Our daily Psalms

No wonder this was the first book the Puritans printed

Issue: "Columbine: Teenage martyr," May 8, 1999

I should have known, but didn't until last week, that the very first book published and printed in New England by the Puritans was the Bay Psalm Book. Now, almost 360 years later, it would be easy to misunderstand why those hardy but harried people rushed that particular volume into print.

By today's standards, saying they "rushed" the Bay Psalm Book into print may seem like a stretch. After all, having arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620, the Puritans didn't actually get the book out until 1640. But still, it was the first book published, and that tells us something.

They did, after all, have a few other things to do. There were no printing presses to unload from the Mayflower when it first arrived, for the tiny ship was crammed instead with its cargo of people, foodstuffs, tools, seed for the first year's crops, guns, and ammunition.

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Did this cache of the necessities of life also include Bibles? It's hard to think of such Scripture-saturated people going anywhere without them-and indeed they didn't. But the Bibles belonged mainly to the preachers. The regular weekly exposition of the Word (more probably the Geneva Bible than the King James Version, which had been first authorized only nine years earlier, and was not yet in wide distribution) was the focal point of this new culture.

But even as we properly picture a Bible-centered society, we shouldn't kid ourselves about the availability of the written Word. By 1620, world civilization was still less than 200 years past Johann Gutenberg-and powerful as the moveable type revolution had been, books of any kind were still mostly for the rich and powerful. When the Puritans left England, a printed and bound Bible was still a valuable and highly treasured commodity.

Which suggests, I think, why the Bay Psalm Book became a natural top-of-the-list choice for the Puritans during the 1620s and 1630s. But two practical matters spring to mind:

First, desirable as a printed Bible might be, the cost factor was daunting.

Second, if you couldn't have an entire Bible, what part of the whole could possibly be more effective than the Psalms-especially if they were available in a form that made them easy to commit to memory? For there is no more portable Bible than the form stuck away in your mind.

And why the Psalms? Because there is no other collection that so encompasses the range of human experience and the wonder of God's response to that experience. There's exultation about God's creative work and providential activity. There's delight at recognizing ourselves as children of God. There's frustration and even depression about our sinfulness and our inability by ourselves to escape that tendency to sin. There's hope and confidence that God does have the answers we don't have ourselves. There's anger at the dominance of evil in the world. There's impatience that God takes so long to do anything about that evil. There's frustration that those who do bad things seem to prosper. But there's also expectation that as long as God may be taking to do something, He is certain sometime to vindicate His cause.

So you take all that, put it in metric, rhymable form, and set it to music, and you're pretty well armed to get through any day. The Puritans needed such arming. No hardship imposed on them in those early years-not the harshness of the elements, the scarcity of provisions, the regular visitation of sickness and death, the attacks of enemies, the betrayal of friends, or the weakness and sinfulness of their own hearts and minds-none of this surprised them or left them defenseless. It was all there in the Psalter.

At first, of course, they could sing it from memory. But suppose your memory recalls it a little differently from the way my memory has it? Obviously, we need a reliable reference point. And for the early New England Puritans, there may have been no more important reference point to establish.

We who congratulate ourselves if we're consistent about reading a few verses of the Bible once a day hardly comprehend what it meant for a people to be immersed, hour by hour and minute by minute, with the truths of the Psalms-humming them, reciting them, weeping them, groaning them, and sometimes singing them together in parts as they worshipped, but also as they did each day's work. For them, the printing of the Bay Psalm Book in 1640 wasn't some ceremonial publishing event to celebrate their first two decades in the New World. It was instead the air they breathed, the nourishment they needed to be sustained through each day, the refreshing water of life itself.

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