Friday, July 16, 2021 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

A bronze plaque on the west side of St. Philip Street in urban Charleston informs pedestrians that the site of Memminger Elementary School once hosted “the first public lending library in the American colonies,” established in 1698. This phrase has been repeated in countless books and walking tours for nearly a century, but it’s not quite accurate. While the location and chronology are correct, the historical context is much more complicated. The roots of South Carolina’s first public library stem from an ambitious British endeavor to distribute circulating collections of books across the English-speaking world.[1]

Our story begins in the spring of 1696, when the Anglican Bishop of London, Henry Compton, appointed a thirty-year old minister Thomas Bray (1656–1730) to be his official representative, or commissary, in the province of Maryland, and then diocesan of the Church of England in the American colonies in general. Bray did not go abroad immediately, but remained in England for a further three years, awaiting the resolution of the political status of the Anglican Church in Maryland. In the meantime, Rev. Bray earned a Doctorate of Divinity from Oxford University and began recruiting Anglican ministers willing to cross the Atlantic and minister to English settlers living on the colonial frontier. Perhaps not surprisingly, the clergymen who agreed to undertake such an adventure were generally too poor to purchase quantities of books to carry across the ocean to enhance the spiritual education of their new congregations. This condition inspired Rev. Bray to publish a series of pamphlets promoting the idea that every Anglican parish in Maryland, and then every parish the English colonies, should have its own lending library that would be available free of charge to local inhabitants.


Books, argued Rev. Bray, were necessary to promote the spread of learning in the infant colonies. As an Anglican minister, however, his educational mission was colored by a partisan zeal to promote Protestant Christian viewpoints that conformed to the conservative tenants of the Church of England. The pamphlets Bray published to promote his plan in the late 1690s included sample title lists to illustrate the specific sort of theological material he planned to send abroad. Like many of his contemporaries, Bray believed such books would help the ministers traveling abroad to defend the king’s religion against a tide of competing books and pamphlets promoting the beliefs held by Catholics, Quakers, Deists, and other denominations.

Beyond the explicit bias of Bray’s goal, we can admire the revolutionary character of his desire to promote education through circulating collections of books. The rhetoric of his promotional material reads like a seventeenth-century version of the arguments espoused by later public librarians: By offering materials covering a variety of subjects and allowing patrons to carry books home to read at their leisure, the community in general benefits from the improvement of individual minds. A more florid version of this argument appears in a pamphlet published by Dr. Bray in 1697, titled An essay towards promoting all necessary and useful knowledge, both divine and human, in all parts of His Majesty’s dominions, both at home and abroad:


“As for our younger gentry, I cannot think but it would tend extreamly to furnish their minds also with that useful knowledge in history, travels, humanity, agriculture, and all such noble arts and sciences, as will render ’em serviceable to their families and countries, and will make ’em considerable both at home and abroad. And that it will very much keep ’em from idle conversation, and the debaucheries attending it, to have choice collections of such books dispers’d through all the kingdom, and waiting upon ’em in their own parlors, as will ennoble their minds with principles of vertue and true honor, and will file off that roughness, ferity and barbarity, which are the never failing fruits of ignorance and illiterature. Standing libraries will signifie little in the country, where persons must ride some miles to look into a book; such journeys being too expensive of time and money. But lending libraries, which come home to ’em without charge, may tolerably well supply the vacancies in their own studies, till such time as these lending may be improv’d into [non-circulating] parochial libraries.”[2]


Lending libraries were rare in England at the time, and public institutions of this nature even more so. It was inevitable, therefore, that judges of Bray’s scheme would ask how such libraries might prevent circulating books from disappearing. In his pamphlets, Bray suggested that they might be “secur’d from loss or imbezelment” by taking a few simple precautions. First, the books should be bound in distinctive covers and well-marked with the name of the library to which they belong. The collections should be deposited with the ministers or school masters of centralized market-towns, so that rural borrowers might conveniently fetch or return a book while visiting said town on market-day. Bray presumed that the minister or school-master curating each library would be willing to supervise the lending and receiving of books, and that the local clergy would determine the proper duration for borrowed books. Borrowers would leave at the library a note with the date and title of the book borrowed, which note they would retrieve when they returned the book. Finally, Bray suggested that the clergy superintending the library would annually compare their inventory of book titles to the items standing on the shelves and then annually recall all missing volumes. “By these means,” said Rev. Bray, “I believe they will be very well preserv’d,” and not “transferr’d into any man’s private keeping.”[3]

After a number of Anglican bishops and the governor of Maryland endorsed this plan, Thomas Bray began soliciting monetary donations from a wide range of English benefactors and began purchasing books in London to send to the American colonies. During the final years of the seventeenth century, he collected numerous sums, large and small, from lords and ladies, clergymen, lawyers, physicians, merchants, and societies of tradesmen. By the summer of 1699, Bray had collected nearly £2,500 sterling (now worth more than $350,000), which sum included £30 from the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, and £225 subscribed by the colonists of Carolina.[4]

Thomas Bray’s first “library,” containing just over 1,000 titles and valued at £800 sterling, was shipped to Annapolis in 1697, and was followed by a dozen smaller libraries shipped to other parts of Maryland. In the years 1698–99, before he set sail for Maryland, Bray assembled similar but smaller collections of books for South Carolina, New York, New Jersey, New England, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Bermuda, several Caribbean islands, Cape Corso Castle in Africa, and South Bengal in the East Indies.[5]

The Bray library destined for South Carolina included 225 leather-bound titles, several of which were multi-volume sets, as well as a large supply of complimentary pamphlets to be given away. The entire collection was valued at £300 sterling (today worth more than $40,000), making it the second largest and most valuable of the Bray libraries after the one sent to Annapolis in 1697. Thanks to Rev. Bray’s cataloging instincts, a classified inventory of titles included in this South Carolina library survives among his papers in London and was published in 1934. A large proportion of the materials were in Latin, a fact reflecting the traditions of classical education during Bray’s lifetime. Categories included scriptural analysis, theological polemics, religious pedagogy, moral laws and duties, repentance, grace, divine assistance, sacraments, sermons, religious controversies, lives of eminent divines, polity and law, geography, ancient history, physiology, anatomy, mathematics, Latin and Greek grammars and lexicons, and miscellaneous philosophical works. Bray later dispatched to South Carolina a second shipment of five titles comprising ten books, increasing the size of the collection to nearly 300 volumes.[6]

The surviving ledgers of Dr. Bray’s finances show that in March 1698 he paid to have these books wrapped in paper and loaded into wooden boxes stuffed with hay to cushion their movement across the Atlantic in the belly of a ship. Rev. Bray did not personally accompany the book crates across the ocean, but he sent one of his recruits, the Reverend Samuel Marshall, in his stead. Both the books and minister arrived in Charleston in September 1698, and were directed to the Anglican church that Bray described as having been “lately built in Charles-Town.”[7]

The wooden edifice in question, St. Philip’s Anglican Church, then stood at the southeast corner of Meeting and Broad Streets in Charleston (now the site of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church). Both Rev. Marshall and the crates of books might have resided within that structure after their arrival, for the nascent parish of St. Philip had not yet built a parsonage house or established a salary for its rector. In the weeks after their arrival, however, South Carolina’s provincial legislature worked with private citizens to supply both of these parochial needs.

On October 8th, 1698, the General Assembly ratified “An act to settle a maintenance on a minister of the Church of England in Charles Town,” which provided Rev. Marshall and his successors with a handsome salary, two enslaved servants (a man and a woman of African descent), and four cows. He was still without a fixed residence, however, and the provincial library was probably still packed in crates. After a month-long recess, the members of the assembly reconvened in Charleston to resolve these outstanding issues.[8]

On November 19th, 1698, the South Carolina legislature ratified an act to settle the estate of John Coming and vest his property in his widow, Affra Harleston Coming. That same day, Mrs. Coming donated seventeen acres of her property, immediately north of Charleston’s original boundary, to the parish of St. Philip for use as a parsonage for Rev. Marshall and his successors. After thanking Affra for her “pious and free gift” to the parish, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly ordered the public treasurer to pay a London bookseller for the outstanding expenses related to recently-arrived library. Finally, the House resolved to send letters of thanks both to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina for their assistance in this matter and to Thomas Bray for his efforts in “laying a foundation for a good & publick library.”[9]

The “parsonage lands” donated by Affra Harleston Coming in the autumn of 1698 formed the easternmost part of a large pasture that is now the neighborhood of Harleston (see Episode No. 136). The seventeen acres reserved for the parsonage of St. Philip’s Parish was largely devoid of landmarks at the time, but that rectangular parcel is now bounded by Beaufain, St. Philip, Calhoun, and Coming Streets. During the winter and spring of 1699, South Carolina’s provincial government paid for the construction of a residence and outbuildings near the west side of modern St. Philip Street, between Beaufain and Wentworth Streets. The Reverend Marshall wrote to Thomas Bray in London that winter to inform him that he and the library would soon reside within a new brick house located on “a fine plantation[,] with a perpetual stock of two Negro servants and two cows, together with £150 a year.”[10]

At some point during the spring or summer of 1699, Rev. Marshall moved into his new residence and unpacked the collection of nearly three hundred volumes. No record survives of the library’s early management, but we can surmise that curious parishioners probably visited the parsonage to view the titles and perhaps take book home with them. Business waned in the autumn of 1699, however, when a pestilential fever spread through the population of urban Charleston until the winter chill stopped its progress in early 1700. Rev. Samuel Marshall was among the dead, as was Affra Coming and scores of others within the town.[11]

While the Anglican parishioners of Charleston recruited another minister from England during the early months of 1700, the provincial library probably suffered from a brief period of neglect. Two enslaved people ostensibly lived at the parsonage during this time, but nothing is known of their access to the book collection. A ferocious hurricane in early September flooded the town and claimed numerous lives, but the storm probably caused minimal damage to the books. The more pressing matter, we can surmise from post-hurricane activity, was the proper management of the free circulation of the valuable books.[12]

On November 16th, 1700, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified “An Act for Securing the Provincial Library at Charles Town, in Carolina.” Without immediate measures “for the effectual preservation” of the library, said the law’s preamble, the members of the legislature “feared that the books belonging to the same will quickly be embezzeled [sic], damaged or lost.” For the better preservation of the books, therefore, the government decreed “that the provincial Library of Carolina shall be, continue and remain in the hands, custody and possession and safe-keeping of the incumbent or minister of the Church of England, in Charlestown, in this province, for the time being.” He was henceforth obliged, under penalty of fines, “to keep and preserve the several and respective books therein, from waste, damage, embezzelment [sic], and all other destruction, (fire and other unavoidable accidents only excepted).”

The law stated that “the inhabitants of this province shall have liberty to borrow any book out of the said provincial library, giving a receipt for the same” to the minister, “with a promise to return the said book or books; if a folio, in four months time; if a quarto, in two months time; if an octavo, or under, in one month, upon penalty of paying three times the full value of the said book or books so borrowed, in case of failure of returning or damnifying the same.” As librarian, the minister was required to keep a ledger of books lent out, with the names of borrowers, the dates of transactions, and the conditions of the books returned. If books were returned with damages or not returned at all, the law empowered the minister to file suit to gain restitution.

The minister was also required to create two complete inventories of the book collection, giving one to the parish churchwardens and one to a body of nine appointed commissioners, among whom was the governor of South Carolina. At least once every year, on November 5th, the commissioners were required “to resort to the house built for the incumbent of Charlestown, where the said library shall be kept, and there examine the books thereof by the catalogue, and that there be the full number, and that they are not damnified nor spoiled.” The minister was responsible for all damaged and missing books. In case of his death or removal from town, the commissioners were empowered and required to assume temporary responsibility for the books.[13]

The late Rev. Samuel Marshall was replaced by Edward Marston and he, in turn, by a succession of ministers responsible for the Anglican Parish of St. Philip. During their respective tenures in the early years of the eighteenth century, the number of books forming South Carolina’s provincial lending library gradually declined. The reasons for this decline are not clearly defined in surviving historical records, but a few extant clues suggest a predictable slate of shortcomings. The minister responsible for the library was often preoccupied with a host of other matters both spiritual and practical. Patrons frequenting the library were not always conscientious in the care of the borrowed books in their possession. The commissioners of the provincial library were not sufficiently diligent in their oversight of the minister’s management of the collection.

All of these issues were addressed during the spring of 1712, when the South Carolina General Assembly drafted and ratified a law to clarify several issues related to the establishment of the Anglican Church as the official religion of the province. Among the various legal issues described therein, we learn that the generous circulation policy established by the provincial library law of 1700 had “already proved very prejudicial to the said library.” Because the earlier statute had allowed “all the inhabitants of this province, without any exception . . . to borrow any book out of the provincial library,” “several of the books” had been “lost and others damnified.” To address such problems, the revised law of 1712 deemed it “necessary to lodge a discretional power” in the minster superintending the library: “That in case any person shall desire to borrow any book out of the said provincial library, which the keeper of the said library hath just reason to think will not take care of the said book and return the same in time, that in such case the said library keeper may refuse such person the loan of any book.” The commissioners appointed to oversee the management of the library were required to meet more frequently and to apply greater scrutiny to its care.[14]

From the statute of 1712, we also learn that the provincial library housed within urban Charleston was just the first of several circulating collections sent to South Carolina, and that Thomas Bray was at least partly responsible for these later libraries. After a brief spiritual of tour of Maryland, Bray returned to London in 1701 and organized a new missionary organization called the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, or “SPG.” With increased resources and support, the SPG created additional libraries, always emphasizing Anglican theology, and distributed them to parishes throughout the British colonies. The aforementioned South Carolina statute of 1712 mentions that there were then “several parochial libraries belonging to the rectors or ministers of the several parishes in this province, given for the use of them and their lawful successors by the honourable Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts” and other charitable persons. In theory, at least, each of them was to be to managed with the same care as the first library housed the provincial capital.[15]

Despite these legislative orders, the books forming South Carolina’s first public lending library were eventually dispersed into unknown hands and disappeared. The provincial library of 1698, consisting of nearly 300 volumes selected in London and sent by Thomas Bray, ceased to exist within a few decades of its creation. The sparse public records of South Carolina that survive from the early years of the eighteenth century contain no further references to the collection housed at the parsonage of St. Philip’s Parish. We can imagine that the condition of books gradually declined during years of exposure to hot, humid summers and chilly winters in the Lowcountry, with episodes of destruction caused by hurricanes, fires, and warfare. The parsonage relocated into a new brick structure, now No. 6 Glebe Street, during the American Revolution, but it’s unclear if any of Dr. Bray’s books survived to that era.

Regardless of its fate, the South Carolina provincial lending library of 1698 represents a milestone in the history of public libraries in this state. It merits mention in our discussions of educational efforts—past, present, and future—with appropriate attention to factual details. In 1955, for example, the Historical Commission of the City of Charleston erected a bronze plaque on the west side of St. Philip Street, adjacent to what is now Memminger Elementary School, to commemorate the former location of what it described as “the first public lending library in the American colonies.” A closer reading of the facts demonstrates that this circulating collection was among the first in the British colonies, but certainly not the first of the several lending libraries created by Thomas Bray.

Furthermore, it’s important to acknowledge that the books selected and sent to Charleston in 1698 reflected a specific religious and political bias. The collection as a whole was intended to augment a religious agenda then embraced by a minority of South Carolina’s diverse population. The library was ostensibly open to all, but the men charged with its care were authorized to grant or deny access to the books according to their personal discretion.

In a gendered turn-of-phrase common in the late seventeenth century, Thomas Bray said that “knowledge is the fairest ornament of the soul of man.”[16] Public library advocates of the twenty-first century would now extend this concept to all readers, of course, regardless of their identity or beliefs, but I think we can still embrace the point. Bray’s passion for learning inspired his contemporaries to embark on a remarkable cultural endeavor that continues to the present. Charleston was fortunate to host one of the first lending libraries in the English-speaking world, and the spirit of that long-lost collection will echo across South Carolina for generations to come.



[1] The myth that Charleston hosted the first lending library in the American colonies dates back to at least 1927, when amateur historian Eola Willis provided a garbled version of the facts through one of her popular newspaper columns of that era. See Charleston Evening Post, 22 January 1927, page 8, “When Charleston Was Young,” by Eola Willis.

[2] Thomas Bray, An essay towards promoting all necessary and useful knowledge, both divine and human, in all parts of His Majesty’s dominions, both at home and abroad (London: printed by E. Holt for Robert Clavel, 1697), 12 (spelling and emphasis original).

[3] Bray, An essay, 8–9.

[4] Edgar Legare Pennington, “The Beginnings of the Library in Charles Town, South Carolina,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 44 (April 1934): 160–61.

[5] Samuel Clyde McCulloch, “Dr. Thomas Bray’s Commissary Work in London, 1696–1699,” William and Mary Quarterly 2 (October 1945): 340.

[6] For a title list, see Pennington, “The Beginnings of the Library in Charles Town,” 168–87.

[7] Pennington, “The Beginnings of the Library in Charles Town,” 163. The South Carolina Commons House of Assembly noted on 20 September 1698 Marshall’s recent arrival; see A. S. Salley, Jr., ed., Journals of the Commons House of Assembly of South Carolina for the Two Sessions of 1698 (Columbia: The Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1914), 13–14. The quotation is taken from the chart of library locations printed on an unnumbered page in Thomas Bray, Apostolick charity, its nature and excellence consider’d in a discourse upon Dan. 12. 3, preached at St. Paul’s, Decemb. 19, 1697, at the ordination of some Protestant missionaries to be sent into the plantations: to which is prefixt, a general view of the English colonies in America, with respect to religion: in order to shew what provision is wanting for the propagation of Christianity in those parts (London: printed by W. Downing for W. Hawes, 1698).

[8] The text of this act appears in Frederick Dalcho, An Historical Account of the Protestant Episcopal Church in South-Carolina (Charleston, S.C.: E. Thayer, 1820), 33.

[9] Salley, Commons House Journal, 1698, 28, 33, 36. The text of Affra Coming’s deed of conveyance to the Parish of St. Philip, dated 10 December 1698, appears in Dalcho, An Historical Account, 34–35.

[10] McCulloch, “Dr. Thomas Bray’s Commissary Work,” 335, citing Sion College, Bray MSS, 38.

[11] Dalcho, An Historical Account, 35.

[12] David Ramsay, The History of South Carolina, volume 2 (Charleston, S.C.: David Longworth, 1809), 176–77.

[13] David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 13–16.

[14] See sections 21–27 of “An Additional Act to the Several Acts Relating to the Establishment of Religious Worship in this Province, and Now In Force In the Same, and also to the Act for Securing the Provincial Library of Charles Town in Carolina” ratified on 7 June 1712, in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 2 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1837), 366–76.

[15] See section 26 of the aforementioned act in Cooper, Statutes at Large, 2: 375–76.

[16] Bray, An essay, preface (unnumbered page).



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