Belling Out of the Pastorate

 

My first pastorate nearly killed me.

Literally. Twice.

It wasn’t the good people of Harris Memorial Church—they were wonderful. I’m forever indebted to them for supporting such a young and green pastor as I. We had very few conflicts in the church — almost none —  despite two building programs in two years. They believed in missions, they wanted to grow, they listened to my homespun sermons, and their doors were always open in the best traditions of mountain hospitality. My salary was $97.50 a week, supplemented with lots of potatoes, tomatoes, and beans.

Furthermore, the location was idyllic. Harris Memorial was a stone church on the corner of a rural road near Greeneville, Tennessee. Green-clad mountains towered around us, and the church sat in a broad valley called Camp Creek, so named because soldiers camped there during the Civil War. The building was small but beautiful, constructed of river rock, with a rich wooden interior. A cemetery ringed one side of the church, and on the other side was a belfry containing a large, heavy cast-iron bell. (The picture at the top of this blog is a sketch given me by Alice Woolsey, one of my parishioners.)

There was no air-conditioning, and the summer heat was oppressive. Humidity and high temperatures settled into the valley for days at a time, and the church sanctuary was like an oven by eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings. Because of this, the colorful windows were always open in the summer to catch any stray breezes.

The first time (and one of the few times) I’ve run afoul of my deacons was when I went out and purchased two oscillating fans and sat them behind me on either side of the choir loft. One of the deacons complained I hadn’t asked for authorization for the purchase, but I told her it was cheaper than a trip to the emergency room due to heat stroke. Furthermore, I might have added, every pastor needs a couple of fans. She dropped the matter without so much as a quip about hot air from the pulpit.

Every Sunday morning the service began the same way, and it was my favorite moment of the week. I’ve always loved church bells, and Harris Memorial had a fine one—a heavy, cast-iron bell whose peals could be clearly heard up and down the valley. Just before the service began, I would step outside the building onto the exterior side stoop. It was an intermediate stop from the basement prayer room to the platform. The belfry towered above me. Grasping the bell cord, which ran through a pipe just behind the stonework, I would start pulling the rope and swinging the bell. Soon its venerable tones would echo through the mountains, calling our little community to worship. It brought back childhood memories. The church where I grew up also had a bell that reverberated out its carillon call each Sunday morning at eleven.

How did we lose the tradition of church bells in America?

Well, I know exactly how we lost the tradition in Camp Creek. One blistering Sunday morning in the late 1970s, I was dressed in my preaching suit and already sweating, I left the prayer room in the basement, took the stairs halfway to the platform, and ducked out the side door onto the stoop. I grasped the rope as usual. I gave it a gentle pull like always.

It didn’t pull. It seemed caught on something. I gave it a harder tug. Still nothing. Getting a firmer grip on the cord, I yanked it with considerable might. I heard a scraping sound, and suddenly the bell tumbled out of the belfry, plummeted past my nose, and broke the concrete steps at my feet.

Everyone inside the church ran to the windows to see the commotion. There I was, looking back at them like a ding-a-ling, holding a limp rope, and with the bell at my feet, cracked worse then the one in Philadelphia. Had I been standing a half-step differently, the thing would have cracked my skull.

My memory of that moment is clear as a… well, you know. But I have no subsequent recollection of the service that day. I vaguely remember the awkwardness of stepping to the platform and trying to proceed with worship. I have no idea what I preached. Nor do I remember the songs we sang, but I’m pretty sure we avoided hymns like “When They Ring Those Golden Bells” or “Ring the Bells of Heaven, There is Joy Today.”

In the years since, whenever I think of that day, a verse comes to mind. It’s not a verse from the Bible but from the pen of the English poet John Donne:

Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

It tolls for Thee.

 

PS – We finally replaced the bell at considerable expense, but I’m not sure my successors continued tolling as I had. My other brush with death was when the parsonage burned down; but that’s a story for another time.

PPS – If you have any church bell stories, you’re welcome to chime in.

Harris Memorial Church. The cemetery is on the left, the belfry is on the right, out of view from this angle.
Harris Memorial Church. The cemetery is on the left, the belfry is on the right, out of view from this angle.
The bell tower
The bell tower
Give a man enough rope...
Give a man enough rope…
The cracked step at my feet.
The cracked step at my feet.

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