The Bay Psalm Book: A Hymn to Early American Printing

The Bay Psalm Book: A Hymn to Early American Printing

The Bay Psalm Book: A Hymn to Early American Printing

Posted on 06/05/2024 Evan Swensen
The Bay Psalm Book: A Hymn to Early American Printing

In the realm of bibliophilic treasures, few artifacts capture the imagination quite like The Bay Psalm Book. Printed in 1640, this modest hymnal is the first book made in what would become the United States. Its creation marked a significant milestone in American printing and literary history, laying the foundation for a burgeoning literary culture in the New World.

A Glimpse into Early American Printing

In the early 17th century, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a fledgling settlement striving to establish its identity and culture. Amidst the rugged landscapes and the challenges of colonial life, the Puritans of the colony sought to create a book that would reflect their religious convictions and serve their spiritual needs. The result was The Bay Psalm Book, a translation of the Psalms into English verse, designed to be sung during worship.

The creation of this book was a monumental task undertaken by a group of scholars and ministers. Among them were John Eliot, Richard Mather, and Thomas Weld, who labored to produce a translation that was both faithful to the original Hebrew texts and accessible to the English-speaking congregants. Their efforts culminated in a book that not only fulfilled a spiritual purpose but also showcased the nascent capabilities of American printing.

A Rare and Valuable Artifact

Today, only eleven known copies of The Bay Psalm Book exist, making it one of the rarest books in the world. Its scarcity and historical significance have rendered it a highly coveted artifact among collectors and historians. In fact, one of these copies set a record in 2013 when it was sold at auction for over $14 million, making it the most expensive printed book ever sold.

The survival of these few copies is nothing short of miraculous. Over the centuries, many early printed books were lost to the ravages of time, war, and natural disasters. The eleven extant copies of The Bay Psalm Book are now housed in various libraries and institutions, where they are meticulously preserved and studied.

The Legacy of The Bay Psalm Book

The significance of The Bay Psalm Book extends beyond its rarity and monetary value. It represents the determination and ingenuity of the early colonists, who sought to create a new life in an unfamiliar land. This book is a testament to their resilience and their commitment to preserving their cultural and religious heritage.

For modern readers and writers, The Bay Psalm Book offers a fascinating glimpse into the early days of American literature. It reminds us of the nation’s literary tradition’s humble beginnings and the written word’s enduring power. The story of The Bay Psalm Book is not just about a rare book; it’s about the spirit of exploration and innovation that continues to define American literature today.

Fun Facts About The Bay Psalm Book

The Bay Psalm Book was printed by Stephen Daye, a locksmith by trade who became America’s first printer.

– The book contains 148 Psalms, translated into English meter to be sung during church services.

– Despite its significance, The Bay Psalm Book is not known for its literary quality; the translations were often criticized for their lack of poetic elegance.

In the world of rare books, The Bay Psalm Book stands out for its historical importance and the remarkable story of its creation and survival. It’s a reminder of the rich and diverse history of American literature and a testament to the enduring value of the printed word.


Exploring the history of The Bay Psalm Book offers a unique window into the early days of American printing and the cultural aspirations of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As one of the rarest and most valuable books in existence, it continues to captivate the imagination of bibliophiles and historians alike. Whether one is an avid reader, a writer, or simply a lover of history, the story of The Bay Psalm Book is a delightful and enriching journey into America’s literary past.

So, the next time you open a book, take a moment to appreciate the incredible journey that led to the creation of The Bay Psalm Book, America’s first printed masterpiece.

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