Once in a Lifetime

- by Bruce E. McKinney

Oldsouthchurch

The Old South Church

Note:  records and links mentioned in this article are listed at the end of page 4]

Boston today is a field of skyscrapers interspersed with patches of history that live on as old buildings and parks and curbside historical plates to explain long-ago significance.  Among these many historic icons is the Old South Church at 645 Boylston on Copley Square opposite the Boston Public Library.   In its present location since the 19th century it has maintained its place in the ancient downtown even as the streets have widened and neighbors one by one succumbed to the blandishments of progress and money.  Through its nearly three hundred and fifty years the church has held on to its royal place in American history through the inevitable fires, depression, development and waves of new ideas that are ever a danger to the old.  History it seems is always at risk, even in Boston.  These days the church’s changing mission, its progress and continuing relevance, even its survival as a living institution are being weighed against the emotional and financial value of two books they own that are so important that the sale of one is expected to reconstitute the institution’s financial structure for the foreseeable future.  The books they own are two copies of the Bay Psalm printed in 1640, the first book to be printed in the British American colonies.  They have two copies and the thinking is they can part with one.

For the Church the issues are complex:  how to maintain and strengthen its robust ministries and honor its storied history.  If the focus is on its history those that oppose a sale will judge it a sacrilege.  If, on the other hand, the goal is the greatest good for the largest audience the book will be cashed and the proceeds invested.  Church leaders and members grappled openly with these matters over many years.  They concluded that as the church is not in the library business they should transform a treasure from the past into ministries for the future.  Recently the congregation voted to sell a copy, a vote that required two thirds in favor and achieved almost Russian results, 88%.  A copy will be sold.

Because this book has been a fragile cultural icon for more than a hundred years neither copy has been kept in the church since 1866 so it's possible many of the church’s 300 members have never seen one in person.  Both copies are kept at the Boston Public Library and access strictly governed.  For the interested a link to the Church's electronic full text version is provided on page 4.