If there is one thing, above all else, that the Pilgrims endeavoured to live by, it is the scriptures. Therefore, a direct instruction like this one found printed in the frontispiece of the psalter (not to be confused with the dastardly-waste-of-time salter* who came to New Plimoth in 1623) is not to be ignored. William Brewster brought this book with him from Leiden and it features a new (for 1612) annotated translation along with musical settings for all 150 Psalms. Here it is, looking quite picturesque on a shelf:
This book contains the psalms that the first settlers sang in church services here in Plymouth until the colony was absorbed by Massachusetts Bay and the infinitely more popular Bay Psalm Book pushed it aside. More properly, it’s called The Book of Psalmes: Englished both in prose and Metre, by Henry Ainsworth.
Hold on, let’s just take a moment to observe the verb “to English”. Fantastic.
Henry Ainsworth (1571-1622 or 23) was a leader and teacher in The Church of the Ancient Brethren, the English separatist congregation in Amsterdam. It was there that the Scrooby separatists, William Brewster, Richard Clyfton, et al. developed a relationship with him, agreeing on many of the finer points of theology. William Bradford describes Ainsworth’s character in his 1648 Dialogue; it seems he could do no wrong!
A man of a thousand…He was a man very modest, amiable, and sociable in his ordinary course and carriage, of an innocent and unblamable life and conversation, of a meek spirit, and a calm temper, void of passion, and not easily provoked….He had an excellent gift of teaching and opening the Scriptures; and things did flow from him with that facility, plainness and sweetness, as did much affect the hearers…. he was most ready and pregnant in the Scriptures, as if the book of God had been written in his heart…teaching not only the word and doctrine of God, but in the words of God, and for the most part in a continued phrase and words of Scripture…….In a word [with Bradford, a word can never just mean A word -Sally], the times and place in which he lived were not worthy of such a man.
Ainsworth, along with many of the other leading separatist theologians, was primarily concerned with accuracy of translation in order to maintain purity of the text. He also believed strongly that the ordinary person, i.e., the uneducated masses, should have access to the scriptures. Accordingly, in the preface to the Book of Psalmes, he writes “the text I set down in such a manner, as I neither omit the grace of the Hebrue tongue…neyther yet use I such uncouth phrase, as the common reader understands not”. Moreover, each psalm is presented first with an as-accurate-as-possible translation, a setting of the words so that they can be sung, a suggestion for a tune and is accompanied by complete annotations, because, in the words of Master Ainsworth himself, some of the psalms have “hard words and phrases”.
Mr. Ainsworth was certainly creative with his use of language; who knew salvation can have either three or four syllables depending on whether you’re singing Psalm 3 or Psalm 20? If you want to fit “the olive tree” into just 3 syllables you can simply change it to “th’olive tree” (Psalm 128) and in the same vein, “my enemies” becomes “m’enemies” in the 27th Psalm. Because he intended for this translation to be perfectly accurate, he brings us bizarre combinations of hyphenated words like “water-brooks” in the 1st Psalm, “mockingly-deride” (Psalm 2) and the positively delightful “confidently-put-your-trust in th’ever-being-Jah” (Psalm 4). Originality and awkwardness notwithstanding, many of the lyrics are downright beautiful, like the last verse of Psalm 59:
But I wil sing thy strength, and showe at morning thy kindnes: for thou my fense, and refuge art, in day of my distress. O thou that art my fortitude, to thee sing-psalm wil I: for God mine hye-munition is, the God of my mercie.
As an aside, I feel compelled to mention that Ainsworth is certainly not the only translator and setter of psalms in our time period. In fact, his work would have been little known in England as it was not commissioned or approved by the King’s Church. Those colonists who came to New Plimoth from England rather than Holland would have been most familiar with Sternhold and Hopkins’ Whole Book of Psalms Collected into English Metre (first published in 1562). Many of the tunes overlap, but the words are almost as different as they could possibly be while still retaining the same meaning. Here’s a line-by-line comparison of the 100th Psalm:
I couldn’t possibly publish a whole post about music without allowing you to hear it for yourself; I could never be that cruel. So, for your viewing pleasure, without further ado, here’s the Henry Ainsworth arrangement of Psalm 3:
What’s that, you ask? How can you hear more of Ainsworth, his music? Well, for a start you can come down to the village any time and ask us to sing you a psalm, we’d gladly oblige. If that’s not enough (and I’m quite sure after reading this blog post it can’t possibly be) you’re in luck! On Thursday, November 1st at the 1749 Court House in Town Square, Plymouth from 7 to 9 pm, we will be celebrating the 400th anniversary Henry Ainsworth’s Book of Psalms. We’d love to see you there!
Need more persuading? Here’s some entirely original, cringe-worthy jokes (sorry!) that will certainly not be told next Thursday night.
Why did Henry Ainsworth cross the road?
To get to the other psalm.
How many Henry Ainsworths does it take to change a light bulb?
Just one, as long as the light is pure and accurate, yet accessible to common man.
If you don’t know who I am, it ains-worth explaining…
********************Insert your own groans HERE********************
* Now, about that salter…it’s all in the silent “p”…William Bradford writes ”but he whom they sent to make salte was an ignorante, foolish, self-willd fellow; he bore them in hand he could doe great matters in making salt-works…for as he by his bould confidence…so he had wound him selfe in to these mens high esteeme hear, so as they were faine to let him goe on till all men saw his vanity. For he could not doe any thing but boyle salt in pans, and yet would make them that were joynd with him beleeve ther was so grat a misterie in it as was not easie to be attained, and made them doe many unnecessary things to blind their eys, till they discerned his sutltie. The next yere he was sente to Cap-Anne, and the pans were set up ther wher the fishing was; but before sommer was out, he burnte the house, and the fire was so vehemente as it spoyld the pans, at least some of them, and this was the end of that chargable bussines.”
Of Plymouth Plantation, 1624, Bradford, his owne spellyng.