In 1640, within ten years of their arrival in the New World, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay produced their first book and printed it on their own press. It was a translation of the Book of Psalms titled The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre. 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. It later became known as The Bay Psalm Book.
For some, just as cleanliness is next to godliness, so the Hymn Book is next to the Holy Bible. It is no surprise therefore to learn that this first book was the Bay Psalm Book. It has been criticized as lacking in finesse, whether judged for its contents or production. After all, what can you fairly expect in light of the rigors and handicaps involved in settling a new continent? The noteworthy thing is not that this first book was a crude work but that it was printed at all!
Only eleven copies of the first edition of 1700 copies survive and, of these, only five are complete. Other copies lack a varying number of leaves. The title page includes quotations from Col. 3:16 and James 5:13, though in neither case are the verse numbers indicated. It ends with “Imprinted 1640’”
The fascination which this book has long held for many stems in part from the fact that it was the first book printed in America. This has often been noted but it would be more accurate to say that this was the first book written and printed in America, thereby adding an additional dimension to the prestige it already holds in the world of rare books. It was Moses C. Tyler, the brilliant 19th Century historian of American literature, who called it “a sort of prodigy.”
The prominence of The Bay Psalm Book was dramatized with impressive force when, in January, 1947, a copy was sold in New York for $151,000, the highest price until then ever paid anywhere for a book sold at a public auction. At the time this was also the highest price paid anywhere for a book in the English language. A copy of the first folio of Shakespeare was a poor second, having sold at $77,000, scarcely more than half of that amount.
A small reprint of The Bay Psalm Book was issued in 1862, but it has nearly disappeared and the facsimile edition of 1903 has also become rare. A facsimile copy published in 1956, therefore, met a real need, as the few original copies could not be used in research due to the need to avoid excessive handling. Attractively boxed with this facsimile edition is another useful volume of some 140 pages titled The Enigma of the Bay Psalm Book by Zoltan Haraszti. Haraszti did what was long needed by providing us with a careful examination and appraisal of the book’s contents. Justice can never be done to a book of this stature by simply describing its external features, but this was about all any previous student had done.
Once the book has been given more than an admiring glance, many myths about it can be refuted. For example, the Preface was actually written by Cotton Mather rather than Richard Mather. Also, the book was not the work of Eliot-Welde-Mather, but was rather the work of “the chief Divines” of the Bay Colony, as Cotton Mather clearly states.
Granted, the work is no literary masterpiece, but neither does it deserve some of the ridicule and scorn that has been heaped upon it. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that the despised passages are literal transcriptions from the highly-praised King James Version! And, far from being so consistently uniform that it might have been composed by a single person, as the late George Parker Winship announced, an attentive reading suggests that it is the work of a variety of hands. Granted, most of these were, by our standards, incredibly bad, but in many cases they were actually quite good or even excellent.
The printing of this first book has long been attributed to Stephen Daye, though Daye was apparently known to be a locksmith in his hometown of Cambridge. His name does not appear on the title page of any books issued at Cambridge, yet his role as the first printer in the English colonies of America cannot be dismissed. On December 10, 1641, the General Court granted Daye 300 acres of land naming him “the first that set upon printing.” It may be that Daye’s son, Matthew, was the subsequent printer, for it is known that Stephen retired from the press in 1647. And, for the next two years until Matthew’s death in May, 1649, Matthew was the recognized foreman. Throughout the rest of the elder Daye’s life he styled himself as a locksmith.
By our standards of bookmaking, The Bay Psalm Book leaves much to be desired. The layout is rather poor: no space is allowed between the Psalms and sometimes a title appears at the bottom of the page. The press-work is uneven and the printer seems to have been quite unacquainted with proper punctuation. The spelling seems too irregular, even for that period, and the list of errata lists only seven mistakes when the number should probably be closer to ten times that many. Yet, with all of its shortcomings, Haraszti says “the printing was not worse than most provincial printing in England when, after the outbreak of the Civil War, innumerable private presses sprang up everywhere.
It is interesting to note that some two hundred years later a New York publisher, publishing under the name Stephen Daye, Inc., produced a copy of the Book of Psalms (the KJV in blank verse) and opposite the title page of this book he reproduced the title page from The Bay Psalm Book, the first book written and printed in colonial America.
No book in my collection is represented by so many different English versions as is the Book of Psalms. There are literally dozens of different renderings of the Psalms, and while not all my books contain the entire contents of the Book of Psalms, the majority of them do. One copy, without a title page, likely dates in the 1500s, while the one with the earliest publication date is one from the 1600s. It is a publication from England, while the earliest
American publication is one from 1803, followed by The Psalms of David Imitated in the language of the New Testament by Isaac Watts and published in 1808. A great variety of purposes are reflected in these many Psalm renderings, such as chronological arrangements, or a versification “better suited to congregational use in Christian worship,” or a translation from “a better critical Hebrew text,” or a reproduction “in a rhythm consistent with the original Hebrew,” or a translation from Aramaic sources, or those rendered in free paraphrases and modernizations, or those “illustrated in a modern mood,” or, finally, one reproduced in a flowing cursive script handwritten by a moden scribe.
The Bay Psalm Book and the many versions of the Psalms since, demonstrate that so long as there is any capacity for poetry in the human soul, the Book of Psalms will doubtlessly continue to be a favorite in every generation, regardless of culture or era.