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All Things Considered

Dec 04, 2012 BY Eyder Peralta

The First Book Printed In British North America And A Church's Decision To Sell It

Jeff Makholm holds the Bay Psalm Book.
Jeff Makholm holds the Bay Psalm Book.

This past Sunday, the Old South Church in Boston made a decision that cuts to the heart of not only the congregation's history, but to the very beginning of this country's founding.

With an overwhelming 271 to 34 vote, the church decided to give its board the power to sell one copy of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book ever printed in British North America.

Only 11 of the original 1,600 copies of the book printed in Cambridge in 1640 remain. And of those, the church owns two.

"We will take this wonderful old hymn book, from which our ancestors literally sang their praises to God, and convert it into doing God's ministry in the world today," Senior Minister Nancy S. Taylor said in a press release.

All Things Considered's Melissa Block spoke to Jeff Makholm, the church's historian and one of those vehemently opposed to the sale.

Makholm said Puritans snuck in a press from Britain and paper from France "and they made a few hundred new translations of the psalms that could be sung to songs that congregants knew."

The book has belonged to the church since 1758.

"It was there when the British troops used the meeting house as a riding stable during the revolution, it was there George Washington came to the meeting house," Makholm said. The church handed it over to the City of Boston for safe keeping in 1866.

Makholm admitted that the vote was an important and beautiful display of democracy, but he also flashed a bit of disappointment, saying the sale the items was "fiscally irresponsible" for a church whose endowment is about 10 times what it spends on any given year.

NPR member station WBUR spoke to some members of the congregation who thought the items should be used to help keep the church open seven days a week, as well as help in making repairs to the heating and cooling systems.

"We are about being a church, not about holding on to things that are in a vault somewhere," Emily Click told WBUR.

Her husband agreed.

"We're not a museum, we're not a library. We're a church and we need to keep this building open and keep it up to date and make it safe," Rodney Click said.

Makholm, however, said the books meant a lot to his fore-bearers and he wants the church to keep them for his successors.

The psalm books and the silver, he said, "are unique representations of those who joined and formed and became members of our church from 1669 all the way up to 1984 when our last piece of silver was given."

What's more, he said, when the book finally hits the auction block, where it is expected to fetch anywhere from $10 million to $20 million, it'll be a sad day for the history of the city.

"It'll be a really sad day for Boston, because this book has never been outside of walking distance from the place that it was published in 1640 ... before Boston even had a brick at all," he said. "The idea that that piece of Puritan history will leave the commonwealth for parts unknown, I think that will be a very sad day for Boston."

Much more of Melissa's interview with Makholm is on tonight's All Things Considered. Click here for a local NPR member station that carries the program. We'll post the as-aired interview on this post later on tonight.

Correction at 11:29 a.m. ET. First Printed Book In North America:

An earlier version of this post said the Bay Psalm Book was the first book printed in North America; that should be British North America, because an Italian printer Giovanni Paoli printed a catechism in Vera Cruz in 1539, according to The Early Printers of Spain and Portugal.

Two-Way reader Peter Tafuri adds: "The book was 'Breve y Mas Compendiosa Doctrina Cristiana' (Short and Most Compendious Christian Doctrine). He was also the first to publish books in the colonies in Native American languages."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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