A copy of The Whole Booke of Psalmes, also known as the Bay Psalm Book, the first complete book printed in English in the British North American colonies, will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York City on Tuesday, Nov. 26. This week, The Huntington displays its own copy of the rare 1640 edition in “The Library Today,” an education display in a room adjacent to the new permanent exhibition “Remarkable Works, Remarkable Times” in the Exhibition Hall.
There are only 11 known copies of the book (out of an original printing of approximately 1,700), including The Huntington’s copy purchased by Henry Huntington in 1910. The Sotheby’s item is one of two copies owned by the Old South Church in Boston.
Described by the Library of Congress as a “humble and well-worn hymnal,” this rarity just completed a tour of the country in anticipation of the auction, including a stop two weeks ago at the Doheny Memorial Library at USC. Another copy previously toured the country in 1947–49 as part of the famed Freedom Train exhibition.
While sorting Ed Carpenter’s papers, which we described in this Verso post, I learned that another copy of the Bay Psalm Book went on view at UCLA in 1949, after the completion of the Freedom Train tour. Philip and A. S. W. Rosenbach, rare book dealers who had lent many items for the train exhibition, lent 250 historical documents to UCLA for its own exhibition. Carpenter co-authored the list of items, titled “Great American Historical Documents,” and his file contains notes for the entries that he wrote. Also in his papers is a clipping about the theft of the Bay Psalm Book by a graduate student: “Student Nabbed with $100,000 Book” announced the Daily Bruin’s headline on March 7, 1949. The student confessed he meant no harm; his act was an initiation stunt for a secret fraternity.
Huntington purchased his copy in 1910 as part of the Elihu Dwight Church collection of more than 2,000 other rare and unique items. This collection included the manuscript for Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, John Eliot’s Algonquin translation of the Bible, and a Book of Hours with illuminations by Simon Marmion (1420–1489). According to Donald C. Dickinson, in his book Henry E. Huntington’s Library of Libraries, the Church collection was Huntington’s first en-bloc purchase and it paved the way toward subsequent purchases that focused on English and American literature and history.
Historian Jill Lepore explains why such a book is so valuable in this essay from The New York Times. For more on the 1947 auction, see “The Mystique of the Bay Psalm Book” on the blog of Fine Books Magazine. Click here for a census and description of the known copies. You can leaf through the other copy owned by the Old South Church on its website. Oh, and Amazon is offering a version for $10.95.
Peggy Park Bernal is a volunteer in the manuscripts department at The Huntington. She is the former director of the Huntington Library Press.