The act of bell ringing is symbolic of all proselytizing religions. It implies the pointless interference with the quiet of other people.
— Ezra Pound
The temple bell stops but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.
— Matsuo Basho
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
— 1 Corinthians 13:1
Saturday, August 6, at 8:15am, and again Tuesday, August 9, at 11am I’ll flip the switch that says TOLLER (never RINGER for the sounding of the bells in observance of individual or mass death) for three minutes, in solemn commemoration of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.
In just the last few years, Center Church (a.k.a. First Church of Christ, New Haven) — in concert with the other two churches that still anchor New Haven’s Green — has also added its bell to a riotous, arrhythmic clanging in celebration of the 150th anniversary of General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. On Veterans Day, at 11:11am, we traditionally join a solemn chorus above the town square by tolling our bell for the prescribed time of 11 minutes. These civic-minded requests come in from city boards, our denominational leaders, other churches and ecumenical organizations, and the Governor’s office. (Outside of our own worship-related use of the bell, we also honor a request each May by Yale’s Office of the Secretary to ring the bells while officers and hundreds of senior undergraduates detour to loop around our 1814 meeting house on the way to commencement exercises on Old Campus, in recognition of the fact that past commencements were held at Center until 1895.)
The bell at Center Church peals across the common ground of the town square, and is not governed by any noise ordinances. Similar to many towns, New Haven’s code has exclusions “for any toll or chime from any building clock, school, or church” ranked right alongside the exclusions for “natural phenomena,” “farming equipment or activity,” authorized sirens, and legally mandated warning devices. Great exceptionalism requires a community-minded sense of responsibility. Churches (along with farmers, presumably) aren’t supposed to abuse this power. In fact, Yale’s 19th century records show that pranksters who rang the university chapel bell without permission were subject to harsh discipline…which could include being sentenced to the odious role of official bell ringer for weeks at a time.
The secular, ecumenical side of bell ringing had early roots here. New Haven was originally founded in 1638 as a Puritan theocracy and there was no complete separation of church and state in Connecticut until the 1818 Constitution, which meant that the unconsecrated Puritan (eventually Congregationalist) “meeting houses” were supported in part by taxes and therefore used for both church services and town business.
In 1750, the First Ecclesiastical Society of New Haven (the legal and business decision making body of the First Church of Christ, New Haven) voted to have the bell rung every evening at 9pm to mark the town curfew and to assist in setting clocks. The apparent exception to the rule was Saturday nights, when the Sabbath — the mandatory “great curfew” of sorts for Puritans — officially began at sunset. When Trinity Church finally acquired a bell in 1793, an overzealous mystery person decided there was no reason an Episcopalian bell should have to observe the Puritan Sabbath too. In the face of community outcry after the second Saturday in a row with a rogue 9pm curfew bell, a Vestry meeting was called there:
Once ours was not the only bell in town, the bells for Trinity chimed in at noon, and the bell eventually acquired for the meeting house of a second Congregational church nearby — a predecessor to the congregations that merged to create the modern day United Church on the Green — rang in the early morning. (In 1825 the selectmen of New Haven took over the responsibility and expense of arranging to have a bell ring three times daily.)
“It being reported that, without any order or direction of the Wardens and Vestry of said Church, the bell has been rung on the two preceding Saturday nights by some person unknown, therefore, Voted That in our opinion the ringing of the bell at the above-mentioned time was very improper and irregular, and that we do not countenance the same; and that no person in the future be permitted to ring the bell on Saturday or any other nights, unless ordered by the Society at large.” *
In 1821, the City of New Haven arranged to have the church bells rung by each church’s sexton to alert residents of a fire. When Center’s bell cracked in the course of this duty in the fall of 1853, the City of New Haven paid a bill of $178.50 to the company in Troy, New York that attempted to recast — but ultimately replaced — it. To usher in the actual beginning of the 20th century, sexton F.R. Fisher rang Center Church’s bell on December 31, 1900 for the five minutes before the stroke of midnight, and then for another five minutes afterwards into January 1, 1901.
If the New Haven bells have been coordinated to work together machine-like, they’ve also been imagined to be in anthropomorphized conversation — or competition — above the town and gown below. When the Stamp Act went into effect on November 1, 1765, the bells at the Yale’s chapel, our church, and the state house next to it on the Green (New Haven and Hartford were co-capitals from 1701 to 1875, each with its own building to host the General Assembly for half the year) staggered their funereal tolls throughout the day. As the Connecticut Gazette reported it:
“This morning three bells in this town, which are neighbors, began to toll here and still continue tolling and saluting each other at suitable intervals. They seem to speak the word No–vem–ber in the most melancholy tone imaginable.”
A joke found in 19th century sources claims that “there used to be a tradition in regards to New Haven church bells” that the bells at Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green rang out, “Bishops, priests, and deacons!”; the Baptist bell tower rang, “Come and get dipped!”; the bells at the North Church on the Green pealed, “Free grace!”…and the bells at First Church of Christ in New Haven (Center Church) — John Davenport’s founding Puritan congregation — still tolled every Sunday in Calvinist warning, “Total depravity!”
Shortly after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the National Council of Churches and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy put out a public call for houses of worship to toll their bells 26 times for the lives lost at the school that morning. As Malloy announced in his press conference,
“I’m asking that Friday, Dec. 21, at 9:30 a.m., exactly one week after the horror began to unfold in Newtown, that the entire state observe a moment of silence. I’d like to ask those houses of worship or other buildings that have the ability to play bells to do so as well — 26 bells for the beautiful children and six wonderful adults who were killed at school that day.”
The lay leader at Center who showed up at the office to request bell duty suggested that a proper Christian bell ringing would mark the deaths of the shooter and his mother — whom he had killed at home beforehand — as well. I met her at the meeting house Friday morning.
The behemoth 3,533 pound bell hung in 1854 served Center and New Haven for over a hundred years before the clapper flew out of it one Sunday morning during the call to worship ring. (The steel plate installed beneath — the architectural equivalent of “trust in God but tie your camel” — saved the steeple floor, and providence saved the bell ringer.) Rope pulling is no longer involved. An automated bell ringing mechanism is now triggered with the flip of a switch, and runs continually until it is stopped. Especially when the winter storm windows are in place, the mighty walls of the church make the bell difficult to hear from the spot where the switch is positioned. I stood a few feet away at the nearest window with an ear cupped against the glass, counting out loud each ring until it was exactly time for her to turn it off again.
Center’s bell was not the last left speaking. On the way back to the office I ran into the minister leaving the meeting house next door in the lightly swirling snow; he informed me they had made the same decision (as other UCC congregations had been urged to consider as well, by the denomination’s national officers).
The actual sound of a bell that tolls is brutally, relentlessly, radically anonymous — the “heartless” and unsentimental tongue “lent to dumb fate” of Friedrich Schiller’s “The Song of the Bell.” In the public sphere, church bell command presence but refuse to surrender the names of the living or dead; they lack all vocabulary or inflection for judgment or forgiveness alike. They are an aural tomb of the unknown — a sacred democracy — for those at any distance beyond the immediate ground. They are as stubbornly mute to differentiating one individual from the next as New Haven’s ancient burying ground stretched out silently, unmarked, beneath the leveled green below.
Before it was adapted into the sweetly familiar Christmas carol, Longfellow’s seven stanza “Christmas Bells” was a Civil War era imagining of a shouting match between a volley of death and bells of hope:
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
For those who see through a glass more darkly than Longfellow and are not always so moved to belief in God’s hand (or existence at all) in the chaos of man, the words of John Donne speak to the unconsecrated civic sacred, the little heartbreaks of a bell rung from a town meeting house that transcend citizenship, political leanings, or creed:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
The official motto of the United Church of Christ is “That they may all be one.” The denomination’s official brand message for advertising campaigns since 2004 is “God is Still Speaking.” It’s fair to speculate whether God’s speaking voice is one that is audible at all times, even to the faithful. The bells of the town meeting house at least call out that history and ritual are still speaking and are, whether in the open air of the commons or the gathered community of the sanctuary — and however appropriated — available to us all, unceasingly.
There is nothing new under the sun. Old things are passed away; behold all things are become anew.
* Trinity includes this story on one of their history webpages, and adds the detail, “In 1796 the Center Church bell was temporarily out of order and Trinity graciously offered the use of the Episcopal bell. It was a most ecumenical gesture but, as Dr. Croswell wryly observed in writing of the incident years later, ‘about as valuable as borrowing your neighbor’s knocker.'”
In fact, Center Church and the separatist “New Light” White Haven Society congregation — predecessor to United — shared use of the bell in Center’s steeple for years after the White Haven Society was granted their claim by the General Assembly for half ownership of it in 1759, once they won their protracted battle to form a wholly separate and financially independent ecclesiastical society in New Haven. (After the White Haven Society endured years of stonewalling and legal maneuvering on the part of the First Ecclesiastical Society to prevent full schism — while still having to paying taxes to support a church they were no longer attending — their members apparently had no interest in walking away empty-handed, and the General Assembly eventually had to be asked to step in twice to resolve the conflict over fair division of property. As the Reverend Leonard Bacon described it in 1839,
“The grand obstacle all along, in the way of a division, was the hope which the separates cherished, of getting the property not of the [First Ecclesiastical] Society only, but of the Church also, into their own hands. Secession and liberty would not satisfy them. They judged that they had a right to at least an equal share of the lands and funds, which the Society had acquired from various sources. They felt too that they had as good a right as any body to the peculiar endowments, and even to the sacramental vessels, of the Church from which they had seceded. None in these days would think of such a claim. They never would have thought of it, if they had been at liberty to secede when they first desired a separation.”
In 1763, a new brick state house was built on the Green in need of a bell, and the First Ecclesiastical Society was raising funds to buy Center a new bell. Jared Ingersoll successfully proposed to both parties that he be allowed to buy out the First Ecclesiastical Society’s remaining share in the old bell (he calculated this as the twelve pound, ten shillings still left to be raised for a new one) and proposed that the White Haven Society sell or donate back (in exchange for a First Society agreement to continue to let them time share on the new bell at First Society’s expense) their share of it as well, so that he could hand it over to be hung in the state house. This was the bell that joined Center’s newer bell and Yale’s chapel bell in mourning the day the Stamp Act went into effect — and yes, this was that Jared Ingersoll.
[Standard disclaimer: the above is a personal blog post, not an official publication written on behalf of Center Church or the United Church of Christ. Opinions expressed are solely my own.]