Members of Old South Church in Copley Square, gathering in a rare and historic Special Meeting on Dec. 2, voted to authorize its board of trustees to sell one of the church’s two copies of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book ever printed in North America and 19 objects of Colonial-era silver. The psalm book, valued at $10 million-$20 million at auction will allow the Church to meet its Vision for the 21st Century by expanding its important mission work as well as move forward with necessary capital improvements to its 137-year historic home.
“It is an exciting time for our congregation. We gathered together as a deeply respectful community to make this decision. I am gratified that a large majority of our members agreed with church leaders that we are at a mission-critical moment now and this is the best path forward,” said Senior Minister Nancy S. Taylor of Old South Church. “This decision ensures that we will remain one of the strongest, most vital progressive Christian churches in Boston and perhaps in the nation, for years to come.”
The Bay Palm Book that will be offered for sale is one of about 1,600 original copies printed in Cambridge in 1640. Only 11 remain today, and Old South has two. The others are held by major institutions unlikely to sell them. The psalm book was the product of prominent Puritan ministers and soon was used by congregations all over Massachusetts Bay Colony and eventually beyond. The church’s copies have been at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square since 1866, while the silver has been on deposit at the Museum of Fine Arts since 1939. The Church has not used the assets for over 70 years. After considerable research and consultative interviews, the psalm book would be sold at auction while the silver will undergo a private sale.
The second, and better copy of the Bay Psalm Book owned by Old South Church, will remain at the library as part of the Prince Collection of some 2,000 or so rare texts collected by the Rev. Thomas Prince, an 18th Century pastor of the church.
Old South Church’s mission includes supporting more than 25 Boston non-profits with targeted financial grants, volunteer manpower, and in-kind service. Designated a National Historic Landmark, the church is ‘free and open to the public’ seven days a week and gets much wear and tear. The physical plant itself is in need of many upgrades that have been deferred for years such as an 80 year old heating system and fire protection. The church is dependent upon member donations to sustain its outreach and infrastructure overhead. A permanent endowment with restrictive access covenants is in place to ensure the long-term viability of the Church and its mission.
This weekend’s vote concludes a public dialog with presentations, newsletters and recent online forums among church members, historians, financial investment experts, and historic building consultants that began almost 25 years ago. “We will take this wonderful old hymn book, from which our ancestors literally sang their praises to God, and convert it into doing God’s ministry in the world today,” said Taylor.
An amendment was added to the vote to set a 10-year timetable on the sales of the historic assets. Trustees will now meet with Church Council to determine next steps. These will include consultation with the Attorney General’s office and the church’s attorney, Peter Erichsen of Ropes and Gray.