Bay Psalm Book Sale: Old South Church Considers Selling First Book Published In North America (VIDEO)

Dec 01, 2012 | Updated Dec 01, 2012

A Massachusetts church is considering selling its first edition copy of the first book published in North America, but the debate over the rare book's sale has reportedly divided the historic church's congregation.

According to the Associated Press, the congregation of Old South Church in Copley Square in Boston will be taking a vote on Sunday to decide whether or not the church should sell one of its two copies of the Bay Psalm Book and other historic assets to pay for the church building's upkeep and other expenses.

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bay psalm book sale
Title page of the first edition of the Bay Psalm Book (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)

As the Boston Globe notes, the Bay Psalm Book was first printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Mass. The Psalter was a translation of the Book of Psalms by a group of well-known Puritan ministers. It was reportedly a very popular book in its time and was used by congregations across the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Old South Church, founded by Puritans in 1669, is itself a historic landmark (Benjamin Franklin is said to have been baptized there); the church is said to own two of the eleven copies that are known to still exist of the first edition of the Psalter.

Other copies are owned by the Library of Congress, Yale University, Harvard University and the American Antiquarian Society, among others.

David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby’s, which evaluated the book for the church, said the rare book could bring in up to $25 million if sold, AP reports.

“It’s the most famous unknown book in the world,” Redden said, adding that the book is not only rare (and rarely put on the market), but that it also holds a powerful symbolic significance.

Since "books and printing are marks of civilization," he told the AP, “so the ability to create a book in the New World, was in a sense symbolical of our ability to create a new world here.”

Other than the Bay Psalm Book, the church is also thinking of selling its valuable collection of Colonial-era silver.

Nancy Taylor, the senior minister at Old South, told Boston's NPR news station WBUR that the money that could be earned from auctioning off some of the church's historic artifacts would be very beneficial to the church -- as the money could go towards the building's maintenance as well as its outreach programs.

“We can project forward and see where we have some real problems,” Taylor said, noting that the church is facing costly building repairs. “We are trying to head that off now. We want to be and remain one of the strongest, [most vital] progressive Christian churches in Boston."

WBUR writes:

Old South’s mission includes supporting more than 25 Boston nonprofits and keeping the church free and open to the public seven days a week. The list of needed repairs includes upgrading the heating system, adding central air conditioning to parts of the church, and installing a fire suppression system.

“We know what we need for a sustainable future,” Taylor told the Globe. “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.”

However, while the church's lay leadership, including its board of trustees, is said to have "mostly endorsed the idea," other members of the church have been vehemently opposed to the sale.

“These are elements of our Puritan and Colonial past that help to define what we are as a congregational church,” Jeff Makholm, Old South’s church historian, told CBS News. “The idea that you would sell those items of our heritage and break faith with those who gave them to us is disturbing to many members of the congregation."

“Those are obviously longstanding gifts that are important to the church,” Davis Yetman, whose grandfather is said to have begun attending Old South shortly after the First World War, told the Globe. “I don’t think any previous generation has ever said, ‘We’re so poor we have to sell this.’ And the church has gone through a lot of times harder than this.”

Clearly, writes CBS News, it will not be an "easy decision" when Old South's congregation comes out to vote on the proposal on Sunday. A two-thirds majority is reporteldy needed to authorize the sale.

A church rep told The Huffington Post over the phone on Saturday that members of the public will be welcome to observe the vote.

As the Boston Globe notes, this is not the first time in recent years that a historic church has turned to auctions to boost its coffers:

A number of historic mainline churches have sold off communion silver and other assets in recent years to help their small congregations maintain aging buildings. Earlier this year, First Parish Church in Dorchester sold its silver collection for just over $1.7 million to help pay for a major restoration.

What do you think of this impending vote? Tell us in the comments below.

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