this imprecise nomenclature, hundreds of items never owned by Prince (including more than 250 volumes from the Sewall family alone) were included in the published inventories of the purported “Prince Library.”

The 1846 Catalogue of the Library of Rev. Thomas Prince, former pastor of the Old South Church. Presented by Him to the Old South Church and Society provides an example of the inexact treatment of the books in the Church’s library. Five copies of the Bay Psalm Book are noted, but under four different headings. Four copies are cited in Part I of the catalogue, devoted to the “Chiefly Religious” works: no. 112, placed with the quartos, is described as “The Whole Book of Psalms, translated into English metre, (imperfect.) 1640.” No. 259, among the duodecimos, is catalogued as “The whole Book of Psalms, translated into English metre. 1640. (Perfect copy.).” No. 579 describes two further copies, shelved with the octavos: “The Psalms in English Metre, 1640. 2 copies—(one imperf.).” The fifth copy is catalogued as no. 132 in Part II, “Select Catalogue of Historical Works … in the Rooms of the Massachusetts Historical Society,” with the octavos, as “The Whole Book of Psalms, translated into English metre, 1640.”

As the size and significance of the Old South’s library outgrew the Church’s ability to properly administer it, the deacons placed the Church’s books on deposit at the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1814. In 1866, the deacons transferred the deposit to the Boston Public Library, where the book collection of the Old South Church continues to be housed.