So while the church is associated with these copies and fully recognizes their importance, they are not mission-critical to the work of the Church. Unlike so many churches struggling with declining membership, Old South Church is growing. It is on the rise. In the course of six years they have doubled their membership, added an additional three worship services and grown and deepened their outreach work. Interestingly, this church is finding fulfillment with its outreach programs including several to Africa.
All of this is at risk, however, as the congregation on its own is unable to keep up with the maintenance of its exuberant 1875 National Historic Landmark which is free and open to the public seven days a week.
In short it’s a struggle and its members, when balancing the importance of a Bay Psalm against the good deeds possible with the proceeds, simply voted for the good they can do over the good feelings and bragging rights ownership of two volumes of the Bay Psalm makes possible. Ultimately what is most immediately relevant is that the roof is in need of repair, such repairs are costly and there is no other obvious ways to pay for them. The sale of a single volume will, in short, right the ship. It will both enable the Church to catch up on deferred maintenance and provide sufficient ongoing wind to fill its sails.
Selling the book is not a new idea. The church has been in need of repairs for a long time. Bailey Bishop, the Cambridge rare books icon, was asked some twenty years ago for his opinion and offered that a copy might bring $20 million. Nothing came of that discussion and today he is a bit less optimistic, “perhaps $10 million but only because Americans have lost interest in their history. The book is a wonderful object.” In any event he does not favor a sale. “Borrow against it and invest. It should not be sold.” On the other side of the calculation Bill Reese of New Haven, the leading dealer in printed Americana, expects it will do better than $10 million, “Ten million is the floor and it could easily exceed $20 million.”
The news however is not all good. The church’s copies are almost complete, that is they are incomplete. One has a few words repaired in pen. The other is missing its errata, the printer Stephen Dye’s list of typographical errors. Both are rebound tastefully and I should add tactlessly. Their original bindings were fragile and the thinking 160 years ago was to make them sturdy. That they did. But they also made these volumes less valuable but have not ruined them altogether both because they are the first printing of a book in America and are impossibly rare. Nine other copies in fact are known and all reside in institutions that count their copies among their sacred texts. They won’t be selling so this copy is probably the sole option for a serious collector in their lifetime. In fact the last two appearances of a copy was another of the Old South Church copies that passed to Edward A. Crowninshield in the 1850s, was sent to auction at Leonard & Co. in Boston in his sale in 1859, was purchased by Henry Stevens as part of his treaty sale for the entire collection, then sold to George Brinley in 1868 and sold by him at auction in 1878 for $1,200 to Cornelius Vanderbilt. I mention this detail to illustrate the symbolic power of this book. The wealthiest and most book-obsessed have been pursuing copies of this volume for most of 250 years.