November 23, 2013


En route to Sotheby's, Bay Psalm Book traces nation's seesaw religious history (David Van Biema, Nov 20, 2013, RNS)

For the first time since 1947, and only the second time since the nineteenth century, a copy of the first book printed in America will be sold at auction. The Whole Booke of Psalmes--universally known as The Bay Psalm Book--was translated and printed in 1640 in the virtual wilderness of Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Congregationalist Puritans who left England in search of religious freedom. 

A Puritan might read this extraordinary markup as an example of God's unknowable Providence. An economist might cite the laws of supply and demand. Either way, the blockbuster sale of "The Whole Book of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Meter" caps a fascinating seesaw act of American theology and marketplace. And depending on who wins the auction, it may say a bit more.

The book, on display at Sotheby's Manhattan headquarters, opened to Psalm 23, is physically unimposing. About 7 inches high and 4 inches wide, it is largely undecorated. The printer, a trained locksmith who arrived with the press, had his idiosyncrasies, including spelling "psalm" two different ways. The translators, among them Puritan luminaries John Cotton, Richard Mather and John Eliot, admitted to heeding "fidelity rather than poetry": They produced some clunky verse. The initial run of 1,700 seems in retrospect optimistic, considering that the Bay Colony had just 3,500 families. But the hymnbook was a success, and would eventually become better known for its scarcity than overproduction.

Most churches undoubtedly wore through their copies. Some books probably languished a while as relics of a vanished age: hymns eventually replaced sung psalms, even in most Reformed congregations. By the 1800s, only 11 known copies remained.

At which point America's bibliophiles realized they had nearly lost their foundational document.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at November 23, 2013 11:28 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus