Debate Over Rare Book Sale Divides Boston Church

Old South Church is considering selling one of its two copies of the rarest book in the world, the Bay Psalm Book, pictured above in the hands of church historian Jeff Makholm. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

Old South Church is considering selling one of its two copies of the rarest book in the world, the Bay Psalm Book, pictured here in the hands of church historian Jeff Makholm. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

BOSTON — This Sunday, the congregation of Old South Church in Copley Square in Boston will vote on whether or not to sell some of the church’s historic assets to pay for building upgrades and expanded ministries.

The proposed sale of Colonial-era silver and one of the church’s two copies of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book ever published in North America, has sparked controversy among some members.

A ‘Mission-Critical Moment’

Old South Church was founded by Puritans in 1669 and is known for some of the famous Bostonians who were members.

“Ben Franklin, whose family lived right around the corner and his father was a deacon of the church, was brought over on the day of his birth to be baptized at the Old Meeting House,” said Dick Yeo as he led visitors on a tour of the church.

“To sell these now, for what is not really a major crisis, is to break faith with those donors from the past.”
– Richard Wulff, church member

“Samuel Adams, who led the Tea Party, was a member of this church,” Yeo added.

But like many old churches, it has problems keeping up with maintenance and funding its outreach programs.

“We think we are at a mission-critical moment now,” said Nancy Taylor, the senior minister at Old South.

Taylor says the church is facing costly building repairs and church leaders are in agreement that they want to address the looming crisis by selling assets to bolster the endowment.

“We can project forward and see where we have some real problems,” Taylor said. “We are trying to head that off now. We want to be and remain one of the strongest, [most vital] progressive Christian churches in Boston.”

Old South’s mission includes supporting more than 25 Boston nonprofits and keeping the church free and open to the public seven days a week. The list of needed repairs includes upgrading the heating system, adding central air conditioning to parts of the church, and installing a fire suppression system.

One promising solution would be to sell some of its many historic artifacts — items so valuable they could fetch more than $20 million.

Church leaders are proposing to sell one of the church’s two copies of the Bay Psalm Book at auction, as well as 19 pieces of Colonial silver stored at the Museum of Fine Arts. But some members question whether the church really needs the money. The endowment is at $18 million, and the congregation and its yearly contributions are growing.

“To sell these now, for what is not really a major crisis, is to break faith with those donors from the past,” said Richard Wulff, who has been a member of the church for 35 years. “They may need a new boiler, but they don’t need the rest of what they are asking for.”

Yet a significant number of active church members support the idea.

“We are about being a church, not about holding on to things that are in a vault somewhere,” member Emily Click said.

Her husband Rodney agreed.

“We’re not a museum, we’re not a library. We’re a church and we need to keep this building open and keep it up to date and make it safe,” he said.

A Controversy Sparked 

One of the most vocal opponents to the sale is the Old South Church historian Jeff Makholm. In the rare book room at the Boston Public Library he pulls out the two nearly identical copies of the Bay Psalm Book.

Makholm carefully removes the small, black leather bound volumes from their cases. The Bay Psalm Book is the first book printed in North America that still exists. Hundreds were printed but only 11 survive today. Makholm is not wearing gloves because when handling paper, he says, you need to be able to feel it, otherwise you could break or damage it.

“We’re not a library. We’re a church and we need to keep this building open and keep it up to date and make it safe.”
– Rodney Click, church member

“You can flip through it. Here, listen, the paper is wonderful,” Makholm said.

The musty smell of history wafts out.

“These are the two rarest and most valuable published books in the world, in private hands, by far,” Makholm said. “The last time one of these books came up for auction in 1947, one of the books Old South had once owned, now that’s at Yale, it tripled the value of any published book ever sold.”

The book was written by early church leaders who made new translations of the psalms and put them in a meter so they could be sung.

Makholm says in the last 350 years the church has been through other financial problems. And even though selling the silver and book were suggested, it never reached a membership vote. Makholm dismissed the notion that the church’s future would be in jeopardy without money from an auction.

“We’re not helping the people in the community by air conditioning offices. It is right for the members to question whether that has anything necessarily to do with the mission of the church,” Makholm said. “But these books do have something to do with the mission of the church.”

Before a recent service at the church, trustee Tom Grant argued the idea of selling the historic assets has been in discussion for at least five years, and the congregation has had several open meetings about it.

“As a trustee, we consider many different ways of financing and funding the church. We’ve looked at doing a capital campaign, we’ve brought an outside expert in to say, ‘How much could we raise?’ ” Grant said. “We’ve done our own analysis of how much we could raise. It would be sort of like putting a Band-Aid on this problem. It wouldn’t set us up for a sustainable future in this building.”

But Makholm says that’s a limited view.

Old South Church historian, who is opposed to the sale, flips through the Bay Psalm Book with WBUR reporter Monica Brady-Myerov.

Old South Church historian, who is opposed to the sale, flips through the Bay Psalm Book with WBUR reporter Monica Brady-Myerov.

“Those who think today that we might be in perilous conditions, or in a death spiral, are just suffering from a narrowness of perspective,” Makholm said.

Old South Church senior minister Taylor counters that the Boston community wouldn’t be losing a part of its history because the library would still have one copy of the Bay Psalm Book and the entire book is available online.

“We’re still leaving Boston and the Boston Public Library with one of the most amazing collections of rare books — the Prince collection — which is ours, which is still there,” Taylor said. “We’re not talking about that, including the better of our two copies of the Bay Psalm Book.”

Congregational churches are like democracies. Two-thirds of the members present at the meeting Sunday must raise their hands in agreement for the silver and Bay Psalm Book to be sold.

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  • J__o__h__n

    There is no shortage of churches. Our history must be preserved.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Montzoar Jim Hood

    There is no question the silver and Bay Psalm book are precious, beautiful objects. But they are rarely if ever seen by church members. Sale of the Bay Psalm book and colonial era silver will not be their end. Assets this precious will be well cared for and continue forward. Church historian Jeff Makholm portrays this as a frivolous trade of precious assets for some short term air conditioning and an elevator. The funds are sought to greatly increase the church’s endowment to provide much needed annual operating funds for care of the building, in-church programing, and outreach to the poor and suffering. I can not understand how Mr. Makholm can in good conscience leave this 1875 landmark building, the congregation’s chief historic asset, without fire protection. Boston ifs filled with stories of great churches leveled by fire, First Church, Mount Vernon Church, Clarendon Baptist, and St. Williams, not a one of them was able to make their building whole, and only one of these congregations survives today.

  • Emily Flynn

    Old South has two books and is struggling to fund the church’s operations now and into the future. Sell one of the book for the millions it is rightfully worth, stipulate that the other book cannot be sold, and preserve the church to allow it to continue offering its good services to the surrounding community. Better to have a thriving church with one book than a church with 2 versions of the same book yet is unable to pay its electrical bills and help its citizens. How can anyone oppose that?

  • Caleb Cross

    Other than a broadside and a conjectured almanac this is the first printed work in America, and excepting the Mayflower Compact and other manuscript artifacts, this is the nearest written evidence we possess to our most distant past. It would be unspeakable were this national treasure to vanish into anonymous unknown hands beyond history’s reach. The Massachusetts Bay Psalm Book is sacred Americana belonging to us all, and should be held in trust for our collective posterity. The Folger Library is not in the business of disposing of its First Folios, nor the National Archives the great charters of our liberty. The few copies of Daye’s book which survive are irreplaceable. A national appeal to keep the book and the colonial silver in Boston AND to supply the Church’s wants should be mounted first before giving into the temptation of raising easy money.

    • Robert William

      To compare Old South Church with the Folger Library or the National Archives is to engage in false equivalence. Old South Church is neither a library nor a museum. It is a house of worship.
      It may interest you to know that the copy of the Bay Psalm Book that is to be sold is one of TWO owned by Old South. The greater of the two will remain with the Boston Public Library in perpetuity. The “lesser” or Beta copy is what the members voted to sell.

      • Caleb Cross

        No equivalence was intended. The important point to understand is not what kind of institution is tasked with preserving for posterity this ultrarare example of America’s Gutenberg Bible, but the genuine risk at auction that this national treasure will disappear altogether from the public realm and the reach of history into unaccountable private hands. Two things else to consider. If the idea is to establish a capital fund to extend the church’s mission, what guarantee does Old South have that its money will be secure? There is no safe haven in which to invest the huge sum of money the book is likely to garner. There is no safe return on investment in the global casino the capital markets have become, nor given the Fed’s Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) and inflation, interest income to be derived from parking the funds in a bank or in bonds as has been done traditionally as a conservative investment strategy. Finally, after the Barnes Foundation scandal in Philadelphia, “in perpetuity” has become something of a joke in the face of determined self-interested trustbreakers.

  • Andre Chevalier

    I do not know the outcome of the vote but surely I believe that they will do what is best for the church. There are some old christian books which are indeed rare and the psalm book is indeed on of them. You can read more about rare religious books @ http://www.rarebooksdigest.com/2011/07/16/rare-religious-books/

  • Nu Nu

    These books are as much a property of the physical church as the cornerstone and foundations of the actual structure. To sell them is myopic. Granted the church has a mission to extend it’s message to the living via outreach in the form of food and provisions.
    But to sell physical attributes to raise funds to fulfill contemporary needs is to cheat future generations of the faithful from their birthright to satisfy the whims of misguided provincial “leaders” of the present. If that were the goal, why didn’t previous administrations of the church sell the book and squander the proceeds in the past? Where the needs of the poor any less pressing?
    No, I say this smacks of political correctness and not sacred church ministry. The poor and suffering will always be with us. But to sell the books today is to rape the future. Never sell the seed corn to satisfy contemporary none vital needs. That’s what the taxpayer’s of the commonwealth are there to provide for. Go ask Beacon Hill for the funds for the poor.

  • Robert William

    I take issue with the title of this piece. Old South Church’s congregation is far from “divided”. The motion to authorize a sale passed overwhelmingly, with 271 members voting in favor, 34 opposed, and 3 abstaining.

  • Andre Chevalier

    So the church is finally selling! I believe that they will get a very good price because of the association factor, http://www.rarebooksdigest.com/2011/09/19/rare-books-what-makes-them-rare/
    the church was the church of Ben Franklin and Samuel Adams

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