The Bay Psalm Book:

The Whole Booke of Psalmes
Faithfully Translated into English Meter.

Whereunto is prefixed a discourse declaring
not only the lawfullness, but also the necessity
of the heavenly ordinance of singing Scripture psalmes
in the churches of God.

Cambridge, Mass. Stephen Day
Imprinted 1640

The Bay Psalm Book is a very important piece of history. It was both the first book printed in the Colonies and it was also the first book entirely written in the Colonies. When one considers the difficulties of mere existence during this time, a mere 20 years after the first arrivals in Plymouth in 1620, the magnitude of the effort and accomplishment is even more impressive. The first printing press in New England was purchased and imported specifically to print this book.

The translations were prepared by a committee of approximately thirty clergymen, including Richard Mather, John Eliot, and Thomas Weld. The preface is generally attributed to Mather, but some scholars believe it was written by John Cotton.  For example, Zoltán Haraszti, in "The Enigma of the Bay Psalm Book" makes a very strong case for Cotton's authorship, based on the style of the writing, comparisons of the draft of the Bay Psalm Book preface with a longer essay on the same subject by Cotton, and finally an analysis of the handwriting in a draft copy of the preface that exists in the Boston Public Library with other known samples of Cotton's handwriting.

No tunes were printed with the earliest editions, but there were instructions that indicated appropriate tunes which could be found in Ravenscroft's psalter. Later editions did include music.

The book went through several editions and was in use for well over 100 years. The third edition (1651) was extensively revised by Henry Dunster and Richard Lyon. The ninth edition (1698), the first to contain music, included tunes from John Playford's "A Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musik" (London, 1654).

The poetry of the versifications in the first edition is often crude and awkward, but consider that the writers considered faithfulness to the scriptures to be more important than poetic elegance.

"we have therefore done our endeavor to make a plain and familiar translation of the psalms and words of David into English metre, and have not so much as presumed to paraphrase to give the sense of his meaning in other words; we have therefore attended herein as our chief guide the original, shunning all additions, except such as even the best translators of them in prose supply, avoiding all material detractions from words or sense."   From the introduction.

In spite of the sometimes crude poetry, the Bay Psalm Book achieved considerable recognition in its time, a recognition that went well outside of New England, and even the Colonies. Copies reached both England and Scotland and saw some use there.
        Apparently the writers of the Scottish Psalter of 1650 knew the Bay Psalm Book. Millar Patrick mentioned the work of a Dr. W.P. Rorison, who "with incredible patience and particularity, carried out a detailed comparison of the 1650 version with ten others, in order to trace every line, so far as might be possible, to its source."**  According to Dr. Rorison, some 269 lines of the 1650 Scottish Psalter came from the Bay Psalm Book.
        The Bay Psalm Book was extensively revised, with an eye to improving the poetry, in 1651. The revised version became known as "The New England Psalm Book."  The New England Psalm Book received wide acceptance in both the Colonies (at least 25 editions) and abroad in England (seventeen editions)  and Scotland (nine editions). We are keeping our eyes open for an opportunity to obtain a copy of this edited edition, but so far the only one we have located costs $2500.00, which is far beyond our budget.

We have obtained a copy of a reproduction of the original 1640 edition and will be providing samples from this historic Psalter here, as time allows. The reproduction was made by photocopying from several surviving samples of the original and then creating offset plates from the photos. It is quite difficult to read due to the poor quality of the original printing and the blackletter typeface (the kind where the "s" looks more like an "f".)

Most of our transcriptions of the Bay Psalm Book will use modernized American English, since our main purpose is the pragmatic one of wanting to encourage and aid the actual singing of the Psalms. In a few cases we will also provide a version that retains the 1640 spelling to give a flavor of how they looked in the original.

** Patrick, Millar DD; "Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody"; Oxford University Press, 1949

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Page last modified on: 07/29/2004