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America’s First Book

The first book published in colonial America was the Bay Psalm Book. According to the website of the Cambridge Reformed Presbyterian Church (which my friend Dr. Christian Adjemian pastors),

The book was published in 1640 in what is now Cambridge, Massachusetts in a print shop now long gone, located in what is today Harvard Square…The preface to the Bay Psalm Book was written by John Cotton…(and is) an explanation and defense of the American Puritan understanding that the Book of Psalms is God’s hymnbook for the Church. This is a belief that was shared by all Presbyterian churches until the 19th Century.”

One of the ten existing copies of this work is on display as “America’s First Book” in the Library of Congress. The Bay Psalm Book was used extensively throughout the colonies and went through many revisions and improvements.

My point in drawing your attention to this is to encourage you to read the preface which supports and defends the practice of the church singing the psalms in its worship. The preface begins with this eloquent statement:

The singing of Psalms breathes out nothing but holy harmony and melody…”

but then quickly raises the concern against the church setting psalm singing aside:

“…but such is the subtlety of the enemy, and such is the enmity of our nature against the Lord and His ways, that our hearts can find discord in this harmony and notes of division in the holy melody.”

The preface then goes on to answer the following three questions:

1) First, which psalms should be sung in churches: the psalms of David and other biblical writers, or psalms composed by godly and gifted men throughout the history of the church?
2) Second, if we sing psalms from scripture, should we sing them in strictly literal translations, or should we use the metrical forms common in English poetry?
3) Third, by whom are they to be sung? Should the whole church sing with voices together, or should one man sing alone while the rest join in silence and close by saying “amen”?

The answers, though not a complete treatise, are worthy of our study. As the preface closes with the following words, note how different is the spirit of these godly forefathers than the one typically found in the modern evangelical church:

“If the verses, therefore, are not always as smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect, let them consider that God’s altar does not need our polish (Ex. 20). We have chosen to respect a plain translation rather than smooth our verses with the sweetness of paraphrase: and thus we have honored conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into the English language and David’s poetry into English meter; that so we may sing in Zion the Lord’s songs of praise according to His own will; until He take us from hence, and wipe away all our tears, and bid us enter into our Master’s joy to sing eternal Hallelujahs.”

If even the federal government can acknowledge this work as “America’s First Book,” what does it say of modern churches and their leaders who do not even know this heritage exists?

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