Stories of Church Bells

When I was a young child, our church had a steeple with a bell that was rung to announce the beginning of worship. Our family always arrived at the church before the bell was rung and occasionally, we were allowed to assist with the ringing of the bell. There was a rope that came down from the steeple into the entryway of the church that was attached to a large ring that rocked the bell to one side causing the internal clapper to strike the side of the bell. When the rope was released the weight of the bell would swing it to the other side where the clapper would strike. As a kid I would be lifted up and hang onto the rope, while an adult pulled it down. The swinging bell would pull me up before lowering me back near the adult who would pull again until the bell had rung the required number of times. The sound of the bell was louder just below its tower and the experience of being a part of its ringing was great fun.

When I was a bit older, the church underwent a remodeling that involved removing the steeple and adding an education wing to the building. The bell was put in storage for a while and later mounted near the ground on a stand. It took many years before the congregation raised the funds to have a new steeple built to house the bell.

A bell that I really remember was the one at our church camp. It was rung to announce waking time, to call people to meals and to announce the beginning of meetings and sessions. We also rang it softly to announce lights out at the end of the day. The bell was mounted in a tower made of logs that sat near the dining hall. Over the years I got to ring that bell many times. As an adult, when I was manager of the camp, I rebuilt the tower with new logs and moved it to a new location in preparation for the building of a new dining hall.

One of the churches that we served at the beginning of our ministry had a bell. Its steeple was outside in front of the church and we would send a youth or an adult out at the appointed time to ring the bell. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the church, we allowed anyone who wanted to ring the bell at the end of the celebration worship. Old and young lined up for their turn to pull the rope. The ringing attracted neighbors who came to see what was going on and who enjoyed taking a turn ringing the bell as well.

That particular bell was the object of many Halloween pranks. It became a kind of challenge for area youth to see if they could get away with ringing the bell on Halloween night. One year, I dressed in dark clothes and stood next to the bell. When a youth would approach, I would step out and startle the youth, who would run down the street, perhaps with a story of the haunting of the church. Another year we devised a plan to balance the bell upside down and fill it with water to drench the first person who came to ring the bell. The problem with this plan was that it was a small town. The activity of filling the bell with water was a big enough production that any potential ringers were aware of what we were doing. When we finally got the bell filled, it dripped and leaked and so we had no victim for our prank. We finally pulled the rope and ran just to witness the large splash of water.

That bell had a steep steeple roof above the bell with a cross at the top of the roof. It was a long way up to the top of the cross. One year, when we were painting the church building, we decided that the cross needed a new coat of paint. We didn’t have a ladder tall enough to reach the top of the cross, so a church member brought a forklift with a platform. The forklift was raised and a latter placed on top of the platform. A youth from the church who was the son of the owner of the forklift climbed the ladder and painted the cross. All went well, except, just as he was descending, he dropped the can of paint, leaving a large splash of gold paint on the shingles of the steeple. The paint stain remained for the rest of the time I served the church and for many years afterward.

Each year in the community of Bowness-on-Solway, on the firth that separates England and Scotland there is a reenactment called the Bell Raid. People approach the small community in rowing boats followed by a picnic or a pub lunch if it is raining. The annual gathering is a reenactment of an historic raid that took place in 1626, when a Scottish raiding party crossed at low tide and stole the bells from the Bowness church. As they ran over the firth with the disgruntled citizens of the town racing to catch them the flood tide was biting at their heels. The water was rising, they were being chased and the bells were heavy. They dropped the bells in order to escape. The bells sank to the bottom of the Solway river and disappeared forever. With revenge on their hearts, citizens of Bowness succeeded installing bells from Dornock and placing them in their little church. It became the duty of the minister of Dornock to write to Bowness when a new rector was appointed there, for the return of the bells. The traditional reply was, “Only when ours come back from the sea.” These days the reenactment involves the use of beautifully restored traditional wooden boats and it is a bit of boat festival as much as an historic event. It is also the opportunity for the people of both communities along with wooden boat enthusiasts from all around to enjoy a good pub lunch and raise a few pints.

Today I serve a church with a bell that is rung with a electro-mechanical clapper that is rung by an elaborate time clock that knows not only the time of day but also the day of the week. The system is automatic except for the tolling hammer, which is used rarely for funerals or other special occasions. That system has been in place since 1959 and works fairly well, with occasional problems with the clock or mechanism that require a bit of maintenance. I love the sound of the bell and it doesn’t seem to annoy the neighbors, but there are times when I miss the old practice of pulling a rope and sometimes even wish we had a grand story, like the title church in England with the bell from a Scottish church in its steeple.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!