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Psalm 23 and The Bay Psalm Book

The Bay Psalm Book is a key artifact in understanding the beliefs and practices of Pilgrims, and the importance of music therein.  This collection of psalm texts, rather than the Bible itself, was the first volume published in the New World.  The book is considered to have been the work of Christian reformers seeking a collection of worship materials that strictly supported Puritan values. The Psalms served that purpose.

While the above video features traditional instruments, research shows that Puritans often did not allow for instrumental accompaniment with their early Psalm singing.  The Bay Psalm Book’s publication in 1640 came at a time when few could read and write words, never mind musical notation, and there were few copies of the book created to share in churches. As such, Puritans developed the practice of “lining out” the Psalm–having a deacon or clerk read each line of text before it was sung. Later versions of the Bay Psalm Book (from 1698 on) also featured a dozen monophonic tunes for church members unable to read music.

Colonial church music (and, indeed, church practices in general) led to a great many debates and controversies. By 1720, records exist of multiple Boston Ministers speaking out against the perceived perversion of traditional Psalm tunes in their churches.  By the 18th century, debates were plentiful: Should every church member, regardless of musical talent and training, be allowed to sing? Should churches stick to only a few key songs, ensuring that these tunes are perfected (thus properly presented before God)?  How do churches maintain the (highly idealized) Congregational values brought by the Puritans? What of instruments, or of self-expression?  These debates resulted in the slow development of church music (for example, fruguing) and the creation of 18th century colonial singing schools.

Related :
How Long, Dear Saviour O How Long via Sounds of the Colonies
Early American Psalmody via Smithsonian Folkways
Bay Psalm Book Sale: Old South Church Considers Selling First Book Published in North America via Huffington Post


About Shauna Vert

Digital History geek, museum lover, former Smithsonian intern and uOttawa alumni. Tweeting @Shaunanagins, brainwaving at

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