Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Bells of St. Michael's

St. Michael's Episcopal Church, 80 Meeting St.
          The bells of St. Michael's Episcopal Church are among the greatest treasures in a city filled with treasures of the heart. St. Michael’s is the oldest church building in Charleston, having survived hurricanes, earthquake and fires – not to mention the devastation left behind by the bombardment and occupation of two wars.
            The bells of St. Michael’s have quite a remarkable “travel history” of their own. In 1764, a ring of eight bells was cast in England and exported to St. Michael’s.  When the British withdrew from Charleston after the Revolutionary War, they took with them all the silver they could find and anything else of value they could carry, as well as 5,000 slaves, 3,800 loyalists – and the bells of St. Michael’s. This was no small feat, as the bells ranged in weight from 509 lbs. to 1,945 lbs.!  Shortly afterward, a merchant in London secured the bells and returned them to a grateful Charleston. Years later, two of the bells cracked and had to be shipped back to London to be recast.
 As the events leading to the Civil War began heating up, Charleston became a focal point. When Sherman made his deadly march through the South, Charlestonians fully expected to be in his path……so the bells were sent to Columbia for safe-keeping, even during a time when most church bells were donated or confiscated to be recast as artillery.  Sherman set his sights on Columbia instead of Charleston and the shed in which the bells were stored burned- along with a great portion of the city. The metal was salvaged and the bells were, once again, sent to London to be recast. When they returned to St. Michael’s, a new frame had been incorrectly installed and the bells could no longer be rung in the traditional way, but had to be chimed instead (Instead of pulling a rope that would physically move the bells full circle, a device was built that would move the clapper against the bell without having to actually move the bells. The bells were rung in this manner from 1868 until 1993.)
After Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the bells once again crossed the Atlantic to have all the fittings replaced. During that time, a new wooden frame was constructed so that when the bells returned they could be rung in the traditional way. Quite a travelogue for a set of bells!
             But what of the people who rang those remarkable bells through the years? Do we know anything about them?  Church records indicate that Washington McLean Gadsden, born in slavery in 1824, rang the bells of St. Michael’s for 61 years! Since he retired in 1898, that means he would have begun his ringing career at the age of 13. Because of the fact that the bells were rung in the traditional manner up until the Civil War, one could imagine that, perhaps, the bells were rung by young slave boys. What they must have seen and talked about as they pulled those eight ropes in the bell tower of St. Michael’s! But unlike the others, Washington McLean Gadsden continued to be in charge of the bells. When the bells could not be rung, but instead had to be chimed, he played the clavier-like instrument that moved the clappers of the bells. Since he was ringing an eight bell diatonic scale, he was able to ring the melodies of hymns and spirituals that were recognized by the people. He was a musician in his own right! After the fierce hurricane of 1885, George Williams wrote of the comfort Washington McLean Gadsden gave to the ravaged city as he rang out the old hymns that were so dear to the hearts of those who had been through another terrible ordeal.

Today, the bells are rung in the ancient art form known as change ringing…and so the Bells of St. Michael’s have come full circle, bringing with them the history of the past into the promise of the future. May we all have learned a few lessons along the way!

Enjoy this video of the bell ringers of St. Michael's performing a change ring pattern.


  1. What a great blog! I love your stories about Charleston history!

  2. Keep up the great blog. As a native, there is still so much I don't know. Love reading this!!

  3. Thanks, Susie. I love learning all the history I can about my adopted home. I will look forward to each new posting.