The first book published in colonial America was the Bay Psalm Book. According to the website of the Cambridge Reformed Presbyterian Church:
The book was published in 1640 in what is now Cambridge, Massachusetts in a print shop now long gone, located in what is today Harvard Square...The preface to the Bay Psalm Book was written by John Cotton...(and is) an explanation and defense of the American Puritan understanding that the Book of Psalms is God's hymnbook for the Church. This is a belief that was shared by all Presbyterian churches until the 19th Century." One of the eleven existing copies of this work is on display as "America's First Book" in the Library of Congress. The Bay Psalm Book was used extensively throughout the colonies and went through many revisions and improvements.
One copy of the Bay Psalm Book was sold for $14,165,000 in 2013. That emphasizes the truth found in Psalm 19:10, where the psalmist says that God's words are "more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold"! Watch this short video to see more of the history behind this psalter.
Another interesting detail about the Bay Psalm Book is that the tune known as “New Britain” was used in it. That is the tune you would know as “Amazing Grace.” So even before "New Britain" was used for the most popular hymn, it was utilized for a psalm! Even today this tune is used in The Book of Psalms for Worship for Psalm selection 3A.
Cotton's preface of this psalm book supports and defends the practice of the church singing the psalms in its worship. The preface begins with an eloquent statement. "The singing of Psalms breathes out nothing but holy harmony and melody." Yet it then quickly raises the concern about the church setting psalm singing aside. For it states, "But such is the subtlety of the enemy, and such is the enmity of our nature against the Lord and His ways, that our hearts can find discord in this harmony and notes of division in the holy melody."
The preface then goes on to answer the following three questions about the songs that the church is to sing.
First, which psalms should be sung in churches: the psalms of David and other biblical writers, or psalms composed by godly and gifted men throughout the history of the church?
Second, if we sing psalms from scripture, should we sing them in strictly literal translations, or should we use the metrical forms common in English poetry.
Third, by whom are they to be sung? Should the whole church sing with voices together, or should one man sing alone while the rest join in silence and close by saying "amen"?
The answers, though not a complete treatise, are worthy of study.
As I teach students about the history of psalm singing at RPTS, I remind them that one of the blessings of this practice is not only that it helps us practice union with Christ, who sang them while here on earth. For psalm singing also connects us with the church down through the ages. As you listen to the first stanza of Old Hundred in this brief video below with the words following, it is amazing to consider that those who founded our country hundreds of years ago were singing the same words that the church sings today (though the words are updated). Sometimes in Thanksgiving services, I have even had the church sing these old words, or those of the Ainsworth Psalter the Pilgrims used on the Mayflower, just to impress upon them this truth.
Shout to Jehovah, all the earth;
Serve ye Jehovah with gladness.
Before Him come with singing mirth,
Know that Jehovah He God is.
The preface to the Bay Psalm Book closes with the words below. Note the humble, grateful spirit of this godly forefather for the gift of having God's Word to sing, the principle of translation that the publishers followed, and the pilgrim way of the psalms.
If the verses, therefore, are not always as smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect, let them consider that God’s altar does not need our polish (Ex. 20). We have chosen to respect a plain translation rather than smooth our verses with the sweetness of paraphrase: and thus we have honored conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into the English language and David’s poetry into English meter; that so we may sing in Zion the Lord’s songs of praise according to His own will; until He take us from hence, and wipe away all our tears, and bid us enter into our Master’s joy to sing eternal Hallelujahs.