December 30

“My Dear Sir: I am very desirous of obtaining one of the duplicate copies of the old Bay Psalm Book belonging to the Old South Church Library, having a strong veneration for the old volume. I think I have books in my library, such as would not only be appropriate for the Library of the Old South Church but also valuable for reference and for the use of those who rely upon the library for works suitable to be consulted. Among the books which I happen to think of are the original editions of Winthrop’s New England, and Belknap’s New England Biography . . . which I would gladly give in exchange (for) one of the duplicates. . . . Nath. B. Shurtleff.”

This letter by the distinguished Bostonian, Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, M.D., was written to Loring Lothrop, a deacon of the Old South Church of Boston, under the date of December 30, 1859.Shurtleff, a well-known bibliophile, was hot on the track of what even then was a rare and admirable addition to any library. The good doctor was successful and thus joined two friends, all of whom spirited from the Old South Church within a relatively short time, copies of the first book to be printed in the English Colonies in America.

It all began when the Reverend Thomas Prince, pastor of the Old South Church, began to collect a “New England library” in 1703, which he bequeathed to the church in 1758 with the stipulation that his books “be kept entire” and be maintained as a single collection forever. When he first formed his library, copies of the Bay Psalm Book were by no means difficult to locate, so he was able to pick up five of them. In 1820 a part of the Prince collection was given to the Massachusetts Historical Society in spite of the stricture of the original donor, but it was finally brought together again in the Boston Public Library in 1866. By that date, however, it was minus three of the Psalm books.

The removals were accomplished very smoothly by truly proper Bostonians of the highest reputation. Edward A. Crowninshield was the first to make a determined effort to secure a Psalm book by buttering up one of the deacons of the church. Deacon Armstrong, no doubt delighted to do a favor for one of the town’s upper crust, agreed with Crowninshield’s suggestion that the copies of the book on the church’s shelves needed new bindings after two hundred years, and allowed the gentleman to haul one of them off for rebinding. And all that Crowninshield wanted in return was one of the duplicates for his own library. The deacon, possibly feeling a little guilty, made a notation in one of the rebound copies still in the Boston Public Library. It was discovered there by Zoltan Haraszti, the authority on the Bay Psalm Book and Director of the Library. The Crowninshield copy went through several ownerships and is now in the Yale University Library.

A short time later Mr. George Livermore, so outstanding a citizen that he was eulogized by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Edward Everett Hale, evidently in the confidence of his friend Crowninshield, was just as successful in the same manner. This copy is now in a private library in Brooklyn.

The Bay Psalm Book for which Dr. Shurtleff decently exchanged histories worth eight dollars is probably the finest of all, and is now in the possession of the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island.

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