The Puritan translation and printing of The Whole Booke of Psalmes was not simply coincident with the founding of America—in a very real way it was the founding of America.
Puritanism began, in the phrase of Francis J. Bremer, as a movement to reform the English Reformation, and it counted among its basic tenets—in addition to its members leading devotional individual and community lives—removing remnants of Roman Catholic teaching and ceremony from the Church of England, making the holy scriptures available in the vernacular languages of worshippers, and supplying every parish pulpit with a university-educated preacher.
John Winthrop. Anonymous, oil on canvas (transferred from panel), circa 1630/1691. Bequest of William Winthrop, 1830. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society
The ascension of Charles I with his French Catholic bride in 1625—and the rigid enforcement of Anglican orthodox practices by William Laud, Bishop of London and from 1633 Archbishop of Canterbury—exacerbated the division between the Puritans and the hierarchy of the national church, and many Puritans saw emigration as the only way they could continue to live and worship in their chosen manner. Following the lead of John Winthrop’s eleven-vessel fleet that in the spring and summer of 1630 carried some 700 passengers to New England, between 1630 and 1640 about 20,000 English emigrants settled in the recently chartered Massachusetts Bay Colony. (During this “Great Migration,” a like number of Puritans emigrated from England to three other, variously welcoming destinations: the Netherlands, Ireland, and the West Indies, Barbados in particular.)
"The South part of New-England, as it is Planted this yeare, 1635," woodcut map from William Wood's New Englands Prospect (London, 1635)
But the Puritans sailed to the New World seeking not just to survive, but to flourish. John Winthrop’s shipboard sermon, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” has lost little of its inspirational authority over the succeeding centuries. In order to accomplish their goals, Winthrop advised his flock, the Puritans had only to “follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. … [M]en shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘may the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”
It is in this context—one of deliberation and intentionality—that the creation and printing of the Bay Psalm Book must be seen.