Selling the Psalms

There’s been a lot of discussion here in the Boston area over the last week or so about the decision of the Old South Church to sell one of their copies of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book to be printed in North America.  There are only eleven copies of this 1640 hymnal; each is precious (and worth about 10 million dollars, at the very least), and the Old South Church has two:  hence the decision to sell one to support its mission. I am certain that it was not an easy decision; deaccessioning an institutional legacy never is.  I’ve been on several boards of venerable institutions here in Salem which had to undertake similar considerations, and it was painful:  how do you honor the past while meet the demands of the present?

Bay Psalm Book LCp

The Library of Congress copy of the Bay Psalm Book (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1640), more formally known The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre. Whereunto is prefixed a discourse declaring not only the lawfullness, but also the necessity of the heavenly Ordinance of singing Scripture Psalmes in the Churches of God.

Everything about the Bay Psalm Book was imported:  paper, press, printer. The Puritans had brought several books of psalms with them, but their quest for the true word of God was essential and ongoing. The connection between printing and the Reformation was almost as well-known then as it is now, so the desire to have a press here in the New World must have been strong. The man with the plan was the Reverend Jose Glover, an English Puritan minister and shareholder in the Massachusetts Bay Company, who financed the purchase of the press (most likely Dutch, as was the type), the paper (most likely French), and the hiring of a “printer” named Stephen Daye in London. Glover died on the voyage to the New World, but his printer set up a press in Cambridge upon his arrival (with the aid of Glover’s widow, Elizabeth, who later married the first president of Harvard College, Stephen Dunster). There’s a lot of speculation about Daye; he was not a member of the Stationers’ Company, the printers’ and booksellers’ guild in London, rather he seems to have been trained as a locksmith and was barely literate. Nevertheless he is recognized as America’s first printer.

Bay Psalm Printing Press Stephen Daye

Bay Psalm First Printer restaurant

Daye’s Cambridge Press, Cambridge Historical Society; the First Printer restaurant at 15 Dunster Street, Cambridge, the site of Daye’s press.

The Bay Psalm Book went through several editions and remained in print through the seventeenth century. Even before the American Revolution, it was recognized as a foundational American text and included in the Prince Collection, the 2000 + rare texts collected by the Reverend Thomas Prince, the Pastor of the Old South Church in the 1740s and 1750s. These texts were stored in the steeple of the Church when it was transformed into a stable by the British during the Revolution (as I wrote about in an earlier post, the British stole Bradford’s Plymouth Plantation from the Church at this time but apparently felt the Bay Psalm Book was less valuable). In the later nineteenth century, the Church deposited the Prince Collection in the Boston Public Library for safekeeping. Of its two copies of the Bay Psalm Book, only one belongs to the Prince Collection so I assume that it’s the other that will go on the market, for the first time since 1947. All of the other 1640 copies (including one that was owned by Salem’s Federal-era chronicler, the Reverend William Bentley) are owned by institutions (you can see a great census here), so this is a rare opportunity for an individual to scoop one up.

Bay Psalm book title

Bay Psalm Book Singing Morgan

Title page of the Bay Psalm Book; Monks singing psalms in an earlier age: Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.193 fol. 277v (French, 13th century).


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