The Desert Island Book of the Massachusetts Colony

Back in October, we visited my in-laws in Bath – one of the UK’s most scenic places, true Jane Austen country. We visited a bizarre place my wife had told me about for years, which she regularly visited as a child: the American Museum and Gardens. You can look it up yourself, but it’s an odd prospect: a country house, just outside the city, turned into a museum for all things American. To each their own.

Fittingly, in a second hand book exchange in the museum cafe, I came across a vital piece of American history: a facsimile copy of The Bay Psalm Book. I’ve been preparing for some months to do some teaching on the psalms, so it instantly caught my eye. This little book may be well known to some of my American friends and colleagues, but I knew absolutely nothing about it (and I open myself up now to correction from any of my colleagues who are more learned in this than I am. My knowledge of pre-20th century American history is largely drawn from Hamilton and stuff I’ve learned from The Simpsons – although I’ve found the latter pretty reliable).

The Bay Psalm Book was a metrical translation of the entire psalter, produced by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630. Although many of the clergy joining the Massachusetts Colony were exiles from the Church of England as it took its ceremonialist, Catholic-minded turn under Archbishop Laud, they were not of the same non-Conformist streak as other settlers further south in Plymouth, who’d arrived in 1620.

In the edition I found in that book exchange, Diarmaid MacCulloch describes how and why these colonists came up with their new psalter:

This fresh start of Reformed Protestantism in the New World was in itself an act of cleansing: one of the Bay’s recent historians, Dwight Bozeman, feels that the word ‘primitivist’ best describes its aspirations, going right back to the first generation of the Christian church. Nowhere would this be more true than in psalm-singing, a central component of Massachusetts worship alongside the minister’s sermon and extempore prayer. The old psalm-books of the tainted Church of England would not do, and there was no way that Boston was going to use the psalter used down the coast in Plymouth, created for separatist congregations before they had sailed to America. So within less than a decade, a new enterprise of translation began. The ministers came from a confident English scholarly culture which had just witnessed the best minds of Oxford and Cambridge and the wider Church create a new English Bible by committee, the ‘King James’ version of 1611. Now they would outdo the King James by a much more literal rendering of the 150 psalms, as near as seventeenth-century Englishmen could get to King David’s own performance of his sacred ditties.”

And so, in 1640, the Bay Psalter became the first book printed in North America. In 2013, one of the few remaining copies of it was sold for $14.2 million – a world record for a printed book.

To stop and think about the above is quite remarkable. In effect, the psalter became the desert island book of an entire colony – the book which, being already in possession of Bibles, they decided to print before anything else. Why do it, when they already had the psalms in their Bibles? Well, they wanted psalms they could sing! So they commissioned a new metrical one, and one which strove to be more literal in its translation of the Hebrew than either existing psalters of the King James Version. Now, personally I think it’s better to chant psalms as they’re written rather than force them into a metrical translation – but I cannot fault these colonists in what they were aiming for.

I wrote on this blog recently of the remarkable fact that at times when vernacular Bibles were suppressed in the Middle Ages, the Church authorities still let people keep psalters at home for personal worship. It was assumed even by oppressive medieval inquisitors that the psalms were so vital to everyday piety and worship that it would be foolish and counter-productive to try and remove them. Such a discovery should really put many of us to shame these days in how negligent we are of the psalter.

My discovery of the Bay Psalter similarly shamed me. These early colonists made an utmost priority of creating and printing a psalter they could use in worship. And why wouldn’t they?! The speaking and singing of psalms is commanded in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16! And yet for many of us, both in our personal worship and that of our churches, the psalms go unopened – dipped into sometimes for a couple of inspirational verses, or for a few lines to open a service.

The Bay Psalm Book didn’t especially stand the test of time. Its renderings were popular for a while, but were eventually surpassed by others. But the translation’s quality isn’t the point; the point is how much of a priority it was. In building a new religious world, the colonists couldn’t imagine beginning without the psalms in their mouths as they worshiped. It’s a remarkable fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies like Isaiah 42:10: “Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands and all who live in them.” Across the sea, about as far as one could get on a globe from the land of Israel, the songs of Zion were sung, urgently, in a strange land by Gentile tongues.

Oh that those songs were as urgently put upon our tongues today.


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