J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, September 16, 2019

“Required Reading” Exhibit at the Athenaeum

On Tuesday, 17 September, the Boston Athenaeum will open its new exhibit, “Required Reading: Reimagining a Colonial Library.”

This display will feature the King’s Chapel Library Collection, a 221-volume set of “necessary and useful” texts—everything that the minister of that Anglican church was expected to need to pastor his flock.

The Rev. Thomas Bray assembled this collection and brought it with him across the Atlantic Ocean on H.M.S. Deptford in 1698, twelve years after the church was founded. At the time and for decades afterward, the Church of England considered Puritan-founded Massachusetts to be missionary territory, so its rector needed all the support he could get.

The collection included:
  • A 1683 atlas of the world
  • Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1666)
  • A nine-language Bible, the “London Polyglot” (1657)
  • A Biblical concordance compiled by Massachusetts minister Samuel Newman in 1658
  • A complete mathematics textbook from 1690
This will be the first time that the King’s Chapel Library collection is on public view for all. The books will sit in a full-scale replica of the “massive, ark-like bookcase designed in 1883” to house them on the Athenaeum’s third floor.

The exhibit will also share the “dramatic and little-known story behind the unique collection’s compilation and its arrival in New England.” The war shut down King’s Chapel after the 1776 evacuation, so preserving this library in Boston was another feat. The new minister who reopened the church in the 1780s steered the congregation toward Unitarianism, quite different from the seventeenth-century theology reflected in those old books.

Having been custodian of this library since 1823, the Athenaeum hopes its exhibit will prompt visitors to explore the idea of “essential knowledge.” The presentation includes perspectives from the Chinese Historical Society of New England, Hebrew College, the Museum of African American History, UMass-Boston, and other partners about what is “required reading” today.

The public exhibit opening will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 P.M in the Boston Athenaeum at 10 1/2 Beacon Street. At 6:00, curator John Buchtel will deliver a thirty-minute presentation about the books and display. This event is free and open to the public. The exhibit will be on view for months to come.

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