By Daniel Lovering
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) - An historic Boston church has decided to sell a copy of the first book published in the American colonies, hoping to get as much as $20 million to make building repairs and sustain its ministry.
By an overwhelming vote on Sunday, members of the Old South Church agreed to sell one of two copies of the psalm book owned by the struggling church and printed in Cambridge in 1640, Senior Minister Nancy Taylor said on Monday.
The church, a nonprofit organization dating back to 1669, was considering the sale because it needs money to maintain its building, a National Historic Landmark built in 1875, and support its work with the public and the poor.
"Nobody likes to part with beloved old family heirlooms, but (they) decided in the end our mission and ministry was more important than holding onto old items," said Taylor, whose church is a member of the United Church of Christ, a Protestant Christian denomination.
The book was among 1,600 copies used as common hymn books in the 17th century, only 11 of which are known to exist today and are owned by Harvard and Yale universities and other institutions, she said.
A copy of the book has not been offered for sale since 1947, Taylor said.
A representative of Sotheby's auction house earlier called the book "the Gutenberg Bible of America," saying it was "really the first evidence of scholarship and civilization from the West reaching North America."
Opponents at Sunday's meeting contended that the book, kept in a rare books collection at the nearby Boston Public Library, was fundamental to the church's mission, according to Taylor.
Church members also voted to sell 19 pieces of silver kept since 1939 at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, she said.
"These amazing American treasures are not going away," Taylor said. "It's just that we won't own them."
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Andrew Hay)