Let Bidding Begin for the Bay Psalm Book From 1640

By JAMES BARRON
Published: November 15, 2013

David N. Redden recited the opening of the 23rd Psalm the way he had memorized it as a child: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”

Then he opened a weathered little book and read the version it contained: “The Lord to mee a ∫hepheard is, want therefore ∫hall not I. Hee in the fold∫ of tender-gra∫∫e, doth cau∫e mee downe to lie.”

Those lines were in a volume published in Massachusetts in 1640 that amounted to the Puritans’ religious and cultural manifesto. It was the first book printed in the colonies, and the first book printed in English in the New World. The locksmith who ran the hand-operated press turned out roughly 1,700 copies. The one in Mr. Redden’s hands is one of only 11 known to exist.

Mr. Redden, who is the chairman of Sotheby’s books department and has auctioned copies of Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence, among other historic and valuable documents, will sell that copy on Nov. 26. Sotheby’s expects it to go for $15 million to $30 million, which would make it the most expensive book ever sold at auction — more expensive than a copy of John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” that sold in December 2010 for $11.54 million (equivalent to $12.39 million in 2013 dollars), the current record. That beat the $7.5 million ($10.77 million today) paid for a copy of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” at Christie’s in London in 1998, and the $6.16 million ($8.14 million today) paid for Shakespeare’s First Folio at Christie’s in New York in 2001.

But the Bay Psalm Book, as it is known, has a special place in bibliophiles’ hearts, so much so that Michael Inman, the curator of rare books at the New York Public Library, said the auction was “likely” to set a record, even though the Bay Psalm Book was “not a particularly attractive book” and was “rather shoddily done.” (The library owns one of the other 10 copies.)

“It’s what that book symbolizes,” Mr. Inman said. “These 11 copies symbolize the introduction of printing into the British colonies, which was reflective of the importance placed on reading and education by the Puritans and the concept of freely available information, freedom of expression, freedom of the press. All that fed into the revolutionary impulse that gave rise to the United States.”

In its way, experts say, the Bay Psalm Book laid the groundwork for famous texts of the Revolution like Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” It followed the first Gutenberg Bibles by more than a century and a half, and it was plagued by spelling problems. The word “psalm,” which is supposed to appear in capital letters at the top of each page, is spelled that way on the left-hand pages, but on the right-hand pages and on the title page, there is an “e” on the end:

“The WHOLE Booke of Psalmes Faithfully TRANSLATED into ENGLISH Metre.”

The volume also has a subtitle, as important to a religious book in the 17th century as to a 21st-century best-seller: “Whereunto is prefixed a di∫cour∫e declaring not only the lawfullne∫∫, but al∫o the nece∫∫ity of the heavenly Ordinance of ∫inging ∫cripture P∫alme∫ in the Churche∫ of God.”

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Jeff D. Makholm resigned as historian of the Old South Church in Boston when it decided to sell a copy of the Bay Psalm Book. Sotheby’s is holding an auction on Nov. 26.

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