Now, a copy of the Bay Psalm Book may bring millions of dollars to the Boston church that owns it — if a divided congregation agrees in a vote Sunday to sell it.
The book, combined with a Colonial-era silver collection it may also sell, could bring tens of millions of dollars to the Old South Church. Leaders say the money is badly needed to restore the historic building and keep vital ministries going.
"What we're talking about is taking objects our forebears have given us that were used for mission and ministry, to repurpose in continuing mission and ministries," said Old South Senior minister Rev. Nancy Taylor.
But church historian Jeff Makholm said the artifacts are more than things — they're links to Old South's predecessors that can't be severed without damaging the spiritual mission they established.
"We use these things to sermonize and to inspire and to project our faith into the world," Makholm said.
The translations of the Biblical Psalms for Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony aren't considered elegant, but the linen and cotton rag paper they were printed on made 11 Bay Psalm Books strong enough to survive for nearly 400 years.
David Redden, vice chairman of Sotheby's, which evaluated the book and silver collection for the church, said the book could bring a staggering $20 million to $25 million.
"It's the most famous unknown book in the world," Redden said.
Redden said the book is rare, and rarely hits the market, but it's greatest value is symbolic. Books and printing are marks of civilization, "so the ability to create a book in the New World, was in a sense symbolical of our ability to create a new world here," he said.
The Congregationalist Old South Church, a United Church of Christ church, is considering selling one of its two books at time the church's weekly attendance has doubled to about 550 in recent years. Meanwhile, $1 million in annual giving represents a four-fold increase from 2005, when Taylor arrived, she said.
But Taylor said the church's financial projections indicate its ministries and programs are jeopardized by costs such as $7 million in deferred maintenance at the building it's occupied since 1875. This is not a time to choose historical artifacts over meeting today's needs, she said.
"We have a great history, but we gather that up in stories, and in inspiration, and bring it with us," she said. "The leadership doesn't think it has to be possessed in museum-worthy artifacts, but rather in the living and vital work that we do in the world."
Makholm said many costs described by church leaders as critical are discretionary. In an October letter, he asks members not to trade the church's heritage "for air conditioning and upgrades to the basement!"
A growing church with an $18 million endowment is not facing financial crisis, he said. The leadership is considering misusing gifts from the past instead of doing all it can to solve its problems, he said.
"Once we break the faith with our forebears, it's all out the door," Makholm said. "How easy is it to spend somebody else's money?"
For the sale of the books and silver to proceed, a two-thirds majority vote from attending members is required on Sunday. The debate has provoked hard feelings, but Taylor said a church old enough to have baptized Benjamin Franklin the day he was born can endure it.
"We've made it through the Great Depression, and abolition, and the American Revolution," she said. "I think that we can weather this."