Old South Church votes to sell rare psalm book from the 1600s and silver

Old South Church voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to let its trustees sell one of its two copies of a 1640 Bay Psalm Book, an exceedingly rare and valuable text that specialists say could fetch $10 million to $20 million at auction.

The money will help the church pay for needed repairs to its building and set the congregation on firmer financial ground as it pursues plans to grow its membership and mission.

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The motion to authorize a sale passed overwhelmingly, with 271 members voting in favor and 34 opposed. The margin far surpassed the required two-thirds threshold.

A second proposal to sell 19 pieces of early American communion silver owned by the church also passed by a substantial margin. An amendment added to each proposal limited the timeframe for a sale to 10 years.

The votes came after nearly two hours of discussion in a special congregational meeting held between the two morning Sunday services.

“The members and leadership went through an amazingly open Congregational process, and it was as beautiful as it was difficult,” said the Rev. Nancy Taylor, senior minister of Old South. “You can’t ask for more than people’s passion and love for church and fulfillment of mission.”

The psalm book, printed in Cambridge in 1640, was the first book published in British North America and quickly became the standard psalter used on Sunday mornings throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Eleven copies of it have survived, and all are now owned by major institutions. No copy has been on the market since 1947.

Both of Old South’s copies are housed in the rare books department of the Boston Public Library, across the street from the historic church. The silver is in the custody of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The overwhelming vote in favor of the proposal to sell came despite strong objection from the church historian, Jeff Makholm, who is also a former moderator, and a number of the church’s former lay leaders.

But most of those who spoke at today’s meeting, including a number of the church’s lay leadership, made a strong case for a sale. They said the church had a primary responsibility to invest in its building so that it could keep its doors open seven days a week as a “sanctuary in the city,” continue ministering to the poor and needy and expand its membership.

They said the church is in a far stronger place than it has been in many years; weekly attendance has doubled to about 500 in recent years and annual congregational support has also doubled, to nearly $1 million.

But lay leaders said the church’s 1875 building needed at least $7 million in repairs. The church’s finance team agreed that they should also set aside at least $300,000 each year to cover inevitable repairs in the future. Addressing these needs would cost about 20 percent more than the congregation takes in.

Proceeds from the sale of the historic items could boost the church’s endowment enough to cover that cost and put the church in a strong position going forward, they said. Otherwise, they said, the church faced a choice of either spending a greater portion of its $18 million endowment than the current 4 percent or cutting programs and staff.

Those opposed to the proposals argued that there was no crisis forcing a sale of the psalm book and silver now, that a vote to delay the sale could leave more time to raise more money or find a cheaper way to address the repairs.

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