Welcome to Saturday Book Review time! On most of the Saturdays this year we’re looking at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value. Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.
Today we’re stepping outside the Anglican tradition and looking at a gem of American history. The first book ever published and printed in North America was The Bay Psalm Book in 1640, a mere twenty years after the pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts. It has gone through many re-printings since then, and probably has some more legible successors in recent times, but I happened upon a facsimile print of the first edition, complete with blocky type and funny 17th century spelling. On its own, it’s a cool historical curiosity. But its actual contents have proven useful to me, and even found their way into my church’s worship from time to time.
The Bay Psalms Book is basically a psalter: all the psalms are re-translated such that they conform to common poetic meters in English such that they can be set to hymn tunes. This book does not assign any tunes, it’s simply the text of the metric psalms. What I have done, then, is take up some of a psalm from this book, fix up the spelling (and modernize the grammar a little if possible) and pick a tune that my congregation will know.
Psalm 67, for example (odd spelling and italics included), reads thus:
God gracious be to us & give
his blessing us unto,
let him upon us make to shine
his countenance alſo.*
That there may be the knowledg of
thy way the earth upon,
and alſo of thy ſaving health
in every nation. **
O God let thee the people prayſe,
let all people prayſe thee.
O let the nations** rejoyce,
and let them joyfull bee:
For thou ſhalt give judgement unto
the people righteouſly,
alſo the nations upon earth
thou ſhalt them lead ſafely.
O God let thee the people prayſe
let all people prayſe thee.
Her fruitfull increaſe by the earth
ſhall then forth yeilded bee:
God ev’n our owne God ſhall us bleſſe.
God I ſay bleſſe us ſhall,
and of the earth the utmoſt coaſts
they ſhall him reverence all.
* The “long s” – ſ – looks like an lowercase f, but if you look carefully it doesn’t have the horizontal line through the center. There was a general rule when to use ſ or s, but it doesn’t seem to be strictly followed in this book.
** Twice in this psalm you have to pronounce “nations” with three syllables: na-ti-ons. This kind of thing happens with similar words throughout the book, making it rather difficult for the modern reader to pick up on.
Now try singing that to the hymn tune AZMON (popular with the song “O for a thousand tongues to sing“).
Pretty cool, huh? What you can do with a book like this is look up the Psalm for the Communion service on a given Sunday, check if its verses are readable and singable for your congregation, and then bring them into the worship service set to a tune they know… then they’ll both read/pray the Psalm and sing a paraphrase of it!
A note on Psalm-singing: in liturgical worship, Anglican or otherwise, the text of the liturgy is very important. It matters what we say, and why we say it. To mess around with the wording or translation, therefore, is not good practice. So I would never recommend metric psalms as a replacement for the Psalmody in the Daily Office or Communion services. Let the official psalter translation do its work. Metric versions such as in The Bay Psalms Book can be refreshing and interesting and even beneficial at times, but should never replace the actual text of our liturgy.
The ratings in short…
This book is nice and simple; there’s an explanatory introduction, the text of 150 psalms, and nothing else. The header tells you what psalm(s) are on the page below, so you can thumb through the book quickly and easily as you search for the one your want.
Devotional Usefulness: 3/5
You have to supply the music. You have to be able to read the imperfect print (if you get a facsimile edition) and ignore the funny spellings. You have to figure out how to pronounce some of the words like a 17th century British colonist. It can be done, and it can be beneficial, but much of this book just “won’t do it” for worshipers in the 21st century. Whenever I’ve used it in my church, it’s always been limited in scope and edited for clarity of language.
Reference Value: 3/5
There are modern metric psalm translations out there, so you don’t really need to seek this one out. This is great if you like colonial American history, or the history of bible/psalm translation, or the history of Christian worship. The introduction provides a little insight into puritan theology of worship, too.