The Richmond History Podcast

Sunday, July 1, 2012

RVA'S Church Bells

Bell Tower at FBC on Monument Ave, photo by Jeff Majer

Richmond's First Baptist Church on Monument Ave.
Before funerals and Sunday Services at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on the corner of Monument Ave and the Boulevard, you will find Dagnachew Eshete ringing the bell.1  Eshete is a US citizen from Ethiopia who served in the military in his home country, then fought guerrillas in their civil war.1  After winning a refuge lottery, he and his wife settled in the US.1

The bell saved by James Thomas Jr in 1862, photo by
The bell also has a civil war link, but it is our Civil War.  The bell hung over the previous building that housed First Baptist Church at 12th and Broad St.

During the Civil War, the lack of iron in the south was so great that most bells were melted down to make cannon for the Confederacy even though "one ordinary church bell would not make more than one half of a six-pounder cannon".2  

George W. Randolph
On April 1, 1862, The Richmond Dispatch reported that the board of Second Baptist Church, by an unanimous vote, decided to give up their bell and "subscribe a sum sufficient to purchase enough metal to add to that in the bell to form into a battery to be called the Second Baptist Church battery".3  On April 6, 1864 the First Baptist Church, followed their lead and unanimously voted to give up their bell.  James Thomas Jr. a parishioner of the church and tobacco merchant didn't want to see his church’s bell melted, so he negotiated a price for the bell in gold with the Confederate Secretary of War George W. Randolph. The bell which rung over the church from 1843-1862, was saved from becoming an instrument for killing and stored away until after the war at which point it would ring above the church on Broad until the church moved to Monument Ave in 1928.1  The old First Baptist church was sold to MCV in 1928, which is appropriate because during the Civil War it was an emergency hospital for Confederate wounded.4  The bell followed the congregation and the bell tower was dedicated in 1929.  It was provided by James' daughter, Laura Thomas Ruthefoord.

Repeatedly, I have heard the bell at First Baptist Church is the only one in Richmond not melted for the Confederate war effort.  The historian at FBC could not confirm that one way or the other.  I did find that on May 12, 1863, a little more then a year after First Baptist voted to melt their bell, the Richmond Enquirer described the entrance of Thomas Stonewall Jackson's body into RVA by saying, "the signal of the arrival being given, the bells of the churches and public buildings commenced tolling". 5  This made me realize how little sense there would be in making a cannon out of the bell in the Capitol's bell tower because it served the function of calling the soldiers that would have used the cannon made form bells.  Mark Greenough, historian at the VA State Capitol confirmed my suspicion that the bell tower bell survived the Civil War.  The bell that rings in the tower today as Greenough told me, is from the 20th century, and off hand, he wasn't completely sure where the original presides today.  While in the Capitol Visitor center, one of the docents asked if had I checked with St. Paul's, across the street from the Capitol, if their bell was melted. The very helpful St. Paul’s folks didn’t know much about their bell until a member of the custodial staff, who has worked at the church for many years walked by.  She knew what happened to the original bell.  According to her, the bells that rings every quarter hour at St. Paul’s and can be heard around downtown, are original to the building built in 1845.  It does seem odd, the church Jefferson Davis frequented would not give their bell to the war effort.

If anyone has any other detail to this story, please comment.

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