Struggling church may cash in on rare 1640 book

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)

Daniel Lovering, Reuters

, Last Updated: 8:59 PM ET

A Massachusetts church may sell a copy of the first book published in the American colonies - a volume sometimes called the Gutenberg Bible of America - to help sustain its 343-year-old ministry.

The Old South Church in Boston plans to vote at a meeting on Sunday whether to sell one of its two copies of the book of psalms printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640 and expected to sell at auction for $10 million to $20 million, Senior Minister Nancy Taylor said on Friday.

The church, a nonprofit organization dating back to 1669, was considering the sale because it needed money to maintain its building, a National Historic Landmark built in 1875, and support its work with the public and the poor, she said.

“It’s a sign of the times,” Taylor said. “We are a true sanctuary in the city. We think this is an important ministry that we want to keep going.”

The book of psalms, she said, was “a very, very special rare book” kept in a special collection at the Boston Public Library. It is the lesser of two copies owned by the church, she said.

It was among 1,600 copies used as common hymn books in the 17th century, of which only 11 are known to still exist, she said. Other copies of the book are owned by Harvard, Yale and Brown universities, among other institutions, Taylor said.

The book’s importance went beyond its status as the first book printed in North America, said David Redden, vice chairman and director of the special projects department at Sotheby’s.

“It was really the first evidence of scholarship and civilization from the West reaching North America, so from that standpoint it’s extremely symbolic,” Redden said. “It’s easy to call it the Gutenberg Bible of America.”

Taylor, the senior minister, said the church’s leadership supported the idea of selling the book. But some members of the church have spoken out against the plan, saying the church had been through tougher times before, according to local media reports.

The Old South Church in Boston also will consider selling 19 pieces of silver housed since 1939 at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts, Taylor said.

About 200 to 300 of the church’s 600 members were expected to attend Sunday’s meeting.


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