More than eight years before the first brick was laid for Old East, the initial building block of Carolina was already in the hands of the university’s earliest backers.
Donated a decade prior to the first students roaming Chapel Hill, a 1782 edition of Clement Crutwell’s book, “The Works of the Right Reverend Father in God Thomas Wilson, D.D.,” served as the starting point of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and its library, which now exceeds seven million books.
On Friday, local historian and UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus Lynn Roundtree donated a copy of the same edition to Chancellor Carol L. Folt, providing the school with an additional copy of the meaningful book.
“I am so grateful for this donation because this book represents a starting point for our university — a place of learning that had a teaching tool even before its first building,” Folt said. “To me, it will serve as a reminder for all that we stand for, and all that we can accomplish in the future.”
The presentation marked another chapter in the storied history of “The Works of the Right Reverend Father in God Thomas Wilson, D.D.” at Carolina, which now has two versions on campus and one missing.
Published in 1782, the book features series of writings and sermons by Thomas Wilson, the Church of England’s bishop of on the Isle of Man from 1697 until his death in 1755. The work also includes Wilson’s biography and official papers of the 18th century Anglican divine.
“It’s a compilation of the works of this English prelate with a biographical sketch, underwritten by his close friends and admirers,” Roundtree said. “He was beloved by the people on the Isle of Man. He was also an early advocate for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which sent Anglican missionaries to America throughout the 18th century.”
Roundtree said the book would have been found in a “gentleman’s library” in the late 18th century, with men such as George Washington keeping a copy in their personal collections.
In 1785, admirers of Bishop Wilson distributed copies of the book to one university in each of the 13 American colonies, according to instructions in the will of Wilson’s son. Despite not yet existing, Carolina received a copy because the North Carolina Constitutional Convention had already approved the formation of the university.
“Before there was Old East, before the Old Well, before there was a professor, a student, a desk, a pencil, or even a university, there was this book,” Roundtree said.
Carolina was chartered four years later, and the book remained 150 miles away from Chapel Hill in New Bern, North Carolina until 1792, when university trustees formally accepted the book.
The book was housed in the university’s library until around 1870, when the book mysteriously went missing. Roundtree said the theory surrounding the disappearance is that it was stolen at the end the Civil War, when Union forces occupied Chapel Hill. At one point, Union Gen. William Sherman stabled his horses in the library.
“I’m sure a lot of things happened to disappear around that time,” Roundtree said.
Nearly a century later in 1960, when Carolina was celebrating the acquisition of its millionth book, UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and Brown University President Barnaby Keeney donated a duplicate copy of the book from Brown’s library to Carolina
The book is stored in the Rare Book Collection at Wilson Library, but Roundtree thought Carolina could benefit from having a second copy to display and share with visitors.
During Friday’s presentation, Folt flipped through the aged pages of the large, brown book and learned the history of the title from Roundtree. Folt said she hopes to present the book at a January meeting of the board of trustees — the organization that first accepted the gift in 1792.
“This [book] is the foundation for public higher education in America — we’re the first state university,” Roundtree said. “This book signals the birth of the public university in all of America.”