An apostate church in Massachusetts that was once affiliated with the Great Awakening is expected to auction off one of two hymn books that date from the 17th century in order to raise millions for its broke congregation.
Old South Church in Boston says that because it is in dire financial straits, it feels it must auction off its historic hymnal, as it could bring in up to $20 million for the congregation. The hymnal, also known as the “Bay Psalm Book,” was published in 1640 and is believed to be one of the first books published in the land. It features a variety of spiritual songs, also known as psalms, that were sung by the early colonial founders. Only 11 copies remain in existence.
The stately building that now houses the congregation has an over 300-year-old history, which began with the Puritans and Pilgrims. The Puritans were characterized by their desire for purity in word and deed, and left England to worship God in spirit and in truth after seeing much pollution of the Christian life among professing believers in the nation. Massachusetts Bay Colony became the prime settlement for many Puritans that sought to leave the Church of England and start a new life of their own.
Through the years, many historic figures were members of the Old South Church congregation, such as Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Sewall, the latter of which wrote the first anti-slavery tract in America.
Old South Church was also involved in the first Great Awakening, as Thomas Prince, who pastored the church from 1718 to 1758, invited the renowned open-air preacher George Whitefield to preach in Boston in 1740. Prince followed the revivals by publishing a newsletter for two years that updated readers on how God was moving through the preaching of His word. He also published a book entitled An Account of the Revival of Religion in Boston that chronicled the Great Awakening in his local area. Prince authored of a number of other books as well during his tenure, including Earthquakes: the Works of God and Tokens of His Just Displeasure.
However, Old South Church now describes itself as a “progressive congregation,” and acknowledges that it is much different from its Puritan days.
“We’ve loosened up a lot since then!” states the website for the historic location.
“At Old South, our faith is over 2000 years old, but our thinking is not! Ours is a progressive theology characterized by intellectual curiosity about God’s world and God’s peoples,” the site continues. “We acknowledge the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice. That said, we take the Bible far too seriously to take it literally in all respects, and recognize that faith and reason are both gifts from God that aid us on this journey.”
Old South now embraces homosexuality, and has a homosexual flag on its website next to its United Church of Christ insignia.
After taking a vote on proposed solutions to its financial struggles this past Sunday, the congregation overwhelmingly favored the auction — 271 to 34. Old South’s Board of Trustees told reporters that along with the historical hymn book, it will be auctioning off 19 colonial-era silver items to help fund building improvements and to aid in nonprofit work.
Nancy S. Taylor, the first woman minister in the church’s 300-plus year-old history, said in a statement that this was “an exciting time for our congregation.”
“We gathered together as a deeply respectful community to make this decision. I am gratified that a large majority of our members agreed with church leaders that we are at a mission-critical moment now and this is the best path forward,” Taylor said. “This decision ensures that we will remain one of the strongest, most vital progressive Christian churches in Boston and perhaps in the nation, for years to come.”
However, some historians are disturbed that Taylor and others are auctioning the hymnal. They see it as an unkind gesture to Old South’s Puritan founders.
“For us to sell it, it’s bordering on preposterous and irresponsible,” church historian Jeff Makholm told the Boston Herald. “It would be like the state of Israel selling the Dead Sea Scrolls to build highways.”
The date of the auction is not yet known.
Photo: Jim Hood