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The Bay Psalm Book

The decision to print a book of psalms metered for singing may seem an odd choice as the first book to be printed by the settlers of Massachusetts Bay, but this modest book served the larger purpose of the colony—to live within the reformed church. The Bay Psalm Book, as it is known, is essentially sacred text to be sung during the liturgy. A committee of thirty learned elders, including John Cotton, Richard Mather, and John Eliot, set about the task of creating a new translation of the 150 Hebrew psalms into English and casting the text into verse for singing.

Printing the Bay Psalm Book in 1640 required importing the tools and materials of printing to the new colony. The Reverend Jose Glover put this into action when he resigned his post in Surrey, England, and set sail for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638 with his family, possessions, and a printing press operation, replete with paper and slightly worn type. Glover died aboard ship, and it was left to his widow Elizabeth to establish the press.

Elizabeth Glover eventually moved the printing operation to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and placed it under the charge of her husband’s apprentice, Stephen Daye (1594?–1668). Daye was a locksmith by trade; his press work and spelling were inconsistent. Two centuries later, American printer Isaiah Thomas would remark that the Bay Psalm Book “abounds with typographical errors. . . . This specimen of Daye’s printing does not exhibit the appearance of good workmanship.” It was, nevertheless, the first full venture of printing in British North America, and this ambitious effort is an important monument of the establishment of this nation and its culture. It is estimated that 1,700 copies of the book were printed, which sold for twenty pence. Today, only eleven copies survive.
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