Our Bells Ring True
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1840, P.T. Barnum - aka, “The Greatest Showman” - brought one of the earliest handbell choirs to America. Fast forward a hundred years or so, and handbell groups began to appear in churches, schools, and other community groups. In the words of former FBC member and Chapel Bells member Jackie Coley Gorman, after seeing them as a part of the traveling circus act, someone must have said, “There’s a great idea for church music!” And the rest, as they say, is church history.
Handbell ringing has undoubtedly been an essential part of the history of the worship ministry at FBC. Minister of Music C. Truitt Roberts introduced the first set of Schulmerich bells around 1973-1974, and by 1977 there were at least five different bell groups, three of which were made up of youth. Tracy Henry, who still rings today, remembers playing in a beginner’s group when she was in 6th grade. Jackie Coley Gorman said she was mesmerized by the visiting group that helped dedicate FBC’s bells but wasn’t the right age at the time to join. After some begging and pleading and hounding, however, she was allowed to play, and 45 years later she is still ringing and directing a group in Texas.
Jenny Reed said she was walking by the handbell room one day and was asked by Henry and Frances Nash if she’d like to join them and “become a ding-a-ling.” She did. As for me, I don’t remember exactly when I joined the first group of youth ringers or how I happened to be signed up, but since my mother (the aforementioned Jenny Reed) was the church music secretary for a while, I suspect she had something to do with it. She went on to join the Chapel Bells, the most advanced group, who twice played at the Kiwanis International Convention, as well as at the National Handbell Festival in St.Augustine, FL, on the Capitol steps in Washington, D.C., and throughout Brazil at the invitation of the Foreign Mission Board. I was never an official member of the Chapel Bells but did travel with them once to Tuscaloosa to a handbell festival, where I took classes on handbell maintenance and repair. (It takes a village, right?)
With the exception of just a few quiet years, the bells of FBC have kept ringing ever since. Current handbell choir director Jackie Pruett remembers her first opportunity to ring came as a member of a ladies’ group led by then Minister of Music Tanner Riley. She moved away for a while, and when she came back, she joined another mixed group directed by Tom Jenkins, a group that Tom later asked her to lead. Jackie says, “To me, playing bells brings a different aspect to our worship service.” At the state handbell festival in April, guest clinician Keith Chandler, from the Georgia Baptist Convention, encouraged the choirs to find ways to take the bells outside the walls of the church building and into the community. This year, some of the ringers played with the Starkville High School chorus.
Barry Burris, the state handbell event coordinator for the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, shared some of his thoughts regarding the history and use of handbells in outreach and ministry. He explained that bells are mentioned as early as Exodus as a part of Hebrew worship, and in Psalm 150, the Latin word that is translated “cymbals” could also be translated as “bells.” Thus, it’s safe to say that bells have been a part of worship about as long as corporate worship has been around.
Mr. Burris added, “Today handbell ringing is a wholly appropriate instrument to use in church to promote the ideal of corporate praise by using handbells in worship, where every ringer must learn to work as one body instilling a spirit of fellowship and cooperation.” Ringer Judy Nagel echoed that same thought with a memory of something Tanner Riley once said: “Handbells are much like the church body. Each ringer is needed to do his part so that the result is a sweet sound to God's ear.”
But ringing does not have to be exclusive to the worship service. Mr. Burris said, “Handbells are a great way to involve people in the community participating in a praise activity they can’t find in any other avenue. These [outside] venues open up opportunities for the players to share with the onlookers about not only the bells but why they are playing the bells. To share the praises of God amongst the people.”
What does it take to be a handbell ringer? (Or a ding-a-ling, if that’s a term you can identify with?) The music is laid out just like a piano piece, but instead of one person using ten fingers to play all the notes, a ringer is usually responsible for a couple of notes, along with their sharps and flats, playing only when those notes appear in the score. It does help to be able to read music, but even someone who doesn’t know how can learn the parts with enough practice. And that time to rehearse is another factor; like any other component of the music ministry, it does take some training. But it’s not just about rehearsals and technical aspects - as I spoke to several past and present ringers, I heard over and over how the groups have become close-knit and support each other. Another added how fun it was to be a part of a hard-working choir.
Ringers are needed now. If you are interested in exploring this unique way to praise God musically and reaching out to the community, please come and talk to Tom Jenkins (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Jackie Pruett (email@example.com).