THE BAY PSALM BOOK - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

THE BAY PSALM BOOK (1640). As the first book printed in America, The Bay Psalm Book is one of the most important works in American print culture. Originally published as The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, The Bay Psalm Book either directly or indirectly touched the lives of New Englanders throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and thus its unique tropes and images were crucial in forming the collective imagination of the Puritans. Since references to the sea and men in ships abound, The Bay Psalm Book played an important part in helping New Englanders perceive and interpret the maritime world around them.

Since psalm singing was such an important part of the Reformation and since publication itself was a symbolic act, the Puritan ministers published their own translation of the psalms as a means of distinguishing themselves from both Anglicans in England and Pilgrims in Plymouth. In 1639 the chief ministers of the Bay Colony divided up the Hebrew Psalms among themselves for translation and versification. In particular, John Cotton, Richard Mather, Thomas Weld, and John Eliot are thought to have collaborated in preparing the new text. Sensing that current translations had departed too far from the original Hebrew and intending to remain as close to the original language as possible, in the closing paragraph of the “Preface,” believed to have been written by either Cotton or Mather, they stated: “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 ... we have respected rather a plaine translation ... and soe have attended Conscience rather than Elegance, fidelity rather than poetry” (12).

Most people of the seventeenth century viewed the seas as a realm distinct from land. Accepting the biblical story of creation, they believed that God had brought order to chaos by separating land from sea. At several points in The Bay Psalm Book, the oceans are referred to as one of three distinct areas of the universe: heaven, earth, and sea. As heaven was God’s domain, and earth was man’s, the sea was perceived as a vast and strange environment that was both unknowable and unpredictable and as such was referenced with tropes to illustrate something beyond human comprehension and control. Moreover, as a symbol of chaos, the sea was also often used to dramatize God’s dominion over all creation. As the psalms often celebrate God’s great deeds, the biblical stories of the flood and the parting of the Red Sea are referred to several times as examples of God’s omnipotence.

For the Puritans who crossed the Atlantic to settle in New England, the sea had a special significance. Surviving the arduous voyage was interpreted as a sign of their special covenant with God and as a physical manifestation of their conversion. Thus, a successful transatlantic voyage had both spiritual and physical import. One of the most often quoted passages, particularly in sermons directed toward those embarking on sea voyages, came from Psalm 107:32: “They that goe downe to th’ sea in ships:/ their busines there to doo/ in waters great. The Lords work see,/ in th’ deep his wonders too.” [See also “PIETAS IN PATRIAM”; SEA-DELIVERANCE NARRATIVES]

FURTHER READING: Foote, Henry Wilder. An Account of the Bay Psalm Book. Fort Worth, TX: Hymn Society of America, 1940; Haraszti, Zoltan. The Enigma of the Bay Psalm Book. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1956; Haraszti, Zoltan, ed. The Bay Psalm Book: A Facsimile Reprint of the First Edition of1640. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957; Stackhouse, Rochelle A. The Language of the Psalms in Worship: American Revisions of Watts’ Psalter. London: Scarecrow, 1997.

Daniel E. Williams