Bay Psalm Book

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Title page of the copy of the Bay Psalm Book held by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
a page of the Bay Psalm Book in the Houghton Library

The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, commonly called the Bay Psalm Book, is a metrical psalter first printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the first book printed in British North America.[1][2] 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.[3][4][5]

In November 2013, one of eleven known surviving copies of the first edition sold at auction for $14.2 million, a record for a printed book.[6][7][8]


17th century[edit]

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, Thomas Mayhew, and John Eliot,[9] to undertake a new translation, which they presented here.[10] 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, Massachusetts.[11] An estimated 1,700 copies of the first edition were printed.[12]

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).[13]

18th century[edit]

The expansion of the neoclassical movement in England led to an evolution in the singing of psalms. These changes found their way to America and subsequently new psalm versions were written. In the early part of the 18th century several updated psalms, notably those written by Tate and Brady and by Isaac Watts, were published. Shortly thereafter several congregations in New England elected to replace the Bay Psalm Book with these new titles.

In 1718, Cotton Mather undertook the revision of the original Bay Psalm Book which he had studied since youth. Two subsequent revisions were published in 1752, by John Barnard of Marblehead and in 1758 by Thomas Prince. Prince was a clergyman at the Old South Church in Boston. He convinced the members of the congregation of the need to produce a revised, more scholarly, edition of the Bay Psalm Book. However, Prince's version was not accepted outside of his membership and in 1789, the Old South Church reverted to the earlier edition published by Isaac Watts.[14]

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 lawfullness, but also
the necessity of the heavenly Ordinance
of singing Scripture Psalmes in
the Churches of God.

Imprinted, 1640

An example of the text[edit]

"Psalm 23" provides an example of the translation, style and versification of the text of the Bay Psalm Book:

The Lord to me a shepherd is,
want therefore shall not I:
He in the folds of tender grass,
doth cause me down to lie:
To waters calm me gently leads
restore my soul doth he:
He doth in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake lead me.
Yea, though in valley of death’s shade
I walk, none ill I’ll fear:
Because thou art with me, thy rod,
and staff my comfort are.
For me a table thou hast spread,
in presence of my foes:
Thou dost anoint my head with oil;
my cup it overflows.
Goodness and mercy surely shall
all my days follow me:
And in the Lord’s house I shall dwell
so long as days shall be.[15]

Extant copies and auction records[edit]

Eleven copies of the first edition of the Bay Psalm Book are still known to exist,[16] 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:[17]

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.[23] On September 17, 2009, Swann Galleries auctioned an early edition, c. 1669–1682, bound with an Edinburgh Bible, for $57,600.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Murray, Stuart A. P. (2009). The Library An Illustrated History. New York: Skyhorse Publishing. p. 140. ISBN 9781602397064.
  2. ^ "The Bay Psalm Book". World Digital Library. Library of Congress. Retrieved 7 December 2017.
  3. ^ 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. p. 167. ISBN 9780810849839.
  4. ^ Orcutt, William Dana (January 1931). "The Magic of the Book: More Reminiscences and Adventures of a Book-Man". 1 (1). Boston, MA: The University of Chicago Press. doi:10.1086/612887. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. ^ Wallace, Robert (November 22, 1954). "A very proper swindle". Life. Time Inc. pp. 95–106. ISSN 0024-3019.
  6. ^ a b c BBC News: Bay Psalm Book is most expensive printed work at $14.2m (accessed 27 November 2013)
  7. ^ a b "The Bay Psalm Book sale". Sotheby's. Retrieved November 27, 2013.
  8. ^ The World's Most Expensive Book? Rare Book Room, Archived 2016-08-17 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved November 14, 2013.
  9. ^ "Mather, Richard". Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2015-05-25.
  10. ^ (2003) Bay Psalm Book. In Encarta Encyclopedia 2004. Microsoft.
  11. ^ George Emery Littlefield; Club of Odd Volumes (1900). Early Boston booksellers 1642–1711. The Club of Odd Volumes. pp. 27–. Retrieved 15 January 2012.
  12. ^ BBC News: Bay Psalm Book: Why the £18m price tag? (accessed 27 November 2013)
  13. ^ Graham (2004, 1)
  14. ^ Turner, M (1972). "Three Eighteenth-Century Revisions of the Bay Psalm Book". The New England Quarterly. 45 (2): 270–277. doi:10.2307/364760. JSTOR 364760.
  15. ^ [1] The Bay Psalm Book, World Digital Library, Library of Congress
  16. ^ a b Thomas Heath, Billionaire David Rubenstein buys colonial Bay Psalm Book for $14.2 million, Washington Post (November 27, 2013).
  17. ^ "Bay Psalm Book of 1640: Where Are They Now?". PhiloBiblos. November 30, 2012.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Census of Copies of the Bay Psalm Book, with Provenance, Sale, and other Relevant Histories". Sotheby's. Archived from the original on 2015-09-24. Retrieved 2013-12-01.
  19. ^ a b Zoltan Haraszti, The Bay Psalm Book: The First Book Printed in British North America, 1640 (Dover Publications, 2016: reprinting of The Enigma of the Bay Psalm Book (University of Chicago Press, 1956), pp. 86-87.
  20. ^ "Catalog Record #314613". General Catalogue of the American Antiquarian Society.
  21. ^ "America's First Book Set to Be Sold Amid Holy Row". The Guardian. December 5, 2012. Retrieved December 5, 2012.
  22. ^ Tom Gjelten, To Understand How Religion Shapes America, Look To Its Early Days, NPR, All Things Considered (June 28, 2017).
  23. ^ "Some highlights from past auctions". New England Book Auctions. Archived from the original on November 26, 2013. Retrieved November 27, 2013.
  24. ^ "Full details for lot 59". Swann Galleries. Archived from the original on December 3, 2013. Retrieved November 27, 2013.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]