America's oldest book comes to St. Louis

2013-09-09T10:00:00Z 2013-09-13T09:08:05Z America's oldest book comes to St. LouisBy Jane Henderson 314-340-8107

ST. LOUIS • The auctioneer calls it “America’s Gutenberg Bible.”

So rare that only 11 exist, the Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, was the first book made in what would become the United States.

“I call it the most famous book in America nobody knows about,” says David Redden of Sotheby’s in New York.

He believes the November auction of a leather-bound copy of Puritan psalms will set a record for a single book — $15 million to $30 million.

To heighten awareness of the book, Sotheby’s is sending the 373-year-old on a 12-city tour. It will be on public display Friday at the St. Louis Mercantile Library, perhaps the first time a Bay Psalm Book has ever been in this city.

“It’s an elegant old Puritan book,” says the Mercantile’s executive director, John Hoover. “It excites me to no end as a rare book librarian.”

Hoover plans to put some other rare “firsts” on display with the Bay Psalm, such as the Mercantile’s valuable signed first edition of John James Audubon’s “Birds of America.” (A copy of that book went for $11.5 million in 2010. Audubon’s book, completed in 1838, was originally published in sections.) The last time the Mercantile’s copy was on public display was in 1999.

Other rare holdings under glass and guard Friday will include a first edition of “The Book of Mormon” (1830), St. Louis’ first city directory (1821), and “The Pedler,” the first play written in Missouri (1821).

“It’s like a one-off exhibition of the best stuff in the house,” Hoover said.

The Mercantile Library, the oldest library in continuous operation west of the Mississippi River, has had relationships with New York auction companies since the 1850s, Hoover said. So Sotheby’s asked him if he’d be interested in being a stop on a very selective tour.

The last time a Bay Psalm book was up for auction was in 1947. It sold for $151,000, at that time a record price for a book sold at public auction.

The Nov. 26 auction copy is one of two owned by the Old South Church in Boston, which decided to sell it (after contentious debate) to raise money for upkeep on the historic church and to fund its work.

The well-used Bay Psalm, originally one of 1,700 first editions, has survived three centuries but not without some wear-and-tear. In the 19th century it received a new black morocco leather cover; it is missing a leaf of its errata (notes on mistakes).

Redden, who will be at Sotheby’s podium, says the book is the only item being sold that day. The auction, which can be watched live online, likely will be over in less than five minutes.

He won’t be rattling off the book’s assets during the auction, but giving a few cities a preview of the small book is a way to talk up the historic copy.

Redden, who has been with Sotheby’s since 1974, has sold some famous stuff, from the bones of the Tyrannosaurus rex “Sue” to the Magna Carta.

But “Sue” may be better known than the Bay Psalm Book, which Redden likens to a “declaration of independence” for the Puritans.

They didn’t like other translations of the Bible, he said, instead seeking a plain, rhyming version that could be sung.

Puritan ministers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony translated the Bible’s psalms from Hebrew, making this book the first written in the New World in English. The oldest books in North America were printed in Mexico in the 16th century.

In 1638, the Rev. Joseph Glover left England on the ship John of London with his wife, five children, an indentured man and his family — and a printing press and paper. The minister died on the ship, but the press made it to Boston.

The widow, Elizabeth Glover, had the indentured man, Stephen Daye, and his sons open the colony’s first printing house in Cambridge.

The first item printed was “The Freeman’s Oath,” followed by an almanac. Then came the Puritan’s new translation, “The Whole Booke of Psalmes,” with more than 400 pages, about the size of today’s paperbacks. The paper used came from England and France and the ink was a mix of lampblack and linseed oil.

The Harvard Gazette has noted that the translation may have added rhyme, but it wasn’t particularly poetic. The Puritan version of the 23rd Psalm begins:

The Lord to mee a shepheard is,

Want therefore shall not I,

Hee in the folds of tender-grasse,

Doth cause mee down to lie;

Later editions of the book were reworked with the help of Henry Dunster, Harvard’s first president (and Elizabeth Glover’s new husband), the Gazette notes.

What is now known as the Bay Psalm Book is a “real symbol of Western civilization coming to this country,” Redden says. He finds the education-minded Puritans and the history of the book fascinating: “At the same time they published the Bay Psalm Book in Cambridge, they set up Harvard.”

Books and manuscripts are Redden’s specialties. He has auctioned off Shakespeare’s First Folio several times, but one legendary work he hasn’t sold is the Gutenberg Bible.

“But this is America’s Gutenberg’s Bible, so I’ve come close.”

Jane Henderson is book editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Follow her online at and on Twitter @stlbooks.

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