Bay Psalm Book, and America's First Printing Press

By Jessica A. Kent
Oct. 18. 2018


If you’ve ever dug into the Puritans in any manner, you’ve come across something called the Bay Psalm Book. It holds the distinction of being the first book printed in America - Colonial America - and has a bit of an interesting story, including being the highest selling book ever at auction.

The story of the Bay Psalm Book begins in England, with a band of Separatists who desired the ability to worship God in the way they wanted to. This band would leave England, and the Church of England, to find temporary residence in Holland before setting sail for the New World. This group, which we now call the Pilgrims (based on Hebrews 11:13, which states "All these died in faith, and received not the promises, but saw them afar off, and believed them, and received them thankfully, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrimson the earth”), wanted to focus on reading and understanding the Bible for themselves, rather than it being interpreted for them by the Church. (This was also part of the intention of the Protestant Reformation.) That meant that many of their elders read Hebrew and Greek, and embraced the responsibility of reading and interpreting the Bible. This philosophy would be key in the inception of the Bay Psalm Book.

In 1638, Jose Glover, a reverend who split from the Church, set sail for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with his wife, children, a locksmith named Stephen Daye, and a printing press (though he wasn’t a printer in England). But he never made it, dying en route to the New World. It was his wife Elizabeth, an inexperienced and somewhat illiterate Stephen Daye, and son Matthew Daye who set the press up accordingly and began printing. According to John Winthrop’s journal entry in 1639, "A printing house was begun at Cambridge by one Daye, at the charge of Mr. Glover, who died on seas hitherward. The first thing which was printed was the freeman's oath; the next was an almanack made for New England by Mr. William Peirce Mariner; the next was the Psalms newly turned into metre.”

As mentioned previously, one of the primary characteristics of the Separatists was the value of being able to read the Bible for themselves, and not have the Church translate it for the people, or tell them what to believe. It was important to understand and know the Scriptures, and the congregational leaders at the time - John Eliot, Thomas Welde, and Richard Mather - were unsatisfied with the psalter they had, which was outdated and badly translated, believing that they could more accurately translate the Psalms from the original Hebrew. So they did, and created what we informally call the Bay Psalm Book, but which bore the original name of  The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre. That a hymnal was printed as the first book in New England is notable. As Casey Cep states in the New Yorker, "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 book was in need of printing, and the only printer in the Colonies at that time - and for another fifty years - was Glover’s printer in Crooked Street, today known as Holyoke Street, in Harvard Square. The initial print run in 1640 was 1700 copies of a 37 page quarto, and was sold exclusively at Hezekiah Usher’s bookstore, the first one in America. The edition was filled with typos and errors - letters backwards, pages printed out of order - which was a testament to the inexperience of the printers. But as the print jobs increased, they grew more experienced; in addition to other material, the second edition of the Bay Psalm Book was printed in 1647, and the third, heavily revised, in 1650. It would go through an astounding 27 editions before the American Revolution. 

Interestingly, Elizabeth Glover would go on to marry Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard, and the press was moved down the street to the grounds of the College, first to Massachusetts Hall, then to the Indian College. Matthew Daye died in 1649, and the printing press functioned until 1692, after printing a number of landmark projects, including the first Bible in a Native American tongue.

There are only 11 copies left in the world of the original Bay Psalm Book, and if you live in Boston, you have a few opportunities to see it: there are copies at the Boston Public Library (owned by the Old South Church) and Harvard’s Houghton Library. You can also find copies at Yale, Brown, at the New York Public Library, and in private hands. The Bay Psalm Book came back into the news in 2013 when the Old South Church in Boston decided to sell one of its two copies in order to fund ministry purposes. David Rubenstein, a private collector, purchased the Bay Psalm Book at Sotheby’s for over $14 million.

The Bay Psalm Book is viewable in its entirety online. The Preface is lengthy, but asks the question “Why sing the psalms?” as reveals the spirituality at the time. The Psalms themselves are lyrical, and rhyme (though the rhyme is a bit forced at times). Take a read through and know that this book was not only the first published in the New World, but was also an act of religious independence and faithfulness from the founding spiritual leaders.

Words Consulted:

Annear, Steve. “Old South Church’s Bay Psalm Book Sold For $14 Million At Auction.” Boston Magazine, 27 Nov. 2013.
Barron, James. “Book Published in 1640 Sets a Record at Auction.” New York Times, 26 Nov. 2013.
The Bay Psalm Book. World Digital Library.
“The Bay Psalm Book of 1640: Where Are They Now?”, 30 Nov. 2012.
“The Bay Psalm Book.”, 2013.
Cep, Casey. “America’s First Book.” New Yorker, 25 Nov. 2013.
Harrer, John A. “The Reverend Jose Glover And The Beginnings Of The Cambridge Press.” Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society Volume 38, 24 May 1960.
Littlefield, George Emery. The Early Massachusetts Press, 1638-1711, Vol. 1. Boston, MA: Club of Odd Volumes, 1907.
—. Early Boston Booksellers 1642-1711. Boston, MA: Club of Odd Volumes, 1900.
Raga, Suzanne. “The Crazy Story Behind the First Book Published in the (Future) United States.” Mental Floss, 4 Sept. 2017.