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The Sabbath in Puritan New England, 1891

by Alice Morse Earle, Seventh Edition, To the Memory of my Mother Mother

Chapter 11.

The Psalm-Book of the Pilgrims.

We read in "The Courtship of Miles Standish," of the fair Priscilla, when John Alden came to woo her for his friend, the warlike little captain, that

    "Open wide on her lap lay the well-worn psalm-book of Ainsworth, Printed in Amsterdam, the words and the music together; Rough-hewn, angular notes, like stones in the wall of a churchyard, Darkened and overhung by the running vine of the verses. Such was the book from whose pages she sang the old Puritan anthem."

One of these "well-worn psalm-books of Ainsworth" lies now before me, perhaps the very one from which the lonely Priscilla sang as she sat a-spinning.

There is something especially dear to the lover and dreamer of the olden time, to the book-lover and antiquary as well, in an old, worn psalm or hymn book. It speaks quite as eloquently as does an old Bible of loving daily use, and adds the charm of interest in the quaint verse to reverence for the sacred word. A world of tender fancies springs into life as I turn over the pages of any old psalm-book "reading between the lines," and as I decipher the faded script on the titlepage. But this "psalm-book of Ainsworth," this book loved and used by the Pilgrims, brought over in one of those early ships, perhaps in the "Mayflower" itself, this book so symbolic of those early struggling days in New England, has a romance, a charm, an interest which thrills every drop of Puritan blood in my veins.

It is pleasing, too, this "Ainsworth's Version," aside from any thought of its historic associations; its square pages of diversified type are well printed, and have a quaint unfamiliar look which is intensely attractive, and to which the odd, irregular notes of music, the curiously ornamented head and tail pieces, and the occasional Hebrew or Greek letters add their undefinable charm.

It is a square quarto of three hundred and forty-eight closely printed pages, bound in time-stained but well-preserved parchment, and even the parchment itself is interesting, and lovely to the touch. The titlepage is missing, but I know that this is the edition printed, as was Priscilla's, in Amsterdam in 1612 (not "in England in 1600" as a note written in the last blank page states). The full title was "The Book of Psalms. Englished both in Prose and Metre. With annotations opening the words and sentences by conference with other Scriptures. Eph. v: 18,19. Bee yee filled with the Spirit speaking to yourselves in Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual-Songs singing and making melodie in your hearts to the Lord." The book contains besides the Psalms and Annotations, on its first pages, a "Preface declaring the reason and use of the Book;" and at the last pages a "Table directing to some principal things observed in the Annotations of the Psalms," a list of "Hebrew phrases observed which are somewhat hard and figurative," and also some "General Observations touching the Psalms."

I can well imagine what a pious delight this book was to our Pilgrim Fathers; and what a still greater delight it was to our Pilgrim Mothers, in that day and country of few books. They possessed in it, not only a wonderful new metrical version of the Psalms for singing, but a prose version for comparison as well; and the deeply learned and profoundly worded annotations placed at the end of each Psalm were doubtless of special interest to such "scripturists with all their hearts" as they were.

There were also, "for the use and edification of the saints," printed above each psalm the airs of appropriate tunes. The "rough-hewn, angular notes" are irregularly lozenge-shaped, like the notes or "pricks" in Queen Elizabeth's "Virginal-Book," and are placed on the staff without bars. Ainsworth, in his preface, says, "Tunes for the Psalms I find none set of God: so that ech people is to use the most grave decent and comfortable manner that they know how, according to the general rule. The singing notes I have most taken from our Englished psalms when they will fit the mesure of the verse: and for the other long verses I have also taken (for the most part) the gravest and easiest tunes of the French and Dutch psalmes." Easy the tunes certainly are, to the utmost degree of simplicity.

Great diversity too of type did the Pilgrims find in their Psalm-book: Roman type, Italics, black-letter, all were used; the verse was printed in Italics, the prose in Roman type, and the annotation in black-letter and small Roman text with close-spaced lines. This variety though picturesque makes the text rather difficult to read; for while one can decipher black-letter readily enough when reading whole pages of it, when it is interspersed with other type it makes the print somewhat confusing to the unaccustomed eye.

One curious characteristic of the typography is the frequent use of the hyphen, compound words or rather compound phrases being formed apparently without English rule or reason. Such combinations as these are given as instances: "highly-him-preferre," "renowned-name," "repose-me-quietlie," "in-mind-uplay," "turn-to-ashes," "my-alonely-soul," "beat-them-final," "pouring-out-them-hard," "inveyers-mak-streight," and "condemn-thou-them- as-guilty,"--which certainly would make fit verses to be sung to the accompaniment of Master Mace's "excellent-large-plump-lusty-fullspeaking- organ."

Ainsworth's Version when read proves to be a scholarly book, exhibiting far better grammar and punctuation and more uniformity of spelling than "The New England Psalm-book," which at a later date displaced Ainsworth in the affections and religious services of the New England Puritans and Pilgrims. Both versions are somewhat confused in sense, and of uncouth and grotesque versification; though the metre of Ainsworth is better than the rhyme. It is all written in "common metre," nearly all in lines of eight and six syllables alternately.

The name of the author of this version was Henry Ainsworth; he was the greatest of all the Holland Separatists, a typical Elizabethan Puritan, who left the church in which he was educated and attached himself to the Separatists, or Brownists, as they were called. He went into exile in Amsterdam in 1593, and worked for some time as a porter in a book-seller's shop, living (as Roger Williams wrote) "upon ninepence in the weeke with roots boyled." He established, with the Reverend Mr. Johnson, the new church in Holland; and when it was divided by dissension, he became the pastor of the "Ainsworthian Brownists" and so remained for twelve years. He was a most accomplished scholar, and was called the "rabbi of his age." Governor Bradford, in his "Dialogue," written in 1648, says of Ainsworth, "He had not his better for the Hebrew tongue in the University nor scarce in Europe." Hence, naturally, he was constantly engaged upon some work of translating or commentating, and still so highly prized is some of his work that it has been reprinted during this century. He also, being a skilful disputant, wrote innumerable controversial pamphlets and books, many of which still exist. It is said that he once had a long and spirited controversy with a brother divine as to whether the ephod of Aaron were blue or green. I fear we of to-day have lost much that the final, decisive judgment from so learned scholars and students as to the correct color has not descended to us, and now, if we wish to know, we shall have to fight it all over again.

In spite of his power of argument (or perhaps on account of it) the most prominent part which Ainsworth seemed to take in Amsterdam for many years was that of peacemaker, as many of his contemporaries testify: for they quarrelled fiercely among themselves in the exiled church, though they had such sore need of unity and good fellowship; and they had many church arguments and judgments and lawsuits. They quarrelled over the exercise of power in the church; over the true meaning of the text Matthew xviii. 17; whether the members of the congregation should be allowed to look on their Bibles during the preaching or on their Psalm-books during the singing; whether they should sing at all in their meetings; over the power of the office of ruling elder (a fruitful source of dissension and disruption in the New England congregations likewise) and above all, they quarrelled long and bitterly over the unseemly and gay dress of the parson's wife, Madam Johnson. These were the terrible accusations that were brought against that bedizened Puritan: that she wore "her bodies tied to the petticote with points as men do their doublets and hose; contrary to I Thess. v: 22, conferred with Deut. xx: 11;" that she also wore "lawn coives," and "busks," and "whalebones in the petticote bodies," and a "veluet hoode," and a "long white brest;" and that she "stood gazing bracing and vaunting in the shop dores;" and that "men called her a bounceing girl" (as if she could help that!). And one of her worst and most bitterly condemned offences was that she wore "a topish hat." This her husband vehemently denied; and long discussions and explanations followed on the hat's topishness,--"Mr. Ainsworth dilating much upon a greeke worde" (as of course so learned a man would). For the benefit of unlearned modern children of the Puritans let me give the old Puritan's precise explanation and classification of topishness. "Though veluet in its nature were not topish, yet if common mariners should weare such it would be a sign of pride and topishness in them. Also a gilded raper and a feather are not topish in their nature, neither in a captain to weare them, and yet if a minister should weare them they would be signs of great vanity topishness and lightness." I wonder that topish hat had not undone the whole Puritan church in Holland.

In settling all these and many other disputes, in translating, commentating, and versifying, did Henry Ainsworth pass his days; until, worn out by hard labor, and succumbing to long continued weakness, he died in 1623. This romantic story of his death is told by Neal. "It was sudden and not without suspicion of violence; for it is reported that, having found a diamond of very great value in the streets of Amsterdam, he advertised it in print; and when the owner, who was a Jew, came to demand it, he offered him any acknowledgment he would desire, but Ainsworth though poor would accept of nothing but conference with some of his rabbis upon the prophecies of the Old Testament relating to the Messiah, which the other promised, but not having interest enough to obtain it he was poisoned." This rather ambiguous sentence means that Ainsworth was poisoned, not the Jew. Brooks's account of the story is that the conference took place, the Jews were vanquished, and in revenge poisoned the champion of Christianity afterwards. Dexter most unromantically throws cold water on this poisoning story, and adduces much circumstantial testimony to prove its improbability; but it could hardly have been invented in cold blood by the Puritan historians, and must have had some foundation in truth. And since he is dead, and the thought cannot harm him, I may acknowledge that I firmly believe and I like to believe that he died in so romantic a way.

The Puritans were psalm-singers ever; and in Holland the Brownist division of the church came under strong influences from Geneva and Wittenberg, the birth-places of psalm-singing, that made them doubly fond of "worship in song." Hence the Pilgrim Fathers, Brewster, Bradford, Carver, and Standish, for love of music as well as in affectionate testimony to their old pastor and friend, brought to the New World copies of his version of the Psalms and sang from it with delight and profit to themselves, if not with ease and elegance.

Dexter says very mildly of Ainsworth's literary work that "there are diversities of gifts, and it is no offence to his memory to conclude that he shone more as an exegete than as a poet." Poesy is a gift of the gods and cometh not from deep Hebrew study nor from vast learning, and we must accept Ainsworth's pious enthusiasm in the place of poetic fervor. Of the quality of his work, however, it is best to judge for one's self. Here is his rendition of the Nineteenth Psalm, so well known to us in verse by Addison's glorious "The spacious firmament on high." The prose version is printed in one column and the verse by its side.

1. To the Mayster of the Musik: A Psalm of David

2. The heavens, doo tel the glory of God: and the out-spred firmament shevveth; the work of his hand.

3. Day unto day uttereth speech: and night unto night manifesteth knowledge:

4. No speech, and no words: not heard is their voice

5. Through all the earth, gone-forth is their line: and unto the utmost-end of the world their speakings: he hath put a tent in them for the sun.

6. And he; as a bridegroom, going-forth out of his privy-chamber: joyes as a mighty-man to run a race

7. From the utmost end of the heavens is his egress; and his compassing-regress is unto the utmost-ends of them: and none is hidd, from his heat.

2. The heav'ne, doo tel the glory of God and his firmament dooth preach.

3. work of his hands. Day unto day dooth largely-utter speach and night unto night dooth knowledge shew

4. No speach, and words are none.

5. thier voice it-is not heard. Thier line through all the earth is gone: and to the worlds end, thier speakings: in them he did dispose,

6. tent for the Sun. Who-bride-groom-like out of his chamber goes: joyes strong-man-like, to run a race

7. From heav'ns end, his egress: and his regress to the end of them hidd from his heat, none is:

In order to show the proportion of annotation in the book, and to indicate the mental traits of the author, let me state that this psalm, in both prose and metrical versions, occupies about one page; while the closely printed annotations fill over three pages; which is hardly "explaining with brevitie," as Ainsworth says in his preface. With this psalm the notes commence thus:--

"2. (the out-spred-firmament) the whole cope of heaven, with the aier which though it be soft and liquid and spred over the Earth, yet it is fast and firm and therefore called of us according to the common Greek version a firmament: the holy Ghost expresseth it by another term Mid-heaven. This out-spred-firmament of expansion God made amidds the waters for a separation and named it Heaven, which of David is said to be stretched out as courtayn and elsewhere is said to be as firm as moulten glass. So under this name firmament be commised the orbs of the heav'ns and the aier and the whole spacious country above the earth."

These annotations must have formed to the Pilgrims not only a dictionary but a perfect encyclopædia of useful knowledge. Things spiritual and things temporal were explained therein. Scientific, historic, and religious information were dispensed impartially. Much and varied instruction was given in Natural History, though viewed of course from a strictly religious point of view. The little Pilgrims learned from their Psalm-Book that the "Leviathan is the great whalefish or seadragon, so called of the fast joyning together of his scales as he is described Job 40: 20, 41 and is used to resemble great tyrants." They also learned that "Lions of sundry-kinds have sundry-names. Tear-in-pieces like a lion. That he ravin not, make-a-prey; called a plueker Renter or Tearer, and elsewhere Laby that is, Harty and couragious; Kphir, this lurking, Couchant. The reason of thier names is shewed, as The renting-lion as greedy to tear, and the lurking-Lion as biding in covert places. Other names are also given to this kind as Shachal, of ramping, of fierce nature; and Lajith of subduing his prey. Psalm LVI Lions called here Lebain, harty, stowt couragious, Lions. Lions are mentioned in the Scriptures for the stowtness of thier hart, boldnes, and grimnes of thier countenance."

Here are other annotations taken at hap-hazard. The lines,

  "Al they that doo upon me look
    a scoff at me doe make
  they with the lip do make-a-mow
    the head they scornful-shake,"

Ainsworth thus explains: "Make-a-mow, making-an-opening with the lip which may be taken both for mowing and thrusting out of the lip and for licentious opening thereof to speak reproach." The expression "Keep thou me as the black of the apple of the eye" is thus annotated: "The black, that is, the sight in the midds of the eye wherein appeareth the resemblance of a little man, and thereupon seemeth to be called in Hebrew Ishon which is a man. And as that part is blackish so this word is also used for other black things as the blackness of night. The apple so we call that which the Hebrew here calleth bath and babath that is the babie or little image appearing in the eye." Anger receives this definition: "ire, outward in the face, grauue, grimnes or fiercenes of countenance. The original Aph signifieth both the nose by which one breatheth, and Anger which appeareth in the snuffing or breathing of the nose."

Before the Holland exiles had this version of Ainsworth's to sing from, they used the book known as "Sternhold and Hopkins' Psalms." They gave it up gladly to show honor to the work of their loved pastor, and perhaps also with a sense of pleasure in not having to sing any verses which had been used and authorized by the Church of England. In doing this they had to abandon, however, such spirited lines as Sternhold's--

  "The earth did shake, for feare did quake
    the hills their bases shook.
  Removed they were, in place most fayre
    at God's right fearfull looks.

  "He rode on hye, and did soe flye Upon the cherubins He came in sight and made his flight Upon the winges of windes."

They sung instead,--

  "And th' earth did shake and quake and styrred bee
  grounds of the mount: & shook for wroth was hee
  Smoke mounted, in his wrath, fyre did eat
  out of his mouth: from it burned-with heat."

Alas, poor Priscilla! how could she sing with ease or reverence such confused verses? The tune, too, set in the psalm-book seems absolutely unfitted to the metre. I fear when she sang from the pages "the old Puritan anthem" that she was forced to turn it into a chant, else the irregular lines could never have been brought within the compass of the melody; and yet, the metre is certainly better than the sense.

It may be thought that these selections of the Psalms have been chosen for their crudeness and grotesqueness. I have tried in vain to find othersome that would show more elegant finish or more of the spirit of poetry; the most poetical lines I can discover are these, which are beautiful for the reason that the noble thoughts of the Psalmist cannot be hidden, even by the wording of the learned Puritan minister:--

    1. Jehovah feedeth me: I shall not lack

    2. In grassy fields, he downe dooth make me lye: he gently-leads mee, quiet-Waters by.

    3. He dooth return my soul: for his name-sake in paths of justice leads-me-quietly.

    4. Yea, though I walk in dale of deadly-shade ile fear none yll, for with me thou wilt be thy rod, thy staff eke, they shall comfort mee.

But few of these psalm-books of Ainsworth are now in existence; but few indeed came to New England. Elder Brewster owned one, as is shown by the inventory of the books in his library. Not every member of the congregation, not every family possessed one; many were too poor, many "lacked skill to read," and in some communities only one psalm-book was owned in the entire church. Hence arose the odious custom of "deaconing" or "lining" the psalm, by which each line was read separately by the deacon or elder and then sung by the congregation. There is no doubt, however, that this Ainsworth's Version was used in many of the early New England meetings. Reverend Thomas Symmes, in his "Joco-Serious Dialogue," printed in 1723, wrote: "Furthermore the Church of Plymouth made use of Ainsworths Version of the Psalms until the year 1692. For altho' our New England version of the Psalms was compiled by sundry hands and completed by President Dunster about the year 1640; yet that church did not use it, it seems, 'till two and fifty years after but stuck to Ainsworth; and until about 1682 their excellent custom was to sing without reading the lines."

John Cotton's account of the Salem church written in 1760, says, "On June 19, 1692, the pastor propounded to the church that seeing many of the psalms in Mr. Ainsworth's translation which had hitherto been sung in the congregation had such difficult tunes that none in the church could set, they would consider of some expedient that they might sing all the psalms. After some time of consideration on August 7 following, the church voted that when the tunes were difficult in the translation then used, they would make use of the New England psalm-book, long before received in the churches of the Massachusetts colony, not one brother opposing the conclusion. But finding it inconvenient to use two psalm-books, they at length, in June 1696 agreed wholly to lay aside Ainsworth and with general consent introduced the other which is used to this day, 1760. And here it will be proper to observe that it was their practice until the beginning of October, 1681 to sing the psalms without reading the lines; but then, at the motion of a brother who otherwise could not join in the ordinance [I suppose because he could not read] they altered the custom, and reading was introduced, the elder performing that service after the pastor had first expounded the psalm, which were usually sung in course."

On the blank leaf of the copy of Ainsworth now lying before me are written these words, "This was used in Salem half-a-century from the first settlement." In a record of the Salem church is this entry of a church meeting: "4 of 5th month, 1667. The pastor having formerly propounded and given reason for the use of the Bay Psalm Book in regard to the difficulty of the tunes and that we could not sing them so well as formerly and that there was a singularity in our using Ainsworths tunes: but especially because we had not the liberty of singing all the scripture Psalms according to Col. iii. 16. He did not again propound the same, and after several brethren had spoken, there was at last a unanimous consent with respect to the last reason mentioned, that the Bay Psalm Book should be used together with Ainsworth to supply the defects of it."

It is significant enough of the "low state of the musik in the meetings" when we find that the simple tunes written in Ainsworth's Version were too difficult for the colonists to sing. To such a condition had church-music been reduced by "lining the psalm" and by the lack of musical instruments to guide and control the singers. It was not much better in old England; for we find in the preface of Rous' Psalms (which were published in 1643 and authorized to be used in the English Church) references to the "difficulty of Ainsworth's tunes."

Hood says, "There is almost a certainty that no other version than Ainsworth was ever used in the colonies until the New England Version was published. But if any one was used in one or two of the churches it was Sternhold and Hopkins." I cannot feel convinced of this, but believe that both Ravenscroft's and Sternhold and Hopkins' Versions were used at first in many of the Bay settlements. Salem church had a peculiar connection in its origin with the church of Plymouth, which would account, doubtless, for its protracted use of the version so loved by the Pilgrims; but the Puritans of the Bay, coming directly from England, must have brought with them the version which they had used in England, that of Sternhold and Hopkins; and they would hardly have wished, nor would it have been possible for them to acquire speedily in the new land the Ainsworth's Version used by the Pilgrims from Holland.

The second edition of Ainsworth's Version was printed in 1617, a third in 1618; the fourth, in London in 1639, was a folio; and the sixth, in Amsterdam in 1644, was an octavo. A little 24mo copy is in the Essex Institute in Salem, and an octavo is in the Prince Library, now in the custody of the Public Library of the City of Boston. The latter copy has a note in it written by the Rev. Thomas Prince: "Plymouth, May 1, 1732. I have seen an edition of this version of 1618; and this version was sung in Plymouth Colony and I suppose in the rest of New England 'till the New England Version was printed."

There is a copy of the first edition of Ainsworth in the Bodleian Library and one in the library of Trinity College, Dublin. The American Antiquarian Society and the Lenox Library are the only public libraries in America that possess copies, so far as I know. The one in the library of the American Antiquarian Society was presented to it in 1815 by the Rev. William Bentley of Salem, Massachusetts, to whom also belonged the copy of the Bay Psalm Book now in the library at Worcester. He was a divine and a bibliophile and an antiquary, but there also ran in his veins blood of warmer flow. During the war of 1812, when the report came, in meeting-time, that the frigate "Constitution" was being chased into Marblehead harbor, the loyal parson Bentley locked up his church, and tucked up his gown, and sallied forth with his whole flock of parishioners to march to Marblehead with the soldiers, ready to "fight unto death" if necessary. Being short and fat, and the mercury standing at eighty-five degrees, the doctor's physical strength gave out, and he had to be hoisted up astride a cannon to ride to the scene of conflict,--martial in spirit though weak in the legs.

But this association with the old book is comparatively of our own day; and the most pleasing fancy which the "psalm-book of Ainsworth" brings to my mind, the most sacred and reverenced thought, is of a far more remote, a more peaceful and quiet scene; though men of warlike blood and fighting stock were there present and took part therein. It is with that Sabbath Day before the Landing at Plymouth which was spent by the Pilgrims, as Mather says, "in the devout and pious exercises of a sacred rest." And though Matthew Arnold thought that the Mayflower voyagers would have been intolerable company for Shakespeare and Virgil, yet in that quiet day of devout prayer and praise they show a calm religious peace and trust that is, perhaps, the highest spiritual type of "sweetness and light." And from this quaint old book their lips found words and music to express in song their pure and holy faith.

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