I don’t hear church bells much. In these days of cell phones and clocks counting down to the start of worship on big screens, tolling bells seem rather out of date. The emblem of Samford University, where I teach, is a bell tower. But it is on the library, not the chapel. And its bells are all stationary carillon bells, not swinging ones.
However, I do see bells often, mounted near the signs of old churches that have been rebuilt or no longer have their towers. These bells bear silent witness to their congregation’s age. They were important enough to be saved, but now now simply sit by as neglected relics.
Union Missionary Baptist Church in Homewood, Alabama, has such a bell. The congregation is one of the oldest in town. It was founded in 1887, when the Rosedale neighborhood on the south side of Red Mountain was known as Clifton and Birmingham was just sixteen years old. The belfry in which the bell once hung came down in a storm in the 1980s. The belfry was not rebuilt, but the bell by C. S. Bell & Co of Hillsboro, Ohio, was saved. It was cast in that town east of Cincinnati sometime between 1882 and 1894. Thus if the congregation purchased the bell new, it first hung in one of its earlier buildings. Its a relatively small, 20-inch bell. Toward the small end of what the company sold for schools. Its smaller than what it marketed for churches. It sits, clapperless, by the church door. Now days the congregation just comes, or not. They are no longer summoned by the swinging bell.
Tomorrow the church will celebrate its 133rd anniversary. My student, Sam Rapp, is researching the history of the church. We’ll be at the service. Perhaps we’ll need to bring a hammer and sound the bell.
Just north across Red Mountain from Rosedale is Saint-Mary’s-on-the-Highlands Episcopal Church. Its bell is the subject of a recent article by Greg Garrison of the Birmingham News. He climbed the belfry with Thomas Kaufmann, author of the recently published Historic Alabama Bells. The well-to-do Episcopalians purchased a bronze bell form Holland it was much larger than the 20 inch cast-iron bell at Union Baptist. You can read Garrison’s piece here.
I look forward to reading Kaufmann’s book.