Bay Psalm Book

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Title page of the Bay Psalm Book.

The Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in British North America.

The book is a Psalter, first printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Psalms in it are metrical translations into English. The translations are not particularly polished, and none have remained in use, although some of the tunes to which they were sung have survived (for instance, "Old 100th".) However its production, just 20 years after the Pilgrims' arrival at Plymouth, Massachusetts, represents a considerable achievement. It went through several editions and remained in use for well over a century.[1][2] [3]


The early residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony brought with them several books of psalms: the Ainsworth Psalter (1612), compiled by Henry Ainsworth for use by Puritan "separatists" in Holland; the Ravenscroft Psalter (1621); and the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter (1562, of which there were several editions). Evidently they were dissatisfied with the translations from Hebrew in these several psalters and wished for some that were closer to the original. They hired "thirty pious and learned Ministers", including Richard Mather and John Eliot, to undertake a new translation, which they presented here.[4] The tunes to be sung to the new translations were the familiar ones from their existing psalters.

The first printing was the third product of the Stephen Day (sometimes spelled Daye) press, and consisted of a 148 small quarto leaves, including a 12-page preface, "The Psalmes in Metre", "An Admonition to the Reader", and an extensive list of errata headed "Faults escaped in printing". As with subsequent editions of the book, Day printed the book for sale by the first bookseller in British America, Hezekiah Usher, whose shop at that time was also located in Cambridge.[5]

The third edition (1651) was extensively revised by Henry Dunster and Richard Lyon. The revision was entitled The Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs of the Old and New Testament, faithfully translated into English meetre. This revision was the basis for all subsequent editions, and was popularly known as the New England Psalter or New England Version. The ninth edition (1698), the first to contain music, included 13 tunes from John Playford's A Breefe Introduction to the Skill of Musick (London, 1654).[6]

Title page[edit]

The title page of the first edition of 1640 reads:

The Whole Booke of Psalmes

Whereunto is prefixed a discourse
declaring not only the lawfullnes, but also
the necessity of the heavenly Ordinance
of singing Scripture Psalmes in
the Churches of God.

Imprinted, 1640

Extant copies[edit]

Eleven copies of the first edition of the Bay Psalm Book are known still to exist. One of these is in the Library of Congress, one is owned by Yale University, one by Harvard University, one by Brown University, one by the American Antiquarian Society, one by the New York Public Library, one by the Bodleian Library, one by the Henry E. Huntington Library, one by the Rosenbach Museum & Library, and two, housed in the Rare Book Collection at the Boston Public Library, are owned by Old South Church in Boston.[7] Only five of the copies are in complete condition. Old South Church announced plans in December 2012 to sell one of its two copies of the Psalm Book.[8]

Auction records[edit]

A 1648 edition of the Bay Psalm Book, described in American Book Prices Current as the "Emerson Copy", fetched $15,000 on May 3, 1983, at New England Book Auctions in South Deerfield, Massachusetts (Lot 245). On September 17, 2009, Swann Galleries auctioned an early edition, circa 1669-1682, bound with an Edinburgh Bible, for $57,600—an auction record for any edition of the work. On November 26, 2013, Sotheby's will auction a 1640 copy owned by Boston's Old South Church. Pre-sale estimates range from $15 million to $30 million; any hammer price in excess of $12 million will set a new record for a single printed book.[9]

In fiction[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Graham, Fred Kimball (2004). "With One Heart and One Voice: A Core Repertory of Hymn Tunes Published for Use in the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States, 1808-1878. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
  2. ^ Orcutt, William Dana (1930). The Magic of the Book. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, & Company.
  3. ^ Robert Wallace. "A very proper swindle". Life Magazine, November 22, 1954.
  4. ^ (2003)Bay Psalm Book. In Encarta Encyclopedia 2004. Microsoft.
  5. ^ George Emery Littlefield; Club of Odd Volumes (1900). Early Boston booksellers 1642-1711. The Club of Odd Volumes. pp. 27–. Retrieved 15 January 2012. 
  6. ^ Graham (2004, 1)
  7. ^ "Bay Psalm Book of 1640: Where Are They Now?". PhiloBiblos. November 30, 2012. 
  8. ^ "America's First Book Set to Be Sold Amid Holy Row". The Guardian. December 5, 2012. Retrieved December 5, 2012. 
  9. ^ The World's Most Expensive Book? Rare Book Room, Retrieved November 14, 2013.


External links[edit]