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.
“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.
“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.
“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.