March 24, 2019, 8:42 PM

Bell Choir

Musical Note:

Mount Zion Presbyterian Church is fortunate to be the home of a dedicated and growing group of handbell ringers. This history of church handbell choirs comes to us courtesy of the Lancaster Handbell Ensemble:

Hand bells have been traced as far back as the 5th Century B.C. in China. The oldest existing bells with handles found in China dated from 1600 B.C., although bells of various kinds and shapes have been found all over the world.

Handbells are descendants from the tower bells in England. Around the 16th Century, the art of tower bell ringing was becoming established in England. A set of five to twelve bells was rung in a numerical sequence as opposed to a melodic pattern. This was called "change ringing". It took hours of practice of pulling on the ropes that caused the bells to ring in different orders creating the intricate patterns of melody. This much ringing of the tower bells was disturbing to the surrounding villagers, so small bells were developed so the ringers could practice indoors out of the cold bell towers and therefore, also not disturbing the neighbors!

Eventually, this type of bell ringing became an art in itself. As the art became more and more sophisticated in the 18th Century, larger sets of hand bells were cast. “Tune ringing” (ringing melodies and simple harmonies set to music for festive occasions such as Christmas) peaked around the middle of the 19th Century. By the 20th Century, the popularity of tune ringing began to wane. Then at the end of World War II, tune ringing began to resurface.

English handbells are thought to have been introduced to America by the Peake Family Ringers in the 1830's and in 1840 by P.T. Barnum. In 1923, Mrs. Margaret Shurcliff of Boston organized the Beacon Hill Ringers with groups forming in the Northeast United States. The New England Guild of Hand bell Ringers was formed in 1937, and then in the 1950's and '60's, hundreds of groups began to spring up throughout the United States in churches, schools and other organizations.

September 13, 2017, 1:27 PM


An article featured in The Herald of February, 1958.



            The cheery sound of the old church bell peeling out its invitation to “Come to Church” lives in all our memories.  We recall Mr. Judd Readhead standing in the entry, watch in hand ready to start pulling the bell rope as we dashed at the last minute into the church.  The old bell was a part of the community.  The New Year wasn’t official until the local yokels had gained entry to the church and triumphantly ushered in the year with a raucous bell ringing.  At Halloween season boys and girls hurried off the streets when the curfew sounded by the old church bell.

            Earlier than most of us recall another local custom was the “tolling of the Bell” at funerals.  For a real eye-witness account of this ne’er forgotten procedure we are indebted to Mr. D.S. McGaughey.  As a small boy, Mr. McGaughey went up in the belfry arch with Mr. Carden, the current sexton, and saw the bell toll.  From the bell tower one could see all over Mt. Zion, in those days and when Mr. Carden saw the horse-drawn hearse and family buggies pulling away from the house of the deceased, he began to toll the bell, one for each year of the person’s life.  Tolling was done in either of two ways, by tapping the outside of the bell with a hammer or by striking the inside of the bell with the clapper.  In this dignified way, the funeral service began.

            To return to the present, what is the story of our own bell?  This was the bell used in the old Mt. Zion Academy.  It was a gift to the school from Mrs. Frances Mariam Smith.  All good stories should have a surprise in them, so here is ours.  The bell was the premium given to the holder of the lucky ticket in the Louisiana Lottery!  After the closing of the Academy the bell was used in the White Grade School.

            Mr. McGaughey stored the bell in his basement after the old building was dismantled and when our new church was finished but bell-less, someone remembered the old Academy bell.  It was cleaned and burnished; it fit beautifully and proudly into the belfry arch.

                                                                        Betty Davison