Church to sell rare psalm book to keep its mission current
The Old South Church’s recent vote to authorize the sale of a rare psalm book has forced one of the nation’s oldest churches to consider how to square the icons of its past with the challenges of operating a contemporary urban church.
The New York Times
BOSTON — When the leadership at Old South Church decided it was time to upgrade their cathedral, they turned to a fundraising option most likely available only to a Colonial-era institution like this one, founded in this city’s primordial hinterlands: selling a copy of a rare psalm book, printed across the river in Cambridge in 1640, that could fetch up to $20 million at auction.
That proposal, and the congregation’s recent vote to authorize it, has forced one of the nation’s oldest churches to consider how to square the icons of its past — and this country’s — with the challenges of operating a contemporary urban church. In the process, it has stirred dissent from some members who say the sale of heritage assets is a betrayal of their history.
“For 340 years, this was unthinkable,” said Jeff Makholm, an economist who acts as the church’s historian. “We think it’s disgusting. It’s breaking faith with the people who poured their energies into keeping them safe as a representation of our history.”
The Bay Psalm, as the book is called, is one of two copies belonging to the church that reside in the Boston Public Library’s rare-book collection, where Makholm paid a visit on a recent afternoon. “Here are the boys,” he said, slipping the books out of their cases. “There’s nothing like them.”
A staple of services in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the psalms had been painstakingly — and sometimes awkwardly — translated from Hebrew into English by church elders, giving the new world its own religious text. A locksmith inexpertly printed 1,700 copies of the Psalter; it was the first time a printing press rolled in the British North American colonies — and the books were used, abused and discarded. Only 11 remaining copies have been discovered.
“People haven’t been fascinated by this book because the translation is mellifluous or beautiful. People haven’t been attracted to this book because the presswork is beautiful. It’s not,” said Michael Suarez, a professor of English at the University of Virginia who directs the Rare Book School there.
“Here is this Puritan community that arrived and began to forge an identity for themselves. This book plays a role in the American story as almost no other book does.”
One of the church’s copies is part of the Thomas Prince library, an extensive repository of early American books left to Old South Church by Prince, a learned congregant. The church cannot sell items in that collection, but a 1978 probate-court ruling found that the second psalm book is not a part of it, which most likely means that the church is allowed to sell it.
Church dates to 1669
Valuable objects are practically part of the furniture at Old South, which has a fabled history dating to 1669. Now part of the United Church of Christ, it first formed as a breakaway congregational parish and then moved to an 1875 cathedral overlooking Copley Square, a busy thoroughfare. Church leaders say the building is in need of major repairs.
Its senior minister, Nancy Taylor, hoisted a massive Bible from underneath a coffee table in her wood-paneled office one recent afternoon, and pointed to an inscription on the back made when Samuel Adams attended an ecclesiastical council here in 1793.
“So Sam Adams did that, isn’t that fun?” she said.
Old South counts Adams, Benjamin Franklin and the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley as members, and over the years it has embraced progressive causes like the American Revolution, abolition, civil rights and, in more recent years, equal rights for gays and lesbians. Today, the church supports more than two dozen nonprofit organizations.
For Taylor, the sale of the Bay Psalm — as well as 19 pieces of silver, currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, that the congregation also empowered the trustees to sell — is a proper use of historic assets to help continue its legacy and mission.
“We want to repurpose them to carry out ministries today,” Taylor said. “I adore and cherish this congregation’s history. We collect up these stories and we carry them with us, but we don’t have to carry the book with us, or the silver with us, to learn from it, to be inspired by it, to be made brave by it.”
Taylor says the building needs about $7 million in deferred maintenance projects, including upgrades to the heating and sprinkler systems, that would be impossible to finance without a major cash infusion.
“Across this country, urban churches are going under, they’re fading away, because their buildings are too heavy a drag on them,” Taylor said. “This sale would position us to be a church that doesn’t do that.”
Some members dissent
Some members and observers have questioned the necessity of such a sizable capital infusion. The church’s endowment is currently about $18 million, and its members, Taylor said, give the church about $1 million per year, up from $400,000 10 years ago.
“If you were a church that was going down, crashing or something like that — we are clearly not in that circumstance,” said Robert Wulff, a retired lawyer who has been a member of the church for more than 35 years.
Makholm, who calls the building upgrades “vanity projects,” said the church’s leadership has created a false choice between its past and its future. “Central air conditioning? This Bay Psalm Book for central air conditioning?” he asked. “We’ve turned from an iconic church to a mission church, and I thought to myself, Old South has always been both.”
But when the congregation gathered this month, it voted overwhelmingly to empower the trustees to figure out how to sell the book and the silver.
“We’re a living church, we’re not a library or a museum — that’s not really where our treasure lies,” said Bob Kosturko, the creative director for a publisher in Boston. “As rare and as valuable as this book is, I just don’t think that it’s a critical item to our identity.”
Estimates for the Bay Psalm at auction range from $10 million to $20 million.
“I think it’s going to go high,” said Suarez, the rare-books expert. “The book community is abuzz with the news. There’s a lot of joking in the rare-book community: Hey, have you saved up enough to buy the Bay Psalm Book?”