The First Book Printed in America, 1863, Article

The first settlers of New England finding themselves much in need of scriptural melodies for their private religious meetings, and for the worship of God upon the Lord's Day, several of the most distinguished of their pious and learned ministers began, as early as the year 1636, to prepare a version of the Psalms and other sacred poetry to appropriate metre, retaining as nearly as possible the exact meaning of the inspired originals.

By the year 1640, the Psalms were versified; and, under the supervision of Rev. Thomas "Weld and Rev. John Eliot, of Roxbury, and Rev, Richard Mather, of Dorchester, and others, were immediately prepared for the press. During the same year, the printing was executed by Stephen Daye, at Cambridge, in a manner that certainly, as far as press-work is concerned, was highly creditable to the craft of the infant colony.

To antiquaries, this strange volume of the olden time has been generally known as the "Bay Psalm Book," its ancient name; but in later days it has been usually known as "The New England Version of the Psalms." The following is a correct copy of the titlepage, reduced in size to accommodate narrow columns, but still preserving the essential features of the quaint original.

Image of Bay Psalm Book cover

In the colonial days, however, text-books on punctuation were not in the hands of compositors, nor were there skilful persons near to revise the proofs: consequently there was no great minding of stops observed; and commas, semicolons, and full points, were as miscellaneously distributed as though they had been shaken from Timothy Dexter's pepper-box. The running titles of the book would greatly astonish the youngest apprentice of a modern printing office. For instance, to the preface the running title was on the left-hand page "The.", with a full-point after it; and on the right-hand page, "Preface." For the remainder of the book, the compositor, for some unknown and unimaginable reason, used the word "Psalm" on every even page, and " Psalme " on the odd pages. The divisions, which a modern printer is so extremely careful about, were oftentimes as bad as they could be, monosyllables being divided at the ends of lines with hyphens, and not unfrequently polysyllables divided without them. The book had no folios on the corners of the pages, making it difficult to find the psalms as readily as could have been desired.

Thus appeared the first book printed in America, not reckoning as such what Daye had printed in the previous year, — the Freeman's Oath, and an Almanac for New England.

The second edition of the New England Version was printed in a volume of 300 pages, crown octavo, in 1647, with slight amendments in phraseology ; after which President Dunster, of Harvard College, with the assistance of Richard Lyon, a gentleman of parts, attempted a more thorough version, which was duly completed, and printed in a volume of 308 pages, also in crown octavo, in 1650. In this last form, the preparation of which required the labor of about three years, the book was so favorably regarded, that it was not only the version in general use in New England, but was also preferred by many of the congregations in England, where it was used as late as the year 1717. In the year 1758, Rev. Thomas Prince, the annalist, published a revised and improved edition, to which he added a collection of hymns on several important subjects, having a devotional bearing.

These Psalms, from time to time, were changed and amended in phraseology, and were for many years in use in New England, -- but in such an altered form, that they probably would not have been recognized by the writers, had they been permitted to revisit this world.

1. "The First Book Printed in America," The Illustrated Pilgrim Memorial, 1863, page 30.

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