One of the fundamental innovations of the Reformation was the introduction of psalm-singing by the entire congregation rather than just by a designated choir. Puritans, like most Protestant congregations, embraced the singing of psalms as part of their worship service. The founders of the Reformation, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Myles Coverdale, all wrote metrical translations or paraphrases of the Psalms, the most celebrated being Luther’s version of Psalm 46, “Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”).

The Whole Booke of Psalmes. A1r, Psalm 1

Of course, the Massachusetts Bay Puritans had psalters in England, and they undoubtedly carried to the New World both Henry Ainsworth’s version of the Psalms in prose and meter and the poetical paraphrases of Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins. But there were political, or denominational, issues with both of these standard works that probably contributed to their not being officially adopted by the Cambridge congregation.

Sternhold and Hopkins’s Book of Psalmes was essentially the authorized psalter of the Church of England, with some 200 issues passing through the press from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century. The Sternhold and Hopkins text was frequently appended to editions of the Geneva Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, a circumstance acknowledged in the preface to the Bay Psalm Book: “wee have cause to blesse God in many respects for the religious indeavours of the translaters of the psalms into meetre usually annexed to our Bibles.”

Title-page of Thomas Sternhold and John Hopkins, The Whole Booke of Psalmes: Collected into English meeter. London, 1635. Internet Archive (Courtesy of Princeton Theological Seminary)

Title-page of Henry Ainsworth, The Book of Psalmes: Englished in both Prose and Metre. Amsterdam, 1612. Courtesy of Pilgrim Hall Museum, Library Collection, Plymouth, Massachusetts

But while the Puritans were not Separatists, they were Nonconformists, and they had left England not in order to replicate the Church of England but to reform it. They may have esteemed Sternhold and Hopkins’s “indeavours,” but they did not want to use them in their worship.

Henry Ainsworth, an English minister and scholar, had been allied with the Puritans, but he eventually became a Separatist and settled in Amsterdam in 1593. There he pastored an English expatriate church and translated and had printed The Book of Psalmes: Englished both in Prose and Metre with Annotations (1612), copies of which landed at Plymouth Rock with the Pilgrims in 1620. Adopting Ainsworth’s Book of Psalmes would inevitably link the Puritans with the Separatist Pilgrims; moreover, the Bay Psalm Book preface mentions that there were objections to the “difficulty” of Ainsworth’s tunes.

But overriding these parochial concerns, the ministers, if not the congregants, of Massachusetts Bay found many shortcomings in the standard metrical translations of the Psalms, as the preface details: “it is not unknowne to the godly learned that they have rather presented a paraphrase then the words of David translated according to the rule 2 chron. 29. 30. and that their addition to the words, detractions from the words are not seldome and rare, but very frequent and many times needles[s], (which we suppose would not be approved of if the psalmes were so translated into prose) and that their variations of the sense, and alterations of the sacred text too frequently, may iustly minister matter of offence to them that are able to compare the translation with the text. …” (Note: the “rule” in II Chronicles 29:30 reads, “Moreover Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the Lord with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer”; KJV.)

The Whole Booke of Psalmes. *2r, the beginning of the Preface

Cotton Mather’s 1702 colonial history, Magnalia Christi Americana, provides a concise and, perhaps, somewhat more comprehensible synopsis of the Puritans’ position: “Tho’ they blessed God for the Religious Endeavors of them who translated the Psalms into the Meetre usually annex’d at the End of the Bible, yet they beheld in the Translation so many Detractions from, Additions to, and Variations of, not only the Text, but the very Sense of the Psalmist, that it was an Offence unto them.”

And, so, as early as 1636 the New England Puritans were discussing the need for a translation that would more exactly express the Hebrew original, and the “chief divines” of Massachusetts Bay (to use Cotton Mather’s phrase) determined to produce their own metrical translation of the Psalms. The resulting text, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, was the work of several hands representing the intellectual genius of colonial New England. John Cotton, Richard Mather, Thomas Welde, John Eliot, John Wilson, and Peter Bulkeley were likely the principal authors, but others among the “thirty pious and learned Ministers” that Mather counted then in Massachusetts Bay may have contributed as well. Moreover, John Josselyn’s Account of Two Voyages to New England (London, 1674) records that when he visited Boston in June 1638, he carried to John Cotton “from Mr. Francis Quarles the poet, the Translation of the 16, 25, 51, 88, 113, and 137. Psalms into English Meeter, for his approbation,” and Cotton may have adapted some of these for the Bay Psalm Book.

The Whole Booke of Psalmes. Ee3v-Ee4r, Psalms 118 and 119, the latter displaying Hebrew characters

The Psalms are prefaced by, as the title-page has it, “a discourse declaring not only the lawfullnes, but also the necessity of the heavenly Ordinance of singing Scripture Psalmes in the Churches of God.” The preface, like the translation of the psalms, may have been a collaborative effort, but the surviving manuscript is in the hand of John Cotton. (No manuscripts of the metrical psalms themselves are known.)

The preface to the Bay Psalm Book is a remarkable statement of purpose. It explicates the Puritans’ reasons for favoring scriptural psalms, particularly those of David, over psalms and hymns of more modern composition; for supporting the translation of the Hebrew psalms into English poetry; and for having the psalms sung during worship not by a choir or soloist, but “by the whole churches together with their voices.”

Despite the Puritans’ insistence on congregational singing (contrasted with what the preface describes as “one man singing alone and the rest joyning in silence, & in the close saying amen”), the 1640 Whole Booke of Psalmes does not contain any musical notation. While the inclusion of music, in either metal or wood type, would have complicated the printer’s task, the real reason notation is absent is that it was neither expected nor necessary. In fact, not until the putative ninth edition of 1698, printed in Boston by Bartholomew Green and John Allen, was the Bay Psalm Book printed with music.

John Cotton. Portrait after a reconstructed portrait formerly at  the Boston Athenaeum. Courtesy of the Boston Herald/Howard Everett Smith

John Eliot. Anonymous, oil on canvas, no date. Courtesy, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Richard Mather. George F. Wright, copy after John Foster, oil on canvas, 1853/54. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society

The Whole Booke of Psalmes. *2v-*3v, the Preface

Instead of specific musical notation, the first edition of the Bay Psalm Book appends to the end of the text proper a brief “admonition to the Reader,” that explains that “The verses of these psalmes may be reduced to six kindes, the first wherof may be sung in very neere fourty common tunes; as they are collected, out of our chief musicians, by Tho. Ravenscroft.

In 1621, the English musicologist Thomas Ravenscroft published an expanded edition of Sternhold and Hopkins’s psalter under the title The Whole Booke of Psalmes, with the Hymnes Evangel­li­cal, and Songs Spir­it­u­all. Co­mposed in­to 4. Parts by Sun­dry Au­thors, with such sev­er­al Tunes as have beene, and are usu­al­ly sung in Eng­land, Scot­land, Wales, Ger­ma­ny, Ita­ly, France, and the Ne­ther­lands: Nev­er as yet before in one Vol­ume pub­lished. Ravenscroft himself wrote about half of the more than one hundred tunes featured in his compilation, and most Puritan congregants would have been familiar with the most popular of them.

The “six kindes” of verses mentioned in the Admonition are distinguished by their metrical length. The first kind of verse referred to—those that could be sung to “neere fourty” tunes—is “common meter”: alternating lines of eight and six syllables. The third kind is “long meter,” in which all lines (usually in quatrains) are of eight syllables. The other four kinds of verses are to be sung to tunes for other, less common metrical schemes: quatrains of eight, eight, six, and eight syllables; alternating quatrains of six and four syllables; six lines of eight syllables; and eight lines of eight syllables. Most psalms could have been sung to a variety of tunes that would be well known to the worshippers.

The Whole Booke of Psalmes. L13v, the "admonition to the Reader" regarding the tunes to be used for the singing of the Psalms.

Title-page of a 1633 edition of Thomas Ravenscroft's psalter, the tunes of which are referenced by the translators of the Bay Psalm Book. The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

In the case of six psalms—51, 85, 100, 117, 133, 138—the Massachusetts Bay translators provided versions in both long and common meters, introducing the alternative translation as “Another of the same.” Thus the first two verses of Psalm 100 are given in long meter as

Make yee a joyfull sounding noyse
unto Iehovah, all the earth:

2        Serve yee Iehovah with gladnes:
before his presence come with mirth.

In the second, common-meter translation these lines run

Make yee a joyfull noyse unto
Iehovah all the earth:

2        Serve yee Iehovah with gladnes:
before him come with mirth.

The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Ee2v-Ee3r, Psalm 117, with versions in both common and long meter

John Cotton and his collaborators also use the preface to explain the method and purpose of their new translation. While the translators assume that “no protestant doubteth but that all the bookes of the scripture should by Gods ordinance be extant in the mother tongue of each nation, that they may be understood of all, hence the psalmes are to be translated into our english tongue,” they also argue that “as all our english songs … do run in metre, soe ought Davids psalmes to be translated into meeter. …” But they caution worshippers not to think “that for the meetre sake wee have taken liberty or poeticall licence to depart from the true and proper sence of Davids words in the hebrew verses, noe; but it hath been one part of our religious care and faithfull indeavor, to keepe close to the original text.” (One simple but significant way the Bay Psalm Book kept close to the original text was by dividing the Psalms into five books, as in the Hebrew original—and as Sternhold and Hopkins, for example, did not.)

The Whole Book of Psalmes, 14r, the beginning of the Second Booke

Four very particular principles of their “plaine and familiar translation of the psalmes and words of David” are detailed—and Cotton is at pains to explain that the New England Whole Booke of Psalmes is a translation, not a presumptuous “paraphrase to give the sense of his meaning in other words.” First, the Bay Psalm translators shunned additions, except when unavoidable even in prose translation. Second, they adopted—in the manner of English-language Bibles—English idioms rather than Hebrew ones, “lest they might seeme english barbarismes.” Third, they allowed themselves on occasion to contract or expand “the same hebrew word, both for the sense and the verse sake”: “as when wee dilate who healeth and say he it is who healeth; so when wee contract those that stand in awe of God and say Gods fearers.” Finally, in cases where a single Hebrew word cannot be adequately translated by a single English word, they have translated not just the word but what they deem as the “more full and emphaticall signification” of it, giving as examples “mighty God, for God”; “humbly blesse for blesse”; and “truth and faithfulnes for truth.”

The final paragraph of the preface provides an eloquent and convincing justification of the resulting translation: “If therefore the verses are not alwayes so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that Gods Altar needs not our pollishings: Ex. 20. for wee have respected rather a plaine translation, then to smooth our verses with the sweetnes of any paraphrase, and soe have attended Conscience rather then Elegance, fidelity rather then poetry in translating the hebrew words into english language, and Davids poetry into english meetre. …”

The Whole Booke of Psalmes. **3v-**4r, the conclusion of the Preface.

Some of the translations in the Bay Psalm Book are undeniably awkward, but the full work does not merit much of the modern criticism that has been leveled against it. The translation certainly affords examples of psalms that are rendered intelligible but graceless, as for instance, Psalm 2:

Why rage the Heathen furiously?
muse vaine things people do;

2        Kings of the earth doe set themselves,
          Princes consult also:
          with one consent against the Lord,
          and his anoynted one.

3        Let us asunder break their bands,
          their cords bee from us throwne.

4        Who sits in heav'n shall laugh; the lord
          will mock them; then will he

5        Speak to them in his ire, and wrath:
          and vex them suddenlie.

6        But I annoynted have my King
          upon my holy hill

7        of Zion: The established
          counsell declare I will.
          God spake to me, thou art my Son:
          this day I thee begot.

8        Aske thou of me, and I will give
          the Heathen for thy lot:
          and of the earth thou shalt possesse
          the utmost coasts abroad.

9        thou shalt them break as Potters sherds  
          and crush with yron rod.

10      And now yee Kings be wise, be learn’d
          yee Iudges of th’earth (Heare.)

11      Serve yee the lord with reverence,
          rejoyce in him with feare.

12      Kisse yee the Sonne, lest he be wroth,
          and yee fall in the way.
          when his wrath quickly burnes, oh blest
          are all that on him stay.

The Whole Booke of Psalmes, A1v, Psalm 2

But there are also psalms that are presented as emotive and appealing lyrics. The twenty-third Psalm, despite its familiarity in other versions, is here a poetic prayer that can stand comfortably with most seventeenth-century Colonial American verse:         

 The Lord to mee a shepheard is,
          want therefore shall not I,

2        Hee in the folds of tender-grasse,
          doth cause mee downe to lie:
          To waters calme me gently leads

3        Restore my soule doth hee:
          he doth in paths of righteousnes:
          for his names sake leade mee.

4        Yea though in valley of deaths shade
          I walk, none ill I’le feare:
          because thou art with mee, thy rod,
          and staffe my comfort are.

5        For mee a table thou hast spread,
          in presence of my foes:
          thou dost annoynt my head with oyle,
          my cup it over-flowes.

6        Goodnes & mercy surely shall
          all my dayes follow mee:
          and in the Lords house I shall dwell
          so long as dayes shall bee.

(It is worth noting that the Bay Psalm Book’s translations of psalms 19, 23, and 107 are anthologized in the Library of America’s volume of American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, ed. David S. Shields, 2007.)

David Daniell, writing in The Bible in English, gives perhaps the fairest and most judicious recent assessment of the literary achievement of the 1640 Cambridge Whole Booke of Psalmes. While not blind to the shortcomings of some of the translations—indeed, he deems selected passages “not even passable poetry in English,” “nearly gibberish,” and “hardly verse”—Daniell acknowledges that many other contemporary metrical translations contained deficient, if not nonsensical, sections as well.

Daniell further notes that “the very form itself, of Psalms intended to be sung in metre, invites a certain ruggedness. … The principles of Hebrew poetry were not yet fully understood in the West in 1640: those translators of Bay Psalms who did their best with the Hebrew still had to struggle with a fairly baffling original form, never mind the difficulty of getting it all into singable short verses in English, to be taken line by line by, or for, a congregation. Though tempting, it is quite wrong to bring to these verses high criteria of what lyric poetry should be. … There is no reason not to relish the bad lines: but what should be appraised is the religious energy that made the ‘first book printed in America’ … a book of congregational Psalms.”

The Whole Booke of Psalmes, E1v-E2r, Psalm 23