February 20, 2020
Facing Financial Pressure, Old South Church Sells a Book

December 5, 2013 — Needing to put itself on a stronger financial path, the Old South Church in Boston’s Copley Square decided a year ago to divest itself of non-producing assets, and this week learned that the sale of an old book—but not just any old book—will bring it more than $13 million.

The Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in America, in 1640, sold at auction in New York City late last month to an Australian private equity fund founder and philanthropist for the highest price ever recorded for a print book in an open sale – $14.2 million.

"We are blessed," said Nancy Taylor, senior minister and CEO of Old South Church in Boston. "After all the calculations are done, Old South Church in Boston will realize $13.1 million. That's $13.1 million to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, shelter the shivering, companion the lonely, comfort the grieving, visit the prisoner, pursue peace, and work for justice."

The decision to sell, while receiving the majority vote of more than 300 church members, did not please all. The church’s historian, Jeff Makholm, last December reportedly told The Boston Herald, “For us to sell it, it’s bordering on preposterous and irresponsible. It would be like the state of Israel selling the Dead Sea Scrolls to build highways.”

The church noted that the state’s Division of Public Charities confirmed a 1978 ruling that it had free and clear title to the book “and the right to transform it into ministry.”

Facing the Brink of Decline

The question of monetizing assets came to a head last year when members of the church’s board, Operations Committee, Church Council, and Finance Committee unanimously agreed “that we were on the brink of initiating the beginning of a decline.”

In a statement last March, Taylor noted, “Over the past eight years we employed every strategy we know to turn the ship: increased financial stewardship from our members (magnificent success); growing the congregation (tremendous progress); living within our endowment spending rule (done); using the building to generate income through rentals (providing a significant infusion of cash); budgeting a realistic annual capital reserve (in process); a serious effort at planned giving (we have made great strides).”

At the time, the church also said it was investigating the feasibility of a capital campaign.

The book sale marks the second time the church has divested itself of an emotionally laden asset. In 1873, it sold its meeting house – where Benjamin Franklin was baptized, Tea Party meetings leading up to the Revolutionary War were held, and which served as a recruiting station for the Union Army during the Civil War.

Today, the Old South Meeting House is a museum on Boston’s Freedom Trail.

Old South Church possessed two of the 11 known remaining copies of the Bay Psalm Book and kept the other one. Several years ago, the church had that copy digitized and made it available on the church's website. In addition, Sotheby's auction house, which handled the Nov. 26 sale, introduced a Bay Psalm Book app for smart phones that can be downloaded for free.

While Old South Church maintains ownership of the Thomas Prince Library containing 2,000 rare books and manuscripts, it has been considering selling some of its silver.

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