Fayetteville’s church bells resonate with meaning and history
By Bryan Mims
The notes come drifting in from somewhere on high, over treetops and rooftops and car tops, ringing in my ears as my feet hit the parking lot. They are old and familiar notes, notes that have graced the pages of hymnals for more than two centuries.
Blessed be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love
The notes come drifting in as dings and dongs, as clangs and peals, as metal tongues striking cast metal shells. The notes are my daily reveille, cueing me to face the music of another-9-to-6 to be recorded on a timesheet. In my seven years of clocking in at the Systel building in downtown Fayetteville, the bells of the First Presbyterian Church have faithfully serenaded me at the stroke of 9 a.m. And so it goes:
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like that to that above
I expect them to be there, much as I expect the sun to rise and the engine to turn and the radio to deliver the time, temperature and traffic. Sometimes in my haste and self-absorption (I’m running late! My cell phone’s not charged! I forgot my lunch!), I don’t even notice the bells. Like the hum of traffic on Green Street, or the screech of a siren three blocks away, or the blare of a CSX train over Hay Street, the bells — those beautiful bells — become mere background noise. But even with all our earthly cares, the inspiration from somewhere on high is there for the taking, if only we’d listen.
Before our Father's throne
We pour our ardent prayers
There are those days — those beautiful days — when I do take notice; when I recognize a hymn and hum along; when for a few moments there’s a spring in my step on a cold winter’s morning; when the notes from on high have given my spirit a much-needed lift. One nippy afternoon, with the subtle opening notes of spring in the air, I went in search of the source.
The Bell Ringer
The steeple and bell tower of the First Presbyterian Church lord over Cross Creek and the flowery, grassy grounds of Linear Park. Through the shutters of the tower, the bells cast a silhouette against the heavens. A weathervane atop the steeple points the ways of the winds.
Charlyne Jones, a genteel, Mississippi-raised lady of 68, greets me at the door. She’s the church organist and accompanist. She speaks softly. She smiles broadly. She lead me down a red-carpeted hallway and up a few steps into a small room with a wooden floor. There, against the wall, is a boxy wooden instrument with a short keyboard — only 19 keys compared to the 88 keys of a standard piano. This is a Renaissance carillon, a product of the Van Bergen Company, maker of bells and bell accessories since 1795. Jones and the church’s music director, Marcia Heirman, pick out the hymns, play the hymns, and program the hymns to ensure that the bells toll for us all.
“It’s a human recording, so sometimes you’ll hear a mistake,” she said, smiling that broad smile of hers. “You’ll hear a little adlibbing here and there. You might hear two bells where there should only be one.”
Most times she’ll re-record the song to fix the error. Sometimes she’ll just let it be. I, for one, appreciate an off-key bell here and there. In our overly automated and lip-synched world, it’s refreshing to hear a less-than-perfect human touch, even in those heavenly notes.
To make a recording in the first place, Jones sits down and plays hymns on the keyboard. Those hymns are recorded onto a computer. The digital recording is sent by fiber optic cable to the 19 bells in the tower. The fiber optic cable signals the bells in the tower to chime in sync with the notes. And the notes go drifting into the ears of some workaday clock puncher in an office parking lot. It’s a 21st Century adaptation of a church ritual that stretches back to the early days of Christianity.
Bells have been ringing in the Christian church since about 400 A.D. and became common across Europe by the Middle Ages (the years 1000-1300). They were used to call the faithful to prayer or to signal the start of a service.
Jones and I both squatted down and looked at a blue touch screen below the keyboard that displays hymn selections: “Trust And Obey.” “Blessed Be The Ties That Bind.” “Jesus Loves Me.” The songs are programmed to play for about five minutes, five times a day: 8:20 a.m.; 9 a.m.; noon; and 5 p.m. She tries to schedule the children’s hymn “Jesus Loves Me” every day at 9 a.m. because that’s when the pre-school kids are showing up. And every day at 10:01 a.m. — by request from the Daughters of the American Revolution after 9/11 — patriotic hymns such as “God Bless America” and “America The Beautiful” ring out across the city.
To stop and listen to these bells — and to tune out the daily soundtrack of a modern city through which they echo — you can’t can’t help but feel a chord striking in your soul. “I love to hear them,” Jones said. “It’s a calmness and an assurance for me to hear the bells. It’s a ministry to this community, I think. That’s kind of how we see it.”
In the Belfry
I needed to see the bells. Not just hear them, but to look under their tongues and see how they make their joyful noise. Jones lead me across the red-carpeted sanctuary and up to the entrance to the bell tower. She opened a door and we proceeded to climb a steep, narrow stairway. And then another steep, narrow stairway. And then another. Each step seemed the equivalent of two steps. We climbed higher into the dim, drafty tower. I felt myself getting winded, though I tried not to show it. I apologized for making her endure the climb. “I don’t do it very often,” she said. “But you’ll get your exercise for the day.”
When we finally reached the belfry, I peered out across the city and looked up at the 19 cast bronze bells — at least four tons of bells. The large bell at the bottom is the oldest. It was a gift from a church in Troy, N.Y., after the great fire of 1831, which wiped out much of downtown Fayetteville on a Sunday afternoon. The bell bears an inscription in Latin. The translation: “I perished in the flames the 29th of May 1831. I arose from the ashes through the generosity of Friends of the Second Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York.”
I stood there for a time, my head craned back and mouth opened. “Wow” and “cool” are all I could muster, for lack of anything more profound to say.
“Just watch your time,” she warned me. The bells chime exactly at 5 p.m.
“It’s 4:27,” I told her.
“Okay, you’re fine. I don’t want your ears to burst.”
She’s right. If you were to be inside this tower when the bells chime, you could do some serious damage to your ears — the decibels are deafening. The bells don’t swing; rather, it’s the metal tongues inside, also known as strikers or clappers, that go side to side, to and fro. They bang the heavy metal to create a sweet melody to be enjoyed from a safe distance.
From that vantage point, I could see other downtown steeples — beautiful, classic, iconic steeples — all aiming skyward, all with bells of their own. But not all of them routinely ringing like those at First Presbyterian. Hay Street United Methodist Church, for example, plays hymns every hour on the hour, but they’re not from live bells inside the belfry; they’re are all a recording broadcast from four speakers. “It’s a computerized, electronic bell system, is what it is,” said church trustee David Edwards.
That said, Hay Street’s bell tower, with its solitary bell inside, is one of the loveliest I’ve seen anywhere. The brickwork and stained glass windows give it a castle-like appearance, a cathedral reminiscent of the Old World. Built in 1908, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places.
As for the bell, which dates back to about 1883, “we honestly don’t ring it often,” said Dee Stafford, the church administrator. But what Hay Street United Methodist Church lacks in real-deal dings, it more than makes up for in its show-stopping architecture.
In the interest of full disclosure, I attend a thoroughly modern church where steeples and bells are non-existent. We have a band of young guys in skinny jeans, not a choir of people in robes. We meet in an old Food Lion in an old strip mall. And that’s okay: Pastors are quick to note that the church is not a building, it’s the people. The modern mega-church, in an effort to woo the younger crowd, has de-emphasized steeples. Again, that’s okay: Making church attractive to teens and 20-somethings, who may squirm at the thought of pews and peals, is an admirable thing.
But in my heart of hearts, I’m an old soul. I love churches that look like, well, churches. That’s an entirely earthly and materialistic view, but I excuse myself. Stained glass and steeples make my eyes shine and my soul stir in a way a big box cannot. The First Baptist Church, right next door to Hay Street United Methodist Church, is just such a place. Like its neighbor, the bell tower is an imposing brick structure with stained glass windows. Arched, open-air windows at the top offer a near unobstructed view of the 2,500-pound bell, about as heavy as a new Honda Civic. And like its neighbor, it rarely rings anymore.
Allene Horne, the pastoral assistant, was my guide as we walked through the century-old sanctuary. “We have the prettiest in town, and I’m not the least bit prejudiced,” she said. At that moment, setting my gaze on a stained-glass Jesus who is setting his gaze on Heaven, I can believe it’s the prettiest in town. I looked in the other direction. The morning sun was glowing through a giant stained-glass window depicting Jesus cradling a lamb. “I know God is everywhere, but you can feel his presence in this room. There’s a warmth to it,” she said. At that moment, standing on the red carpet — always the red carpet — I can feel it.
I was ready to feel the church bell’s rope in my hands. We walked toward the front door and stood beneath the belfry where a rope descends from the ceiling, a rope that was once white but has become dark and grimy by generations of hands yanking on it. She grabbed hold and pulled. DOOONNNGGG. She yanked it again. A beautiful sound. So much emanated from that single stroke: There’s melancholy in it, yet comfort. It’s noisy, yet soothing. “It just gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling,” she said. “People are probably wondering why it’s ringing.”
It’s almost unheard of to hear the bell ringing in the middle of a weekday morning. Sometimes at the end of the Sunday service, the bell will be run three times to represent the Trinity. It’s also chimed on special occasions, such as weddings, funerals “or when the city asks us to ring the bell,” Horne said.
There are other churches across Fayetteville with grand steeples and bell towers, beautiful and historic in their own right. But I know the source of my spiritual serenade.
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.
“Blessed Be The Ties That Bind” is the name of the old hymn, written more than two centuries ago. The notes drift in from somewhere on high. And one day at a time, they help keep me grounded.