America’s First Hymnal

America’s first hymnal (known as a psalter), the “Whole Booke of Psalmes”, was taken to the North American continent with Protestant exiles, who sought their religious freedom in the New Land, during the reign of Mary Tudor who was infamously known as Bloody Mary. Click on this page sample to view a copy of this psalter:

wholebookeofpsalmes

Recently a subsequent edition of this book of psalms, the “Bay Psalm Book” –regarded as the oldest printed book in America, was auctioned off and sold to David Rubenstein, a businessman and philanthropist, for the sum of  $14,165,000. He promised to loan it to libraries across the country. It was printed on “the Puritan minister Joseph Glover’s press, the first such device to make the journey across the Atlantic. Although Glover died during the 1638 crossing, his widow, Elizabeth, inherited the press and saw to its installation. She established America’s first print shop in a little house on what is now Holyoke Street in Cambridge.

While Stephen Day is generally credited with printing America’s first book, he was only the operator and overseer of Elizabeth Glover’s press. The press was nothing remarkable, and the crude materials and nascent talents of its operators are reflected in the blurred type and typographical inconsistencies in its surviving books, of which the Bay Psalm Book is no exception. Take, for instance, that most essential of words: ‘PSALM,’ which appears that way on the left-hand pages but is spelled ‘PSALME’ on the right-hand pages.

The colonists brought many Psalters with them to the New World, but they quickly found those printings lacking. The hundred and fifty Psalms were divided among ‘thirty pious and learned Ministers’ who labored to produce a verse translation that would be more faithful to the original Hebrew. Their efforts yielded the 1640 version that would become the Bay Psalm Book, which was then revised and reprinted nine times in the seventeenth century alone. The preface to the first edition, the one to be auctioned, states apologetically,

If therefore the verses are not alwayes so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that Gods Altar needs not our pollishings: Ex. 20. for wee have respected rather a plaine translation, then to smooth our verses with the sweetnes of any paraphrase, and soe have attended Conscience rather then Elegance, fidelity rather then poetry in translating the hebrew words into english language, and Davids poetry into english meetre.

There already one sees the peculiar poetry of erratic spellings and capitalizations that makes the Bay Psalm Book so charming, so authentically early Americana.

Not surprisingly, as it prepared for today’s auction, Sotheby’s has displayed the book with its pages opened to the Twenty-third Psalm. Look to those familiar verses and you can see just how strange the translation is, even relative to the King James Version, which had been completed just thirty years earlier, in 1611:

The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
want therefore shall not I,
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse,
doth cause mee downe to lie:
To waters calme me gently leads

To my ear, the shepherd is still caring and careful, but those ‘folds of tender-grasse’? Just down the street from where the Bay Psalm Book was printed is Harvard Yard, itself once a pasture for sheep and cattle. ‘Green pastures’ might well have been most familiar, but the Bay Psalm Book translator’s desire for accuracy is confirmed by the contemporary translation by Robert Alter, himself fiercely dedicated to rescuing the original Hebrew: he chose ‘grass meadows.’

One can scrutinize every verse of the Bay Psalm Book online. The text rewards such study, but it does not explain why the first book printed in America was a Psalter. Psalters are an unfamiliar genre for many, even those who worship regularly. Psalm-singing had for centuries been the demesne of a hand-picked choir, but the English Reformation invited the voices of the entire congregation. This printing of the Psalms in verse, set to meter, allowed them to be sung by all. Thus the Bay Psalm Book is a kind of hymnal.

Denominations still print original hymnals today, and every new printing marks time and documents tastes. Earlier this year, I interviewed a church organist who was retiring after more than sixty years of service. She did not measure those years in calendrical or liturgical terms, in Christmases, Easters, or even pastors, but hymnals. ‘I’ve played five different hymnals,’ she told me. After she said it, I calculated that my entire life was only three hymnals.

America’s history spans just a few centuries, but hundreds of hymnals. Colonists came seeking religious freedom, so the first book they printed was not a political tract or even a Bible, but a hymnal: a book to be used regularly in communal and even private worship. The intended use of the Bay Psalm Book tells us why it was America’s first book.” (America’s First Book – The New Yorker, Nov. 26, 2013)

On July 26, 2014, the Washington Music Festival will host its first Hymn Sing with organ prodigy, Gert van Hoef, and the editor of Majesty Hymns, Dr. Frank Garlock, leading the singing. Perhaps philanthropist, David Rubenstein, would be willing to lend the Bay Psalm Book for display at the event as well!

Bay Psalm Book Video Clip

Resources:

America’s First Book

America’s Hesitation Over Hymns

Early American Hymnody to 1835

Singing (and Translating) the Psalms

The Whole Booke of Psalmes

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