Elizabeth and Her Printing Press: Psalm 23 and British America's First Book Publisher
Updated: Mar 18
One of the most expensive books in the world began its life in the little home Elizabeth Glover established on Crooked Lane, Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Elizabeth became British America's first book publisher in 1640, using the only printing press in North America.
Elizabeth’s place in history began in England, on the day her husband resigned from his pastorate in Surrey. Joseph Glover, the son of wealthy London merchants, had decided, with Elizabeth, to make a radical change. Choosing to undertake the danger-filled voyage to America, they anticipated expressing their faith in freedom and establishing a ministry through literature.
The Journey Begins
On a summer day in 1638, Elizabeth, Joseph and their five children set sail on the ship, John of London. Locksmith Stephen Daye (later spelled Day) accompanied them, along with his wife and three sons. The Glovers had paid for their passage—Daye would work as an indentured servant until his debt was paid.
Photo Credit: The Library of Congress
A unique passenger also set sail that day in the hold of the ship: a printing press, made of pegged timber and iron, worth 20 pounds. Along with it traveled all the supplies they would need: paper (more expensive than the press itself), ink and worn lead alloy type. Nothing could be forgotten or the new enterprise would surely fail; no such supplies were available in the wilderness.
Tragedy struck when Joseph died on the voyage. Now Elizabeth faced an even more uncertain future: she voyaged alone with her children to a settlement surrounded only by deep forest.
Stepping onto the shores of her new home, she had little idea what to expect. With determination to make things work, she set up a home for herself and her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts Bay.
Elizabeth Glover's home in Cambridge (Photo Credit: Peet's Coffee & Tea)
With the help of Daye, she also situated the printing press in a home on Crooked Lane (now 15 Holyoke Street), which she'd bought for the Daye family.
She proceeded now with the dream she and her husband had envisioned: to use the printing press to honor God, their faith and a major new concept about worship.
An important change brought by the Reformation advanced the idea that everyone should actively participate in worship. Before, only a choir might sing while the congregation listened. The Puritans felt that all worshippers should add their voices, expressing praise in the music and poetry of the Psalms. They'd no longer be just observers.
A group of scholars in colonial New England, including John Cotton, Richard Mather and John Eliot, created a Psalter for congregational use, with translations as close to the original Hebrew as they could humanly make it. Elizabeth Glover, Stephen Daye and their press would now produce it, creating the first printed book on the American continent. At the same time, they would introduce America’s first printed book of poetry.
The Birth of a Book
Surprisingly, Stephen Daye had little or no experience as a printer. His teenage son, Matthew, is thought to have been a printer’s apprentice in England and brought that raw skill to the venture.
In the tiny shop lit by candles, they turned out the first printing of 1,700 books, originally called The Whole Booke of Psalmes. The result showed type that was sometimes uneven and blurred, and the spelling could be wildly inconsistent.
And yet, something very lovely happened. Here is an excerpt from Psalm 23 in the Bay Psalm Book:
The Lord to mee a shepheard is, want therefore shall not I,
Hee in the folds of tender-grasse, doth cause mee downe to lie...
"Hee in the folds of tender-grasse, doth cause mee downe to lie."
Besides bringing these words to life, the publisher and printers did many other things right: the nonacidic ink used, as well as thick linen and cotton rag paper, resulted in the surviving books remaining in very good condition through hundreds of years. It was a remarkable achievement.
What the Future Held
Elizabeth Glover remarried in 1641. Her new husband was Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard College (now University). Sadly, Elizabeth died only two years later.
The Printing Press:
After Elizabeth’s remarriage, the printing press was eventually moved to Henry Dunster's lodgings near Harvard. Young Matthew Daye took over the running of the press until his death in 1649.
Photo Credit: Cambridge Historical Society
According to the Cambridge Historical Society, "the antiquated Daye press was brought to Westminster, Vermont in 1781 and continued to play an important role. The colonists of Vermont used the press to produce The Vermont Gazette, a patriotic publication that inspired Colonists during the Revolutionary War.
"Vermont was the final stop for the Daye Press and this is where it remains today, a historical artifact and the physical embodiment of ideas and hope of the first American generations."
The Little Book:
From that original printing of 1,700 Bay Psalm Books, only 11 now survive. One of these little books made its way through history and recently became the subject of worldwide attention.
The Bay Psalm Book open to Psalm 23 (Photo Credit: Harvard Library)
The historic Old South Church, a Boston landmark that counted Benjamin Franklin among its early parishioners, auctioned one of its two remaining copies at Sotheby’s New York. At the time of the auction, the Bay Psalm Book was open to faithfully display Psalm 23.
On November 26, 2013, this small copy of The Bay Psalm Book, with its beginnings in a humble candle-lit home on Crooked Lane, sold for almost 14.2 million dollars, the most costly book in the world at the time.
A Continued Heritage
The new owner, businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein, promised to share the book with the public. From June 2015 to January 2016, the Bay Psalm Book was on display, free of charge to view, at the Library of Congress.
Old South Church put the proceeds of the auction into a charitable endowment. The impact of this particular little book will continue for years to come, providing meals, homeless ministries and other services to the community.
The Bay Psalm Book also continues to convey Elizabeth and Joseph Glover’s vision—a community message of new life and renewed hope celebrated in spring and Easter.
Linda Borromeo is the author of Mystery Shores, where young sleuths Christie and Melina must find the key to a long-ago secret. Linda lives with her husband in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, the setting for her book.