Members of the Old South Church faced a wrenching decision last weekend, when they voted on whether to auction off a rare Colonial-era hymnal. The church currently holds two of the 11 remaining copies of a 1640 Bay Psalm Book, the first book published in the British North American colonies. Once a staple of services in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the text is a physical link to a fabled church history that extends from early Colonial days through the Boston Tea Party, the abolitionist movement, and the Civil War.
But that rich backstory must to be weighed against the challenges of the present. The Old South Church congregation, which has grown substantially in recent years, faces serious financial challenges. Its building, more than a century old, requires major repairs. Church leaders have said that under present conditions, they can’t stay open seven days a week or maintain their current programming and staff. The sale of a hymnal, expected to draw between $10 million and $20 million, would boost the church’s endowment and lay the groundwork for a financially stable future.
After a lengthy and open debate, the congregation spoke with nearly one voice: 271 members voted in favor of the sale, and only 34 opposed it. It was the right choice, and the near-unity underscored what members of any religious congregation surely understand: More than a collection of assets and artifacts, a church is a group of people.