(RNS) Three hundred and seventy-three years ago, when the chief Puritan “divines” of the young Massachusetts Bay Colony printed their own translation of the Bible’s Book of Psalms, they prided themselves on importing the continent’s very first English printing press and establishing the colony as a cultural and educational center.
What they were certainly not anticipating — the little books sold for 20 pence apiece — was that next Tuesday (Nov. 26), Sotheby’s will be auctioning off one of the 11 surviving copies of the Bay Psalter for between $10 and $30 million dollars. In that expected price range, it will be the most expensive book ever sold in public.
A Puritan might read this extraordinary markup as an example of God’s unknowable Providence. An economist might cite the laws of supply and demand. Either way, the blockbuster sale of “The Whole Book of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Meter” caps a fascinating seesaw act of American theology and marketplace. And depending on who wins the auction, it may say a bit more.
The book, on display at Sotheby’s Manhattan headquarters, opened to Psalm 23, is physically unimposing. About 7 inches high and 4 inches wide, it is largely undecorated. The printer, a trained locksmith who arrived with the press, had his idiosyncrasies, including spelling “psalm” two different ways. The translators, among them Puritan luminaries John Cotton, Richard Mather and John Eliot, admitted to heeding “fidelity rather than poetry”: They produced some clunky verse. The initial run of 1,700 seems in retrospect optimistic, considering that the Bay Colony had just 3,500 families. But the hymnbook was a success, and would eventually become better known for its scarcity than overproduction.
Most churches undoubtedly wore through their copies. Some books probably languished a while as relics of a vanished age: hymns eventually replaced sung psalms, even in most Reformed congregations. By the 1800s, only 11 known copies remained.
At which point America’s bibliophiles realized they had nearly lost their foundational document.
The Bay Psalm Book “is for American book collecting what the Guttenberg Bible has been for collecting [wordlwide],” said Bill Reese, a major dealer in printed Americana. “Except there are 46 copies of the Guttenberg.”
In 1879, a BPB set an American auction record — $1,200. In 1947, another copy became the world’s most expensive printed book, at $151,000. As the remaining Bay Psalters were gradually sold or given to institutions such as Harvard, Yale and the Library of Congress, unlikely ever to release them, the “supply” for would-be owners seemed to shrink to one book. Old South Church in Boston owned two copies. Surely they could part with one?
“A lot of people have knocked on Old South’s door, myself included,” said Reese.
All left empty-handed.
Until this year.
Re-enter religion. Like many old New England churches, Old South — once fiercely focused on the Bible as a blueprint not just for individual salvation and behavior but for government — mellowed over the years, joining mainline Protestantism’s 20th – century shift toward ministry to the poor and socially marginal.
Today, Old South is affiliated with the liberal United Church of Christ. When the Rev. Nancy Taylor became its first female minister, and also its CEO in 2005, she worried not just about the church’s own finances but the sustainability of 30 grant programs that she said serve “some of the most vulnerable people in the Boston area.” After debate, some bitter, the congregation agreed to part with the less pristine of its two psalm books so it can better serve the needy.
And suddenly that second-best copy, squirreled away for safekeeping for more than 150 years in the Boston Public Library, became a frequent flyer, winging its way across the country to show itself to the public and potential buyers. Although there is a list of “usual suspects” who bid on such mega-items and donate them to big-name institutions, Sotheby’s worldwide chairman of books and manuscripts, David Redden, believes in enticing “someone who had never dreamed of owning such a thing, but whose imagination became inflamed.”
So over the last few months, the BPB flew first class, complete with in-flight security guard, to eight cities, including places such as Cleveland and Houston where, Redden said, “the book has never been. And people really cared.”
Some were enthralled by its printing history. A teacher of the history of religion at an Episcopal school brought his class. A family brought its own four-part a cappella psalm arrangements and a gospel singer attempted a few bars of the book’s Psalm 23 to the tune of “Amazing Grace.” (“The Lord to mee a shepheard is; Want therefore shall not I . . . ”).
Redden thinks that this religious contingent may produce his big buyer. “If you look at the Forbes 400 list” of the nation’s richest individuals, he hinted, “you will find an interesting and significant group of people with very strong religious convictions.”
One family jumps to many collectors’ minds — the Greens. David Green of Oklahoma City, listed by Forbes as having made $5 billion from his Hobby Lobby craft-equipment chain, is the only one of six siblings who did not grow up to be a pastor or pastor’s wife, and describes his company as a Christian business. The Green family is best known for its legal challenge against the Affordable Care Act, claiming it forces the company to provide employees with free contraceptive services that it objects to on religious grounds.
Steve Green, David’s son and Hobby Lobby’s president, is a major buyer of high-end religious artifacts, in anticipation of a biblical museum scheduled to go up two blocks from the Washington Mall in 2017. None of the bidders for the Bay Psalm Book has identified him or herself in advance. Nevertheless, says Reese, the Greens “are robustly on the top of everyone’s list of usual suspects.”
Their participation would add a fascinating twist to the Bay Psalm story. Most contemporary evangelicals are theologically distant from the Massachusetts Bay Puritans. But in their exaltation of Scripture, they resemble the old “divines” more than, say, the current leadership at Old South.
If the Bay Psalm Book ends up with the Greens or likeminded Christians next Tuesday, it may be said, after a fashion, to have come home.
YS/LEM END VAN BIEMA