For Whom the Bell Tolls: The Story of the St. Paul's Bell

Two men in work clothes holding a wooden mount which holds a metal church bell
Two workmen lifting the St. Paul's church bell into a truck in 1941.


For Whom the Bell Tolls:
The Story of the St. Paul’s bell

Visitors who celebrate Independence Day at St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site are treated to 13 rings of one of the great historical treasures of the area -- the bronze bell that hangs in the steeple of the historic church, and once clanged to celebrate the birthday of the King of England.

It was cast in 1758 at the Whitechapel foundry in London, the same place where the Liberty Bell, now in Philadelphia, was molded in 1753. The St. Paul’s bell was purchased for the church by the Rev. Thomas Standard, the Church of England rector of the parish from 1727-1760. This was well before the Liberty Bell had achieved iconic status, and Rev. Standard, with assistance from church officials in London, simply placed the order with a well-regarded foundry.

It’s actually a rather small bell, 2 ½ feet vertical, 1 ½ feet at greatest width, maybe 400 pounds, about 1/5 the weight of the Philadelphia bell. One of the reasons why it was so small was that it was originally purchased for the town’s small wooden meetinghouse, which stood about 60 yards west of the current stone and brick St. Paul’s Church. The craftsmen were Lester and Pack, and their names, along with Rev. Standard, are inscribed on the bronze bell. Craftsmen used a complex set of steps to cast bells in the 18th century, including mathematical formulas, digging deep pits, creating clay molds and templates, and eventually pouring molten bronze into a cavity.

The St. Paul's bell is old enought that it rang for the June 4 birthday of King George III in the 1760s, when the people were probably fairly satisfied colonists. There were many other purposes for ringing a bell then, in addition to church service, at a time of limited mass communication, and most people lived within sound range of the church. Certain number of rings announced deaths, funerals, militia drill and other forms of news.

The bell was taken down and removed in 1776 to prevent its confiscation and melting down for military use. It was common to remove bells across the colonies as the Revolutionary War began in 1775-6. The exact date is not clear, although General Washington issued a directive to remove bells in September 1776. There are many stories about the bell being hidden or buried locally. There is also a credible account of the bell’s removal by the Continental Army to New Jersey and then Pennsylvania. But there is no doubt that it was removed; it would have been a great prize for an army, and this area suffered greatly from the presence of both forces, many battles, and raids during the war years.

It was retrieved after the war, in the mid 1780s, and for first time, raised above in the steeple of extant church, topped by a small wooden cupola. The small meetinghouse had been destroyed for fuel and firewood during the war. There was as yet no sense of identification with the Philadelphia bell, known then as the Pennsylvania capital or statehouse bell; it had no real sense of national iconic status. That begins with the abolitionist movement, late 1830s, adopting it as a symbol, and naming it the Liberty Bell primarily because of the ringing phrase inscribed on the bell, drawn from the Bible, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land and unto all inhabitants thereof.” In 1847, the apocryphal story of the bell ringing on July 4, 1776, became popularly accepted, beginning the connection of the bell with the Declaration of Independence, about the same time the crack became manifest and obvious.

After the Civil War, the Liberty bell’s reputation developed and became increasingly to be known as a national icon, a symbol of unity and liberty, and started to travel across the country, acquiring the status it now holds. That’s when St. Paul’s, mostly through the efforts of the minister, Rev. William Coffey, who was also a fine historian, first began to make the connection. By the 1870s, the link was more commonly drawn, and the small St. Paul’s bell emerged as a junior partner to the famous Philadelphia bell. It was removed and transported to other places for important occasions, as a way for the church to become more widely known, and given its modest size, an easily transported symbol of the nation’s heritage, with references to its status as a junior version of the Liberty bell.

Lowered from steeple, it was placed into horse-drawn carts or carriages. Then, it would be taken to the Mt. Vernon Railroad station for trips to New York City, and from there using the great rail links of 19th century America, to points west, north, and south. It was displayed at the New Orleans cotton exposition, World’s Fair in 1884-5 and at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

During World War I, it was leased to the Treasury Department and used as a rallying point of national history and heritage at public rallies and drives to sell War Bonds. In April 1941, the bell was again removed, and that is the only image we have of such a transference. Muscular workmen lowered it from the steeple, on the northside of the church, using immense counterweights on the other side of the tower, with a pulley with strong cables. It was removed and transported by truck for display at some of the fine shops on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in support of a fundraising effort for the restoration of the church.

But it didn’t return to St. Paul’s until late 1945, because the entry of America into World War II created the occasion for another loan to the Federal Government for use in raising funds at war bond rallies in support of the campaign. By that time, St. Paul’s had also acquired a reputation as an originating point for some of the freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights, based on a famous, controversial, and well documented open-air election that occurred here in 1733. That connection was highlighted during the Second World War, when the Bill of Rights achieved status as a great patriotic rally point for Americans fighting fascist powers overseas.

During the Second World War, the small bell traveled across the country for display at bond drives, and it played at least a small role in the tremendous overall success of the War Bonds campaigns. It was returned to the church in 1945, and has since remained on the property in Mt Vernon, New York.

The small bell is still rung on important ceremonial occasions, including 13 times on Independence Day, quite a long way from when it chimed out in recognition of the King’s birthday in the 1760s.

Independence National Historical Park, Saint Paul's Church National Historic Site

Last updated: February 2, 2022