It is worth reflecting on this Feast Day how one little book, crudely produced by early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a year ago became the most expensive book in the world, outstripping unique versions of the Bible, Shakespeare's First Folios and Jean-Jacques Audubon's famous Birds of America.
Last November, a copy of the Bay Psalm Book sold at Sotheby's, New York, for $14.2 million, a sum even Croesus would have found eye-watering. Rarity is, of course, a factor. There are believed to be only eleven of these volumes in existence. The books were so thoroughly used that most fell into disrepair sooner rather than later. These few have survived Independence Wars, Civil Wars, World Wars, boundary disputes and hard-driven migration. But their intrinsic value is surely bound up in all the hope, the longing, the nostalgia, the idealism, the quest for freedom, equality and a Promised Land, dreamed by the founding fathers of America. This was the pilgrims' rightful inheritance, in the gift of a beneficient God whose bounty was freely available to the focused and thankful heart.
Months of pitching and rolling on the Atlantic under changeable stars, in insanitary conditions and fed on a scratch diet that barely kept body and soul together, must have caused some misgivings. The sight of an expansive, untamed wilderness must have been daunting, their cultural heritage abandoned for good. For most, there was no going back. It would have taken many seasons for the magnitude of the undertaking to sink in. It is impossible to dwell on this with a dry eye.
But what did they seek in order to steel their courage and confirm the ground under their feet? A book of Psalms, the first recourse for the bewildered and anchorless, where the map of God's heart is reflected in daily human vicissitudes, a compendium of 'givens', without any challenges to theological construction and meaning.
What those pioneers sought was a new translation from the Hebrew, one fit for the realities of the New World and couched in democratic phrases. In such circumstances, the striving for commonwealth was not a design, but an instinct of survival. They wanted their Psalms in verse. Singing was their inspiration. Breathing together, chanting harmonies, strengthened a sense of family and corporate purpose whilst engraving truths in the memory.
The text is said by some scholars to be graceless and awkward. But the ministers responsible made it clear they 'attended conscience rather than elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into English language'. The press had to be transported all the way from England. The ink is said to be uneven, the standard of workmanship poor and the book riddled with misprints and idiosyncratic punctuation.
But what remains to the twenty-first century is a living legacy charged with the power of that virgin experience on the threshold of a vast unknown. It is a moving testimony to faith rewarded, to the hardwon fruits of labour in field and vineyard, to the population of a Continent pledged to freedom and opportunity. This little book flags the chapter in global history in which Western civilisation took root in America and led to the birth of a great nation.
What a fine irony that capitalist cultures can only express their homage to a vision via mercantile currency!
Wishing all American friends a Happy Thanksgiving!