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The Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in British North America. The book is a metrical Psalter, first printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Psalms in it are metrical translations into English. The translations are not particularly polished, and not one has 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. One of eleven known surviving copies of the first edition sold at auction in November 2013 for $14.2 million, a record for a printed book.
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. 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. An estimated 1,700 copies of the first edition were printed.
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 metre. 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).
The title page of the first edition of 1640 reads:
TRANSLATED into ENGLISH
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.
Eleven copies of the first edition of the Bay Psalm Book are known still to exist, of which only five copies are complete. Only one of the eleven copies is currently held outside the United States. One copy is owned by each of the following:
A copy of the first edition sold in 1947 for $151,000. A 1648 edition, 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. On September 17, 2009, Swann Galleries auctioned an early edition, circa 1669–1682, bound with an Edinburgh Bible, for $57,600. On November 26, 2013, Sotheby's auctioned a 1640 copy owned by Boston's Old South Church; it sold for a hammer price of $14,165,000, setting a new record for a single printed book. Sotheby's confirmed that it was purchased by American financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein "who planned to loan it to libraries across the country".
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