1. It's for sale.
The main thing you need to know right now about the Bay Psalm Book is that a copy of it is up for public sale for the first time since 1947.
Last week, Boston's Old South Church voted 271-34 to sell one of its two remaining copies of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book—one of the most historic volumes in American religious history. When it goes up for auction, Sotheby's vice chairman David Redden told The Boston Globe, it's likely to fetch between $10 million and $20 million. (The historic and liberal United Church of Christ congregation is also selling 19 pieces of early American communion silver.)
The church says its building needs at least $7 million in repairs, and its endowment needs to grow to support at least $300,000 in annual repairs after that. "We will take this wonderful old hymn book, from which our ancestors literally sang their praises to God, and convert it into doing God's ministry in the world today," Nancy Taylor, the church's senior minister, said in a press release.
The sale was not without controversy. Church historian Jeff Makholm disputed Taylor's characterization of the sale. "We're not helping the people in the community by air conditioning offices," he told WBUR. "It is right for the members to question whether that has anything necessarily to do with the mission of the church. But these books do have something to do with the mission of the church."
2. It's widely regarded as the first book published in America.
In 1638, a mere 18 years after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, the John set sail for the Massachusetts Bay Colony with Joseph Glover, his wife Elizabeth, their five children, and his wood and iron printing press. Glover died at sea, and it fell to his wife (overseeing locksmith Stephen Daye) to set up the press in the Glovers' Cambridge home. While the press had many purposes, the British colonists were particularly eager to see it be used to print their first book: a new translation of the Psalms from Hebrew, put into metrical rhyme for congregational singing. "Thirty pious and learned ministers" throughout New England worked on the translations, including noted Puritan leaders Richard Mather and John Cotton.
About 1,700 copies of the first edition were printed. Of these, only 11 remain. And of those, only five are complete copies.
For a long time, it was also the most valuable book in America. The last time one was up for public sale, in January 1947, it went for $151,000 (that's about $1.6 million in 2012 dollars) and broke all records for book auction sales—nearly doubling the price for a First Folio of Shakespeare (though one of these recently sold for $5 million).
3. It's not really the first book published in the New World.
Everyone acknowledges that the Bay Psalm Book wasn't the first item to come off of the Glover-Daye press. As Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop recorded in his journal, "The first thing which was printed was the freemen's Oath; the next was an almanac made for New England by Mr. William Pierce, mariner; the next was the Psalms newly turned into metre."
But the Spanish beat the English by more than a century. Breve y Mas Compendiosa Doctrina Christiana en Lengua Mexicana y Castellana ("The Brief and Most Concise Christian Doctrine in the Mexican Language"), a catechism by Mexico City archbishop Juan de Zumarraga, came off of Juan Pablos's presses in 1539. Hundreds of books were published between it and the Bay Psalm Book.