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:


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


America’s First Book

America’s Hesitation Over Hymns

Early American Hymnody to 1835

Singing (and Translating) the Psalms

The Whole Booke of Psalmes

Fire and a cantata

The Muhlhausen Fire of 1707
In May 1707 a fire ravaged the town of Mühlhausen, where a young twenty-two year old Johann Sebastian Bach was employed as the organist at the Lutheran church of St. Blasius. Fires, as you might imagine, were devastating to the inhabitants of a city. Fortunes and families alike were often wiped out (we don’t know to what extent Bach was personally affected). The Mühlhausen fire seems to have destroyed nearly a quarter of the town. A pastor in the town approached Bach and asked him to compose a cantata based on Psalm 130. Perhaps this pastor sensed that the fire was the result of the Lord’s judgment for the sin of the town. Bach notes on the score that the work was composed for an event of mourning–perhaps some kind of ‘memorial concert.’

Bach used sparse instrumentation for this work: one violin, two violas, a bass instrument, oboe, bassoon, with the choir and soloists. The cantata (interlinear German/English text here) begins with the first two verses of Psalm 130. The words “Out of the depths I cry, Lord, to you (Aus der Tiefe ruf’ ich, Herr, zu dir).” The voicing is intentionally low to represent the “depths.” In the “ruf”/”cry”, one clearly hears the dissonance and the word is lengthened. The quicker rendition of the second line may intend to show a glimmer of hope: “Lord, O hear my calling, incline your ear unto my voice and hear my prayers (Herr, höre meine Stimme, lass deine Ohren merken auf die Stimme meines Flehens).”

Tragedy can inspire. Bach knew personal tragedy like few of us, yet he seemed to always grow stronger in his faith. Many of his cantatas were composed out of a right response to tragedy and sorrow.

Bach composed several hundred cantatas over his lifetime, of which only 209 have been preserved or discovered.

Source: Psalm 130 in the Hands of a Young Johann Sebastian

Psalm 130

Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice: let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in His word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning. Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.

Bach and his Bible

Bach’s notes in his Bible

It’s an incredible story! Hear about the discovery of Bach’s own Bible in a Michigan farm house and how it was protected from Hitler and the Nazis. What did Johann Sebastian Bach write in his own Bible? Discover more of his personal faith that is expressed over and over in his music. Take a few minutes and listen to Dr. Thomas Rossin as he tells the story.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Bible was a “Calov Bible”, which is a three-volume 17th-century Bible that contains German translations and commentary by Martin Luther and additional commentary by Wittenberg theology professor Abraham Calovius. [1]

The three-volume “Calov Bible commentary is a vital source for understanding Bach’s approach to Scripture. Each volume contains Bach’s handwritten monogram. Bach underlined many passages, in both red and black ink and, most importantly, wrote his own comments in the margins. These markings give us a glimpse into Bach’s personal beliefs and how he understood his vocation.” [2]

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Bible
Bach’s signature in his Bible

Thomas Rossin, a Minnesota conductor who did his dissertation on the volumes that feature Bach’s signature and the date 1733–which could be the year the musician acquired the Bible commentary–said they verify that Bach’s interest in church music was more than just a function of his job as an organist and choir director in Germany. “Finally we have proof in his own hand, not meant for anyone else to see, saying things like, ‘This chapter is the true foundation of all God-pleasing church music,'” Rossin said. [3]

The Bible is now residing, permanently, at Concordia Lutheran Seminary in St. Louis MO. It is possible to make an appointment to see a portion of it, pending on the availability of the librarian.

Gottes wort bleibt in Ewigkeit: “God’s Word stands Forever!”


1. Calov Bible (Wikipedia)

2. Bach & the Bible (Christianity Today)

3. Bach’s faith resonates in his Bible notations (Baptist Standard)