For the flock of Puritans who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, a physical break from the Church of England wasn’t enough. A group of “pious and learned ministers” took it on themselves to translate the Book of Psalms from Hebrew and create a text for New World church services that would be free of what they viewed as the stain of Old World corruption. The result was an American original—The Bay Psalm Book of 1640—a 148-page volume printed on a press operated by the British settler Stephen Daye. Psalms were set to the meter of familiar tunes so the faithful could make a joyful noise, singing, for example, in the 23rd Psalm: “For me a table thou hast spread / in presence of my foes / thou dost anoint my head with oil / my cup it over flows.” The rhyming Puritan ministers were well aware of their limitations as poets, declaring that “the verses are not always so smooth and elegant,” but “God’s altar needs not our polishings.” Seventeen hundred copies of The Bay Psalm Book were printed in its first edition. A rare surviving copy (right) is on display at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.
Originally published in the October 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.