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
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
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
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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an index to selections from the Bay Psalm Book
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