Friday, December 7, 2012

Hymns in the News

There are probably some book collectors and private institutions which are in gleeful anticipation this week at the news that one of only eleven surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book (1640) will be going on the market.  The Old South Church in Boston, a congregation of the United Church of Christ, voted on Sunday to sell one of the two copies that they own.  The Bay Psalm Book was the first title to be printed in the American colonies, and this copy is expected to bring more than ten million dollars at auction.

The Bay Psalm Book is a collection of psalm paraphrases, rhyming metrical adaptations of the Psalms to be sung in worship.  A group of thirty ministers from among the settlers wanted to produce a new version that was a closer translation from the original Hebrew than the Henry Ainsworth psalter (1612) that they had brought from England.  Perhaps anticipating the conflict that sometimes arises from changing something familiar in congregational worship, the authors in the original introduction to the book conclude:

If therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as sone may desire or expect, let them consider that God's Altar needs not our polishings, for we have respected rather a plaine translation, then to smooth our verses with the sweetness of any paraphrase, and so have attended Conscience rather than Elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into English language, and David's poetry into English meetre, that so we may sing in Sion the Lord's songs of prayer according to his own will, until he take us from hence, and wipe away all our teares; bid us enter into our Masters's joye to sing eternall Halleluiahs.

Today most churches do not differentiate between psalm paraphrases and hymns, but it was an important distinction for the Pilgrim worshippers of the seventeenth century, who believed that singing the Psalms in this fashion was more a legitimate form of praise to God than the singing of hymns, which were not considered to be the products of divine inspiration.  I recently taught a brief adult education class at my own church on the history of the Episcopal hymnal, and I mentioned the Bay Psalm Book as part of the prior history of congregational singing among English-speaking people, so it was interesting to see this story in the news so soon after.

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