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Old South Church’s ‘Bay Psalm Book’ Sells for Over $14 Million, Part III

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In March of 2013, Nancy S. Taylor, who has the title “Senior Minister & CEO” of “Old South Church in Boston,” explained the decision to sell one of two copies of the Bay Psalm Book (The Whole Book of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre) Old South Church owned. She wrote, in part, “No organization—and no church—will survive over the long term if it fails to make adjustments at critical junctures. The average life-span of a [Protestant] church in the US is 75 years. You beat those odds by being smart and strategic, by focusing like a laser on your mission, anticipating problems, making tactical adjustments at the right moments and, if you are a church, by listening to and heeding the voice of our Still Speaking God.”

Old South Church’s forebears bequeathed to us a legacy of such prescient tactical adjustments.

For instance, in 1873 we divested ourselves of our most important, emotionally freighted and heavily used heritage asset: our Meeting-house. Our venerable Meeting-house had hosted the Tea Party meetings, is the site upon which we baptized Benjamin Franklin on the day of his birth and welcomed Phillis Wheately into membership. Our 15th minister, a radical abolitionist, opened the Meeting-house as a recruiting station for the Union Army. The building is intimately and uniquely associated with the beginnings of this nation, with the idea, the pursuit and the achievement of freedom. Moreover, it was the house in which for a century-and-a-half our forebears had worshipped, baptized their babies and held funerals.

Divesting ourselves of the Meeting-house and moving to the Back Bay, was a wrenching decision and a calculated risk…Today the Old South Meeting House is a museum… Once a year, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving we return to our ancestral home to worship God, remember our forebears and give thanks…

In 2012 Old South Church arrived again at just such a critical juncture... no less critical than the decision of 1873.

The situation: Our current level of mission and programming is unsustainable... Over the past eight years we employed every strategy we know to turn the ship: increased financial stewardship from our members… growing the congregation… living within our endowment spending rule… using the building to generate income through rentals… budgeting a realistic annual capital reserve… a serious effort at planned giving… Additionally, we are at the early stages of testing the feasibility of a capital campaign.

The combination of these strategies has tremendously improved our financial picture… However, it is clear that these strategies combined would not put us on a path to financial sustainability. Thus, in December of 2012 we arrived at a moment of choice:

Choice A: The members of our Board of Trustees, Operations Committee, Church Council and Finance Committee were unanimously agreed that we were on the brink of initiating the beginning of a decline...

Choice B: Or, we could monetize some of our assets (non-producing assets unrelated to our core mission) for the sake of our future ... for the sake of the bold, tender and joyful ministry to which God has blessed and called us.

On December 2, 2012 Old South Church agreed to make a tactical adjustment. After years of conversations and presentations, the members voted overwhelming to convert old silver into wind for the sails of our Vision for the 21st Century. They voted to convert a precious and rare book—an ancient hymn book—into doxology... into ministries of justice, mercy and beauty…

Old South Silver: Old South Church owns a wonderful collection of old silver. The collection includes nineteen items that have been held on deposit since 1939 at the Museum of Fine Arts. The members voted to convert these precious items (no longer used for the purposes for which they had been given) into ministry.

Bay Psalm Book: the so-called ‘Beta Copy’ of our two copies. Published in 1640 as a hymn book (the first fruit of the American press), it had been on deposit with the Boston Public Library since 1866. In 1978 a probate court ruled that the Beta Copy is not and never has been a part of Thomas Prince’s own library (bequeathed to Old South by our 5th minister and governed by certain restrictions) and that Old South Church has free and clear title to the Bay Psalm Book (Beta Copy) and license to transform it into mission and ministry. This ruling was recently reaffirmed by the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, Division of Public Charities. The Church’s “Alpha Copy” is digitized and available on our Website twenty-four-seven, free of charge, to anyone in the world…

On Sunday, December 2, 2012 over three hundred members of Old South Church in Boston gathered in the church’s 1875 sanctuary to wrestle together with questions that go to the core of our work: What is the heart of our mission? Where is our treasure? What does God ask of us?

The meeting that ensued was beautiful and deep, difficult and important. The questions that engaged our robust congregational debate should be discussed with such energy, civility and passion at every church meeting. The testimonials from the members over the course of more than two hours of meeting—and in the days, weeks and months preceding the vote in many presentations, meetings and on-line forums—were poignant and powerful...

The members voted in overwhelming numbers to transform treasures into ministry.

The vote has led to the arrangements for a single-lot auction of the Bay Psalm Book (Beta Copy) on November 26th, 2013 under the direction of Sotheby's. Decisions concerning our silver are still in process.

The silver collection to which she referred consists of twenty-nine pieces: nine cups, ten beakers, three tankards, six flagons, and a basin. James Barron related in The New York Times, “The congregation voted last year to sell one copy to pay for ministries and repairs to the church’s 1875 building. The church’s historian, a longtime member of the congregation, resigned his post to protest the sale, and a successor was named.”

Dr. Ian Christie-Miller developed the digital copy of the Alpha Copy of the Bay Psalm Book with the support of the Old South Church and the Boston Public Library. The Alpha Copy has a note that reads, “This Book belongs to The New-England-Library, Begun to be collected by Thomas Prince, upon his entering Harvard-College, July 6, 1703…”

Thomas Prince was the fifth minister of Old South Church, having served from 1718 to 1758. Barron noted, “Thomas Prince, the grandson of the last governor of Plymouth Colony… was also a book collector who stashed his collection in the nooks and crannies of the church. His New-England-Library, as he called it, apparently included two copies of the Bay Psalm Book, according to Sotheby’s (whose curators question whether he managed to acquire five, as some accounts say). The church sent both copies to the Boston Public Library for safekeeping in 1866; the other copy is not being sold.”

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