Psalms: First North American Book

Sidebar to: Can Archaeology Help Date the Psalms?

Long ranked among the world’s most famous books, the Bay Psalm Book (originally titled The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre) was the first book printed in North America. Several copies of the first edition still exist.

When about 30 Puritan ministers—among them Richard Mather, John Eliot and Thomas Weld(e)—began translating the Psalms in 1636, their intentions were “Conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry.” They wanted the Psalms to reflect the original Hebrew Biblical texts more closely than the King James Version did because they believed salvation depended on it. And they wanted the Psalms to be sung easily at prayer meetings. For example, Psalm 23 begins: “The Lord to mee a shepheard is, want therefore shall not I, Hee in the folds of tender-grass, doth cause mee downe to lie.”

The first edition of the Bay Psalm Book totaled 1,700 copies printed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Cambridge, New England in 1640 by the Stephen Day(e) Press. The design of the book showed neither the sophistication nor skill of books published by trained English craftsmen of the day.1—B.M.

Endnotes:
  1. George Parker Winship, The Cambridge Press, 1638–1692: A Reexamination of the Evidence Concerning the Bay Psalm Book and the Eliot Indian Bible (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1968).
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