Last year the Old South Congregational Church in Boston began to unravel itself from a quandary. They had been the longtime owners of an exceptional church hymnal, one of the first books produced in North America, printed in 1640. After years of deliberation, study groups, and business meetings, the church finally voted to sell the hymnal.
Because of the age and historical importance attached to this hymnal, selling it was much more than jettisoning a tiny sliver of American nostalgia. The hymnal has incredible value for collectors, and those collectors were salivating to sink their teeth into this ancient book. Thus, when Sotheby’s auctioned the hymnal last month, it brought a hammer price of $14.2 million, a record for a single printed book.
The sale price, with that long string of zeros, did not free the church from controversy. On one side were the church historians and those members of the congregation who felt they had been called to preserve the church’s history and legacy. On the other side were Pastor Nancy Taylor, the majority of the leadership, and those who felt that faithful stewardship demanded that the resources of the church not be preserved but repurposed to continue mission and ministry.
One side said it was about symbolism, while the other side said it was about service. One side said it was about the past, while the other side pointed to the future. One side said it was about greed on the behalf of the church’s leadership, and the church leadership said the dissenters were moored to traditionalism.
I watched this story unfold for over a year, and was sympathetic to both sides until I heard the church historian say that the church had two of these exceptional books and if this one was sold, “You would never be able to hold one in each hand ever again.” Of course, he had to admit that holding them was not really practical – they are much too fragile for that.