The Story of a Children's Book that was Parleyed into a Presbyterian Library

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Have you heard of the Peter Parley stories? The title character of a popular series of children’s books authored by Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793-1860), Peter Parley was “an elderly, quirky, but also lovable old Bostonian who enjoy[ed] telling stories to children.” The stories he told helped to teach children about history, geography, and science. By 1856, 7 million copies of the Peter Parley stories had been sold.

Peter Parley.jpg

Published by the firm of Sorin and Ball, the copyright holder to the series was an associate of the firm named Samuel Agnew (1820-1880). He was also a Presbyterian ruling elder who had a deep interest in books and history. The enormous success of his publishing labors enabled Agnew to retire at around the age of 40.

In tracing the history of the Presbyterian Historical Society, which was founded in 1852, William Laurence Ledwith writes:

The noble triumvirate who bore the burden were the Rev. Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, D. D., the Rev. Richard Webster, and Samuel Agnew, and the greatest of these was Agnew….Samuel Agnew was the librarian from the organization until 1880, the time of his death, covering a period of twenty-eight years. The Society owes to him more than to any one else; his time, his labors, his money being given without stint to the cause he so dearly loved. In his earlier days he was a member of the firm of Sorin and Ball, publishers, and he owned the copyright of the Peter Parley histories. He was a man of ample means, and devoted himself to the interests of the Historical Society, and it is no extravagant statement to say that the Society itself, its library with its large and rare collection, the building which the Society purchased in 1879, are his monuments. He was ever on the watch for anything and everything in print that had value for the Society. He frequented book auctions, and often, rather than miss the volume or pamphlet he desired, would purchase the whole package in which they were tied. It is said that when he saw the advertisement of a library sale in New York, Boston, Cleveland or Cincinnati, he would start at once for the place, and secure, often at large cost, the books he desired. Even in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, he had his agents under instructions to secure such books as he wished to purchase. In this work, to which he gave himself so heartily, he spent $25,000, as he once confessed to a friend, when worried lest these historic treasures of the Society which he had stored away might be destroyed by fire. He also collected 4,000 volumes and pamphlets on the Baptist Controversy, which he left in his will to Princeton Theological Seminary. After his death it was some little time before they could be found, but they were discovered stored away in a building used as a stable. He died just as the Society was entering upon the use of the first building it owned, and which he had labored so faithfully to secure.

We have a snapshot of the fruits of Agnew’s labors on behalf of the PHS library because in 1865 he published a catalogue of its holdings. It covers 100 pages of book titles, but remarkably it does not include a “large and valuable collection of more than eight thousand Pamphlets, Magazines and Reviews; two hundred volumes of Newspapers; three hundred Portraits; and many valuable Manuscripts.”

Thus it was, in the providence of God, that the fortune built on the sales of a children’s book by Samuel Agnew was parleyed into the library of the Presbyterian Historical Society, a legacy of lasting value to the church.

How did 19th century Presbyterians understand the history of the Presbyterian Church?

It's always interesting to see how a particular time period understood itself - where it was, how it got there, and where it was going. We've just uploaded two classic histories of the Presbyterian Church: Richard Webster wrote in the middle of the 19th century about the Presbyterian Church from its founding till 1760. George Hays wrote at the end of the 19th century about the entire history up to his day.  Hays' work is unique in that he asked authors from the respective Presbyterian denominations of that time to write the history of their particular church (i.e., Moses Drury Hoge writes the history of the Southern Presbyterian Church).