American icon: A rare book from the nation's past goes to auction

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In the beginning was the Word, or so says the New Testament. And in the beginning, the first book printed in America was one dedicated to God, although it was not the whole Bible. It was The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, known today as The Bay Psalm Book.

How appropriate that in a nation where religious freedom became a founding principle the first book should be religious in nature. Printed in 1640 in the wilds of Massachusetts by Congregationalist Puritans who had fled religious persecution in the Old World, it was the rod and staff of their faith in their New Jerusalem.

Nor did they simply copy the books they had brought from England and print them. They put their own proto-American touch on this book of psalms, using their own translation and employing their own poetic meter.

Some 1,700 copies of The Bay Psalm Book were printed in that first edition. Only 11 survive, and only six have their title pages. Now one of the better-preserved copies is going up for auction -- in a way that is also uniquely American.

The owner is the Old South Church in Boston, which since 1669 has played its own significant role in the nation's religious history. The congregation, which owns two of the rare books, is in its third home, a church completed in 1875 that has a leaky roof and other problems requiring repair. Wanting to fix the building and carry on a broad humanitarian mission, the congregation last year decided to sell one of its books and put the money to good use -- all of which sits strongly in the tradition of American practicality and benevolence.

It will be the first sale of The Bay Psalm Book since 1947 when Yale University bought one for the then-record price of $151,000. After a nationwide tour that will put the book on limited public display (it had one day of exposure -- Wednesday -- at the Cleveland Public Library), the auction will be conducted by Sotheby's in New York City on Nov. 26.

God bless America and God bless the institution or private collector who preserves this rarest of American icons from the nation's beginning.



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