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The Bells of St. John’s

     In 1770, German Lutherans formally organized this congregation in a log meeting house which they had begun constructing the year before on two half-acre lots purchased from Jonathan Hager, the town’s founder. During the time the growing congregation worshiped in their log church, they purchased a bell. However, there are conflicting records in the church’s archives as to the source of the bell. But we do know that our first bell crossed the Atlantic from the British Isles to serve this parish.

     Certain records indicate that the bell was cast in London in 1788. Its inscription, although in English, had the German spelling.

In the mid-1980s, however, we received word that a 200-year-old bell was discovered hanging in the village bell tower of New Lanark, Scotland, with an inscription: “Haggers Town, Washing¬ton County, Lutheran Congregation, Glasgow – Maryland, 1786.” One story is that the bell was taken to New Lanark by Highlanders in 1791. In 1985, Rev. Lawrence Conway of St. John’s wrote to a Lutheran congregation in Scotland regarding their inquiries about the bell. He stated in his letter, “A bell was ordered to be de¬livered from Glasgow in 1786; and the bell was, in fact, delivered for use here.” If so, how did it end up back in Scotland? Or was another bell cast in Glasgow in the same mold, without the inscrip¬tion being changed? Did we buy two bells, one in 1786 from Glasgow and one in 1788 from London? That seems unlikely for a young cong¬regation from an expense standpoint… and where would they have placed two bells in a log meeting house? Perhaps one bell could have been hung from a yoke-type frame in the churchyard, but certainly not two.

Bell placement remains a mystery until our present imposing brick edifice was built, with construction beginning in 1795. The bell tower and steeple, which dominated the north end of the church and became a venerated landmark for the city, would assuredly have housed a bell or bells.

In 1824, a third of a century later, bell problems were noted in council minutes of May 3 when it was decided “to examine the bell and ascertain what can be done with it…” The first recorded mention that there was more than one bell was in council minutes less than a month later on May 31 when it was resolved to “fix the bells in a manner that they cannot sustain any damage by tolling.” In August, at a meeting of the congregation, it was decided “to obtain another bell, and to sell the broken bell to the best advantage.” It was moved that a subscription be under¬taken to raise money for the new bell. Ninety-two voted in favor and fourteen voted against the motion. The subscription drug on for a year and a half. There were difficulties collecting pledges as well as accounting for the money received. One deacon was called to task by the council for being $3 and change short of the $324 he was to turn in from his collections, and two elders were assigned “to make settlement” with him.

Nevertheless, the purchase of the bell proceeded without the subscription being complete. Council minutes of July 4, 1825, stated, “Rev. Mr. Kurtz received a letter from Boston that there were 3 bells ready-cast of different sizes that probably would suit us. The question was put whether to send a person to Boston to make a contract for a bell, but a majority of the council thought it could be done by writing. The Rev. Mr. Kurtz was directed to write and make every necessary arrangement concerning a bell.”

An entry in the September 8, 1825 ledger of Paul Revere & Sons, Boston, Massachusetts confirms the purchase of the bell. A subsequent journal entry indicates the debt for the bell was paid in November 1825. The bell and tongue weighed a total of 883 pounds. Although the Revere company’s average price for church bells was 45 cents a pound, we bought ours for 35 cents a pound for a total of $309.05. It is unclear why subscriptions substantially in excess of that were being raised, other than for the labor to install the bell.

It is interesting that the famous patriot, Paul Revere, was also a bell maker as well as a master craftsman silversmith. He learned bell making at the age of 57 and retired from the business at the age of 76 in 1811. St. John’s bell was produced by his sons, who continued the business until 1828.

During the early part of the 1800s, various individuals were given the task of ringing the bell, including council members. Cleaning the church was usually combined with the bell ringing for a payment of $15 a year or thereabouts. Later, there was a sexton, whose duties included bell ringing, often with precise instructions as to time and duration. Often, he was allowed to charge a dollar for ringing the bell for deaths and funerals unless he was also paid for digging the grave.

Bell problems resurfaced again in July of 1865 when the council directed that a “committee be established to examine the condition of the broken bell and report to Pastor, who shall determine the manner funds to be raised necessary to procure a new bell.”

This time, the process took an inordinate amount of time. A year passed until the council gave the bell committee “power to repair the steeple and take down the broken bell as soon as practicable.” After another three and a half years, a three-man committee was appointed by council on January 3, 1870, “to open a correspondence in relation to Bells for the church.” The next month, February 1870, the council approved the “purchase of two 2,000 pound bells from Jones & Co. of Troy, New York,” and instructed the Bell Committee to have the purchased bells placed in the steeple.

Those bells are the bells we have today, still calling us to worship well over a century later. They have lasted much longer than any of our previous bells, and have rung-in the second, third, and fourth new centuries served by St. John’s congregation. They have only been silent during a nine month period of sanctuary restoration following a devastating fire started by lightning striking the steeple on July 20, 1969, the day man first landed on the moon. Some in the community saw it as a sign that man should not incur God’s wrath by penetrating his heavens.

On September 17, 1987, twenty five parishioners joined in ringing our great bells for 200 seconds as part of theBells Across America celebration commemorating the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution of the United States of America, the world’s oldest written instrument of national government.

There are other bells that enter into St. John’s history. There are bells in our organ. In 1969, an electric carillon was given to the church as a memorial to Dr. J. Edward Harms, long-time pastor of St. John’s. Its hymn-sounds temper the hustle and bustle of downtown Hagerstown each day during the noon hour. In late 1978, two octaves of hand bells were donated to the church as a memorial by Marie Phillipy. The 24 bells were played by our first hand bell choir, conducted by Music Director Harry Sterling on Palm Sunday 1978. The bells now number 36, or three octaves. We even had a walking, talking Bell. Rev. W. Leigh Bell was an assistant pastor of St. John’s in the mid 1940s.

In the early years of our church edifice, parishioners who dozed in the pews were awakened in time to add their monetary support by the tinkle of a tiny bell hung within a silken tassel under the collection bags, which were on a ten-foot rod. Apparently, parishioners were allowed to sleep during the sermon, but a quick jerk on the rod by the deacon taking up the collection awakened them in time to tender their necessary contribution.

These are the many and varied Bells of St. John’s.

Bells of all sizes, clarity, and tonality awaken us to the Good News of Jesus Christ, our Lord… past, present, and future. Every time you hear a bell ring, let it be a proclamation that God is King of your life!

— Jack B. Byers