If later readers freely found fault with the translations in the Bay Psalm Book, many contemporary readers fully embraced it. The volume was sold for twenty pence, and the 1640 edition was immediately adopted by nearly every congregation in the southern part of Massachusetts Bay—hence the volume’s familiar name. Still, an edition of 1,700 copies was very large for the population of the colony—which has been estimated to be about 3,500 families totaling between 15,000 and 20,000 individuals. And some colonists, notably the Pilgrims who had settled around Plymouth, did not adopt the Cambridge Whole Booke of Psalmes.
It is likely, then, that some copies were sent to England—perhaps surreptitiously, since the book violated the Stationers’ Company’s patent. Portions of the Bay Psalm Book preface were included in Nathanael Homes’s survey of Gospel Musick (London, 1644), and the work of the “chief divines” of New England was first reprinted in an authorized London edition of 1647.
Of that large first edition of 1640, just eleven copies are known to have survived, five of which lack their title-pages—further evidence of the popularity of the work. The Bay Psalm Book was intended as a utilitarian book for the common people (in a way that the Gutenberg Bible surely was not), and copies were subjected to hard and constant use.
Woodcut illustration on A1v of Tenor of the Whole Psalmes in Foure Partes whiche may be song to al musicall instrumentes, set forth for the encrease of vertue: and abolishyng of other vayne and triflyng ballades. London, 1563. By permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library
A second American edition was issued in 1651, revised by Henry Dunster and Richard Lyon, partly because, according to Increase Mather’s Magnalia, “It was thought that a little more of Art was to be employed upon the verses.” Wilberforce Eames identified more than fifty additional editions of the Bay Psalms, which continued to be printed into the second half of the eighteenth century in New England, England, and Scotland.
The scholars and ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who, according to their preface, had “attended Conscience rather then Elegance, fidelity rather then poetry, in translating the hebrew words into english language,” created a work that would shape the religious and social life of the new nation. They created a work that is as much an icon of the founding of America as Plymouth Rock—and nearly as durable. They also created a new center of publishing: by 1700, Boston had surpassed Oxford and Cambridge to become the second most active publishing center of English-language books in the world, behind only London.