America’s First Book: The Bay Psalm Book

Updated on August 23, 2019
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

The Bay Psalm Book


Richard Mather


Introduction: America's First Book, a Hymnal

The first book to be published in the United States of America appeared while the country was still in its original Thirteen Colonies stage of development; that book's full title was The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, which became widely shortened to simply The Bay Psalm Book.

Interestingly, the first printing press was specifically purchased and imported from England for the purpose of printing this book in the Colonies. That makes this publication a very important part of American poetic history.

Another astounding fact is that it was published a mere twenty years after the first colonists arrived on the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Since its publication in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640, The Bay Psalm Book has been utilized widely, not only in the Colonies but also in England and Scotland.

A Committee of Clergymen

A committee of approximately thirty clergymen, including Richard Mather, John Eliot, and Thomas Weld, refashioned the psalms into crude verse forms, and the Preface was written possibly by Richard Mather; although some history scholars attribute it to John Cotton.

The first edition did not contain musical annotations; those were later added in the ninth edition in 1968. Only 1700 copies of the first edition were printed, and only 10 copies from that first printing are extant. Remarkably, the book has never been out of print.

As previously mentioned, The Bay Psalm Book has gone through several editions and has continued to be used since its publication in 1640. The second edition appeared in 1647, and the third edition put out in 1651 was revised heavily by Henry Dunster and Richard Lyon.

Ninth Edition First to Feature Musical Notation

The ninth edition appearing in 1698 was the first to contain music, featuring the musical notation from John Playford's A Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musik, which had been first brought out in London in 1654.

Here is a brief sample of the verse that the clergymen made of Psalm 23, taken from Three Centuries of American Poetry by Allen Mandelbaum and Robert D. Richardson, Jr.:

The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
want therefore shall not I.
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse,
doth cause mee downe to lie:
To waters calme me gently leads
Restore my soule doth hee:
he doth in paths of righteousnes:
for his names sake leade mee.

Useful Song Not Elegant Poetry

As Richard Mather (or perhaps John Cotton) states in the Preface to the hymnal, the purpose for refashioning the biblical verse was not to bring about graceful poetry but to render the psalms in song.

The awkwardness of these renderings and the supply of rimes demonstrate that the writers were clearly more interested in utility than style.

Some of the language may seem odd to the modern reader’s ear and eye, but readers must remember that the spelling used in early America differs somewhat from our spelling today: for example, the addition of an extra “–e” at the end of some words, such as “hee,” “grasse,” “leade,” and mee.”

And quite obviously the word order chosen by the clergymen served to assist in creating the rime schemes. No doubt, they believed that the rime would facilitate their parishioners in remembering the psalms.

Music, Poetry, and Worship

Music and poetry have long been associated with worship, and the founding fathers intuited early on that the addition of worshipful singing was a necessary part of church service.

They despaired of writing original pieces, worrying that the phrasing and sentiment might be tainted when left to the creative minds of mere mortals.

Thus it was that they decided that all they needed was to convert the psalms of David into verse to maintain the elevated sacred stature of the poetry. So that is what they did, and in doing thus, they created the first hymnal.

Introduction to The Bay Psalm Book

Musical Rendering of Psalm 98

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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