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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.

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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.

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