Why Sam Adams' church is selling a bit of its history to pay for its future

The historic Old South Church in Boston, to which Sam Adams belonged, plans to sell a 1640 hymn book and Colonial Era silver to fund building repairs and expand its ministry.

Ben Franklin was baptized by the church, and Sam Adams was a member. But the congregation in downtown Boston has causes to fund and bills to pay, not the least of which are millions of dollars in upkeep for its current home, the Old South Church, a national landmark.

So on Sunday members of the congregation voted to sell valuable historical artifacts – including a 372-year-old hymn book valued at up to $20 million – to fund structural repairs and expand its ministry programs.

But at the heart of the vote is a larger question about the mission of the church: Is it more important to preserve the past or invest in the future? 

The congregation authorized the auction of one of its two copies of the Bay Psalm Book, one the first books ever published in North America. Only 11 copies remain of the original printing, published in 1640 by the first printer in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Stephen Daye. The church’s two copies have been kept in the rare book collection across the street at the Boston Public Library since 1866. Other items, which will be sold privately, include 19 pieces of Colonial-era silver held in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts since 1939.

By approving the sale of these artifacts, members are “agreeing that we are not conservators of rare and special objects, but a church in motion,” says Rev. Nancy Taylor. “We will turn the old hymn book into true doxology for today – helping the homeless, working with prisoners, and assisting victims of domestic violence.”

Opponents of the sale argued that the soul of the church could not be disconnected from its history.

"We use these things to sermonize and to inspire and to project our faith into the world," Jeff Makholm, the Old South Church historian, told the Associated Press.

The church’s first members were Puritan reformists and colony merchants who established a congregation in 1669. Benjamin Franklin was baptized by the church in 1706, and in 1773 Samuel Adams, a member, set the Boston Tea Party in motion from within the walls of the original building, now known as the Old South Meeting House, a landmark on Boston’s Freedom Trail.

The current church building in Copley Square – completed in 1875 – is a National Historic Landmark Building, built with rich-hued cherry wood, Roxbury puddingstone walls, and a copper cupola.

“The building is getting older and older by the minute,” says Ms. Taylor, and upkeep is expensive and complex. Part of the raised funds would go toward an estimated $7 million in building maintenance costs, the AP reported.

The Old South Church is one of several Colonial Era churches choosing to sell artifacts to pay for repairs to centuries-old structures, as well as to increase their outreach. Last year, the First Parish of Dorchester, Mass., sold 27 pieces of Colonial silver – some made by Paul Revere’s father – for $1.7 million. In 2001, the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Mass., – the church John Adams and his family attended – auctioned off silver for $2.6 million.

Churches do not qualify for public funds or foundation grants, which puts the economic burden entirely on its members, Taylor says.

She says the church is not just trying to maintain the historic building. Parting with such “wonderful old treasures” has not been easy, but it will provide the church with necessary funding to move its mission into the future. “We aren’t just patching up and keeping up, but we are really increasing and expanding our ministry.”

The congregation agrees with their minister’s viewpoint, approving the sale by a vote of 271 to 34, which was more than the two-thirds needed to move forward.

“We have a great history, but we gather that up in stories, and in inspiration, and bring it with us,” she told the AP. “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.”

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