The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre
December 25, 2012 10:59 AM   Subscribe

"People haven’t been fascinated by this book because the translation is mellifluous or beautiful,” said Michael F. Suarez, a professor of English at the University of Virginia who directs the Rare Book School there. “People haven’t been attracted to this book because the presswork is beautiful. It’s not.” Instead, the Bay Psalm Book is treasured for being the first surviving piece of printing done in the British North American colonies. Only 11 copies, many incomplete, today survive. Remarkably two of those copies belong to the same owner, Boston's Old South Church. This month, the church made the controversial decision to sell one (the first such sale in 65 years), and it could bring as much as $20 million for the church's endowment.
posted by Horace Rumpole (7 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I like it, perſõally.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:40 AM on December 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, I love the Old South Church. Everyone who passes through Copley Square stares at the well-known Trinity, and too easily misses Old South's more elegant building sitting kitty-corner. Plus, it's where I saw John Hodman, and almost saw Lemony Snickett.
posted by benito.strauss at 2:35 PM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

The books are actually kept at the Boston Public Library. What would the church lose by by selling one of them? An entry in a register?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:30 PM on December 25, 2012

The Library is just across the street, literally on the other side of Boylston. The distance from front door to front door is probably less than the distance from the church's front door to its back-most meeting room. It's a really smart place to store such a valuable and (I assume) delicate book.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:25 PM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I learned about the Bay Psalm Book from listening to the Teaching Company's lecture series Great American Bestsellers: The Books That Shaped America by Professor Peter Conn. Some of the Teaching Company lectures are better than others, and that was a great one. It introduced me to any number of books that, realistically, I just wasn't going to dedicate the time to read. I really enjoyed it.

Neat post.
posted by cribcage at 9:09 PM on December 25, 2012

It's also hard to imagine a congregation enthusiastically singing Psalm 137 out of the book.

It was good enough for Boney M.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:37 PM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have mixed feelings about this. As a trustee of a small and cash-strapped Anglican parish, I sympathise with the Old South Church congregation, who currently have a budget deficit of $135,000, despite doubling congregational giving in the last six years. But as a rare books curator I can't help but regret the sale of the Bay Psalm Book. If the book passes out of public custody and becomes a trophy for a very rich private collector, then it isn't just the church that loses, we all lose something.

(For anyone interested in the whereabouts of the eleven surviving copies, there's a detailed census over on Jeremy Dibbell's blog, with some interesting notes on the history of each copy. At one time the Old South Church had no less than five copies, three of which were sold or otherwise disposed of in the nineteenth century. No copy in Princeton, I notice .. but $20m may be too much even for the Scheide Library. As for the library where I work, we missed our chance to buy a copy 150 years ago, which perhaps wasn't very clever of us.)

Here in the UK the recent case of the Lacock Chalice raises similar issues. In some ways I find the sale of communion plate more troubling, as there is an expectation that it belongs to the church in perpetuity and shouldn't be transferred from sacred to secular use. But the particularly troubling feature of the Lacock case is the judge's ruling that the chalice had become 'redundant' once it was loaned to the British Museum in 1962. Many parishes have placed their historic treasures for safekeeping with local museums or galleries, so this sets a disturbing precedent.
posted by verstegan at 3:26 AM on December 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

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