The more accurate news stories describe the Bay Psalm Book as the first book printed in English in the new world. Until quite recently American scholars unaware that a printing press was operating in Mexico City well before the Bay Colony was founded called it the first book printed in the new world. But “first printed book” misses the point.
The Bay Psalm Book was America’s founding text. No new nation was ever created as deliberately or as fast as the nation established between 1630 and 1640 by a wave of settlers who self-consciously established a new England with a distinctive and highly developed intellectual purpose, carried out by a public school system, a national university (Harvard), church, representative government, army and printing press. The printing press, and the first book it produced, matter because they were emblematic of the break the settlers were making with English culture, even with English Puritan culture. Books produced in England would not suffice for the “folk” or “people”, (“synonyms we use indifferently“,) of this people of this new England. They needed books that reflected the new and distinctive culture they were creating.
England prayed from the pages of the Book of Common Prayer, as almost all of the settlers had done before sailing to New England. England sang from the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, dating to the 1550s. Like the Bay Psalm Book, the Sternhold and Hopkins was a metrical psalter, a rendition of the psalms into contemporary, vernacular poetry. A good metrical psalm rhymes and had regular meter, making it easy to memorize and to sing. There were many translations of the psalms into English, and several metrical psalters, but the Sternhold and Hopkins was dominant, retaining its popularity in English homes and churches for two centuries.
New England, however, required a metrical psalter of its own, not least because part of the goal of founding a new England was to reject the liturgy of the Church of England and replace it with a more godly form of church service. New England rejected the set liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, instead making the sermon and the psalms central to the New England church services. But the psalms were not confined to church; in America as in Protestant Europe, psalms were sung while doing the wash and while making hay, they were sung in New Amsterdam and in Old Virginia. Among Puritans in old and new England for a time they largely displaced hymns, ballads, work songs and drinking songs, and instead of other types of fold song, becoming the work, play and party songs of an era; gathering to sing psalms was a Purtian version of a singles mixer. Within this Puritan world, New England was unique because of a felt need to separate from English Puritanism and emphasize its own, distinctive ideology by producing a new translation of the psalms into metrical, singable, but theologically sound form. The theologians charged with the translation explained thei motivation in the preface, (rendered here in modern spelling):
“Although we have cause to bless God in many respects for the religious endeavours of the translators of the psalms into metre usually annexed to our Bibles, yet it is not unknown to the godly learned that they have rather presented a paraphrase than the words of David translated according to the rule 2 Chron. 29:30. and that their addition to the words, detractions from the words are not seldom and rare, but very frequent and many times needless, (which we suppose would not be approved of if the Psalms were so translated into prose) and that their variations of the sense, and alterations to the sacred text too frequently, may justly minister matter of offense to them that are able to compare the translation with the text; of which failings, some judicious have often complained, others have been grieved, whereupon it has been generally desired, that as we do enjoy other, so (if it were the Lord’s will) we might enjoy this ordinance also in its native purity: we have therefore done our endeavour to make a plain and familiar translation of the psalms and words of David into English metre, and have not so much as presumed to paraphrase to give the sense of his meaning in other words; we have therefore attended herein as our chief guide the original, shunning all additions, except such as even the best translators of them in prose supply, avoiding all material detractions from words or sense.”
In modern terms, they needed a new psalter because old England’s Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter was not theologically correct.
We must accept that the Bay Psalm Book was theologically correct because it was published and accepted by the New England church, but we can judge it on other points. Did the new lyrics rhyme? Were they easily memorized? Did they convey the psalms as King David intended them? You be the judge.
Here are the first two verses of Psalm 95, a familiar and enduringly popular song of thanksgiving, in the King James version:
1 O come, let us sing unto the Lord:
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving,
and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.
Here they are in the highly regarded, modern Jewish Publication Society translation:
1 Come, let us sing joyously unto the Lord:
raise a shout for our rock and our deliverer.
2 let us come into his presence with praise;
let us raise a shout for Him in song!
The Sternhold and Hopkins:
1 O Come let us lift up our voice, and sing unto the Lord; In him our rock of health rejoice let us with one accord: 2 Yea, let us come before his face to give him thanks and praise · In singing psalms unto his grace let us be glad always.
And the Bay Psalm Book:
1 O come, let us unto the Lord shout loud with singing voice, to the rock of our saving health let us make joyful noise. 2 Before his presence let us then approach with thanksgiving: also let us triumphantly with Psalms unto him sing.
The best that can be said of the translators of the Bay Psalm Book as poets, is that they understood their own inadequacies; they said it of themselves, “If therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that God’s Altar needs not our polishings.” But as the intellectual forefathers of a nation, theirs was a powerful contribution because they laid the foundations of a new national identity and provided it with the original American songbook.