The First Book Printed In British North America And A Church's Decision To Sell It

Dec 4, 2012
Originally published on December 5, 2012 10:34 am

This past Sunday, the Old South Church in Boston made a decision that cuts to the heart of not only the congregation's history, but to the very beginning of this country's founding.

With an overwhelming 271 to 34 vote, the church decided to give its board the power to sell one copy of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book ever printed in British North America.

Only 11 of the original 1,600 copies of the book printed in Cambridge in 1640 remain. And of those, the church owns two.

"We will take this wonderful old hymn book, from which our ancestors literally sang their praises to God, and convert it into doing God's ministry in the world today," Senior Minister Nancy S. Taylor said in a press release.

All Things Considered's Melissa Block spoke to Jeff Makholm, the church's historian and one of those vehemently opposed to the sale.

Makholm said Puritans snuck in a press from Britain and paper from France "and they made a few hundred new translations of the psalms that could be sung to songs that congregants knew."

The book has belonged to the church since 1758.

"It was there when the British troops used the meeting house as a riding stable during the revolution, it was there George Washington came to the meeting house," Makholm said. The church handed it over to the City of Boston for safe keeping in 1866.

Makholm admitted that the vote was an important and beautiful display of democracy, but he also flashed a bit of disappointment, saying the sale the items was "fiscally irresponsible" for a church whose endowment is about 10 times what it spends on any given year.

NPR member station WBUR spoke to some members of the congregation who thought the items should be used to help keep the church open seven days a week, as well as help in making repairs to the heating and cooling systems.

"We are about being a church, not about holding on to things that are in a vault somewhere," Emily Click told WBUR.

Her husband agreed.

"We're not a museum, we're not a library. We're a church and we need to keep this building open and keep it up to date and make it safe," Rodney Click said.

Makholm, however, said the books meant a lot to his fore-bearers and he wants the church to keep them for his successors.

The psalm books and the silver, he said, "are unique representations of those who joined and formed and became members of our church from 1669 all the way up to 1984 when our last piece of silver was given."

What's more, he said, when the book finally hits the auction block, where it is expected to fetch anywhere from $10 million to $20 million, it'll be a sad day for the history of the city.

"It'll be a really sad day for Boston, because this book has never been outside of walking distance from the place that it was published in 1640 ... before Boston even had a brick at all," he said. "The idea that that piece of Puritan history will leave the commonwealth for parts unknown, I think that will be a very sad day for Boston."

Much more of Melissa's interview with Makholm is on tonight's All Things Considered. Click here for a local NPR member station that carries the program. We'll post the as-aired interview on this post later on tonight.

Correction at 11:29 a.m. ET. First Printed Book In North America:

An earlier version of this post said the Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in North America; that should be British North America, because an Italian printer Giovanni Paoli printed a catechism in Vera Cruz in 1539, according to The Early Printers of Spain and Portugal.

Two-Way reader Peter Tafuri adds: "The book was 'Breve y Mas Compendiosa Doctrina Cristiana' (Short and Most Compendious Christian Doctrine). He was also the first to publish books in the colonies in Native American languages."

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It's been called the Gutenberg Bible of America, the first book ever printed in British North America. It's the "Bay Psalm Book" published in 1640. Only 11 first edition copies survive. Old South Church in Boston owns two of them. But now, the congregation has voted to sell one of those copies to raise money for repairs and boost the endowment. We'll count the church historian Jeff Makholm among those fiercely opposed to that sale. He joins me now from Boston. Welcome to the program.

JEFF MAKHOLM: Thank you very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: And, Jeff, tell me more first about this rare psalm book itself.

MAKHOLM: OK. The "Bay Psalm Book" was the first publishing enterprise in the New World. Publishing did not happen in the world. It was something for the Old World. So the Puritans sneaked a press in from Britain, and they sneaked paper in from France, and they made a few hundred new translations that could be sung to tunes that the Puritans knew.

BLOCK: And how long has this psalm book been with Old South Church?

MAKHOLM: Well, we know that Thomas Prince, one of our early ministers for whom Princeton, Massachusetts, Prince Street in the North End, and Prince Spaghetti by extension is named after. Thomas Prince gave his whole collection to Old South Church in 1758 when he died. He left it in the tower of the Old South meeting house at the time.

It was there when the British troops used the meeting house as a riding stable during the revolution. It was there when George Washington came to the meeting house. And it finally bumped around with the rest of the collection until the ministers of Old South Church thought it needed a better place for safekeeping and, in 1866, asked the city of Boston to keep it as part of the rare book room at the Boston Public Library where it is today.

BLOCK: The psalm book is expected to sell for anywhere from $10- to $20 million. And I want to ask you about what the senior minister at Old South Church said, Reverend Nancy Taylor. She said, we want to take this old hymn book from which we literally sang our praises to God and convert it into doing God's ministry in the world today. In other words, helping take care of the poor and needy. What do you think about that argument?

MAKHOLM: Reverend Taylor was a spectacular spiritual leader of Old South Church. The giving has grown, the congregation has grown. The idea, however, that somehow the church can't dig into its own pockets or raise money from others in order to support its current mission rather than selling ancient gifts is the rub. And that's the rub that divides the congregation.

BLOCK: How painful a vote was this for the congregation there in Boston?

MAKHOLM: Well, look, it was disappointing. When the book does go on the auction block, I think it will be a sad day for Boston because this book has never been outside of walking distance from the place that it was published in 1640, in the very (unintelligible), decades before Boston even had a brick at all. The idea that that piece of Puritan history will leave the commonwealth for parts unknown, I think that that will be a sad day for Boston.

BLOCK: Well, you still will have one copy of the psalm book, right? You have two, you're selling one, you'll have one left.

MAKHOLM: Indeed. There is a copy over there. I've held them both. Bibliophiles all over the world will never have, again, a chance to hold one in each hand. But it's likely true that the other, which is definitively part of Thomas Prince's collection, can't practically be sold because of his will. So that we'll have forever.

BLOCK: What's it like to hold these psalm books in your hands?

MAKHOLM: Well, it's a remarkable thing to hold a book that's that old that you're not supposed to wear gloves to do. You're supposed to be able to feel it so you don't damage the pages. One can't hold a book like that and not feel a little bit of what it was like in 1640 to have done such a thing when everything around them was complete wilderness. And it's no bigger than a small paperback. But considering its rarity and what it took to publish that book at that time, it will strike anybody who holds it dumb.

BLOCK: Jeff Makholm is the historian at Old South Church in Boston. Mr. Makholm, thanks so much for talking to us.

MAKHOLM: Well, thank you very much, Melissa.


BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.