Spotlight on the Reverend Thomas Prince

January 30, 2024
Kate Silfen, Church Historian

The Reverend Thomas Prince enjoyed a long, productive pastorate at the Old South Church. Called to Old South as our fifth senior minister, Prince served as a co-pastor with the Reverend Joseph Sewall from 1718-1758.  While studying at Harvard, Thomas Prince began collecting books on early American history. His extensive collection came to be known as the Prince Collection and is housed at the Boston Public Library. Through his reading and research, Thomas Prince sought to document the history of New England, and in 1728, he began writing A Chronological History of New England in the form of Annals.  Thomas Prince’s scholarship and extensive collection have provided historians with critical historical information about early New England.

As a pastor, Thomas Prince became a strong proponent of the Great Awakening, a period of religious revival in New England in the 1730s & 1740s. To promote the evangelical revival that was taking place throughout England, Scotland, and America, Thomas Prince founded the weekly journal titled Christian History. While Christian History was only in print for two years, it was the first successful religious periodical published in the United States.

While Reverend Prince was a remarkably accomplished pastor, no account of his life is complete without acknowledging that Prince was very much a man of his time. Like several of our past ministers, Old South’s fifth senior pastor was an enslaver. Old South’s Archivist Emily Ross did extensive research on enslavers and enslaved people within the Congregation in 2022. Her research showed that Thomas Prince enslaved a woman named Lucy Manoel. 


Interesting Facts About the Reverend Prince

I recently had the opportunity to read some biographical material about Reverend Prince and discovered that he led a quirky and colorful life! Here are some fun facts about our fifth senior pastor:

  • Young Thomas was a precocious reader!  According to the Reverend Jacob Manning, Prince was ten years old when he read The Marrow of Modern Divinity, a dry theological treatise. 
  • Before becoming a minister, Thomas Prince aspired to be a librarian at Harvard. One of Thomas Prince’s early mentors, the Reverend Rowland Cotton wrote a letter to Harvard authorities recommending Thomas for a job as “library-keeper.” When he failed to secure this position, Thomas Prince sailed for Barbados and England. He spent several years preaching in England. 
  • He was a disciplinarian! Shortly after Thomas Prince embarked on the ship to Barbados, the captain asked him to draw up a list of codes and laws to maintain order during the long journey. Under Prince’s watch, passengers who cursed, lied, were absent from dinner, or slept during worship were to receive three “ferrules.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “ferrule” as a metal ring or cap placed on the end of a stick, umbrella, or tube! I assume rule-breakers would get a thrashing with a “ferrule.”
  • Thomas Prince must have become quite well-known during his years of preaching in England. Approximately 500 people were waiting to meet him as he disembarked from the ship in Boston.
  • Prince managed to escape from the crowds who greeted him by taking refuge in the sanctuary at Old South Church. While Prince was well-known by several members of the Old South Church, few recognized him due to his wig and fine English clothing.
  • One of Prince’s biographers wondered why his preaching was so popular. He noted that Prince read his sermons from a small book and spoke in a monotone. He was so nearsighted that he held the book close to his face. It often looked as though the book had replaced his head!
  • President John Adams may have “borrowed” some of Thomas Prince’s books. In 1936, a New York Times columnist noted that John Adams visited Prince’s library. Curiously enough, John Adams’ library included several titles that had once been in Prince’s Library.
  • Thomas Prince’s prayers were quite effective. More than one historian has noted that Prince offered a prayer of deliverance when a French fleet was expected to launch an attack on Boston. A fierce wind shrieked as Prince was finishing his prayer. Prince paused and prayed that this same wind would prevent the French fleet from attacking. A hurricane scattered the entire fleet!


Works Cited

          Brooks, Phillip. "Notes on Rare Books." The New York Times, March 31, 1936, pp. BR19.
“Ferrule.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, July 2023,
Manning, Jacob M. "Thomas Prince: A Biographical Sketch." The Congregational Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 1, 1859, pp. 1-15.
John Langdon Sibley. "Thomas Prince." Sibley's Harvard Graduates. Harvard University Press, 1933.
Ross, Emily. “Report on Members of Color at Old South Church and Members who Enslaved People of Color.” March 2022.