He That Has Ears To Hear, Let Him Hear

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Sacred Symbol of Freedom

'Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.'
Inscription on the Liberty Bell (Leviticus 25:20)

By Pat Centner
July 24, 2003

(AgapePress) - The rattle of wagon wheels and a horse's soft whinny broke the silence of the cool September night in 1777. The wagon's passengers, John J. Mickley and Frederick Leaser, rode resolutely toward the Zion Reformed United Church of Christ in the small village of Northampton, Pennsylvania (today's Allentown). The Revolutionary War was under way, and General George Washington had just lost the Battle of Brandywine to British General Sir William Howe. The devastating defeat had cleared the way for the British to invade Philadelphia, site of the Continental Congress.

But before Howe's troops swarmed the town, Philadelphia's Executive Council had made a wise decision. Several of Philadelphia's bells would be hidden to prevent the British from melting them down for cannon. Thus, Mickley and Leaser became part of the intrigue when they secretly delivered to Zion Church the massive bell that had hung in Philadelphia's State House (now called Independence Hall). Zion's pastor, Reverend Abraham Blumer, hid the bell, along with 10 others, beneath the church's floor. There it remained until late 1778, when it was returned to Philadelphia.

There are many fascinating historical accounts surrounding Philadelphia's State House bell -- the beloved symbol of freedom that came to be known as the Liberty Bell.

Partially Mistaken Identity
Phil Sheridan, public affairs officer with the Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, says people often associate the Liberty Bell with America's first Independence Day, July 4, 1776. "But it didn't ring on the fourth of July, although there were a bunch of guys beneath it [in the State House] committing treason on that day," chuckles Sheridan.

"Some historians believe the bell was rung on July 8, 1776, to summon Philadelphians to hear John Nixon read the Declaration of Independence in public for the first time," he adds. "But it wasn't called the Liberty Bell back then. It was the State House Bell, and it was used to summon townspeople for important news. It wasn't until 1839 that it was given the name Liberty Bell."

Celebrating Religious Freedom
The bell's creation and purpose date back to 1751, a quarter century before the first Independence Day. Because Philadelphia was growing in population and land area, a large bell to alert citizens was needed for the State House bell tower. That need coincided with an important anniversary. David Kimball in The Story of Liberty, says the bell was ordered by the Pennsylvania Assembly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn's 1701 "Charter of Priviledges" [sic].

Penn, then governor of the Province of Pennsylvania, had written the Charter to assure religious and civic freedoms for the people living there. In the Charter's first declaration, Penn acknowledges "... Almighty God being the only Lord of Conscience, Father of Lights and Spirits; and the Author as well as Object of all divine Knowledge, Faith and Worship."

He continues by declaring that "no Person ... who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, ... shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced ... because of his ... Persuasion or Practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious Worship ... contrary to [his] religious Persuasion."

Fifty years later, Philadelphia Assembly Speaker Isaac Norris promoted a particular inscription for the commemorative State House bell. Ironically, the inscription is one that those who today downplay the role of God and religion in our nation's birth will be chagrined to acknowledge as a Bible verse -- Leviticus 25:10. "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof." An examination of the text surrounding this verse reveals God's instructions to Moses that the Israelites honor their 50th year in the Promised Land as a year of Jubilee, a year to celebrate God's blessings.

So, was the Leviticus scripture suggested by Norris to further validate Penn's declaration of religious freedom? Or was it, as some say, a prediction of the Declaration of Independence and the religious and political freedoms that would be fought for in the upcoming bloody war? Likely, it was both.

But whatever the purpose, the prophetic words resonating through history from the bell's weather-beaten side have come to embody the unquenchable spirit of America's patriots as they have repeatedly fought for, and won, the priceless treasure -- freedom.

Casting and Cracks
After being cast and engraved in England, the bell was shipped to America and arrived in Philadelphia on September 1, 1752. The following March 10, it was hung in the State House belfry, but cracked when it was tested for tone and resonance. When its weight and size thwarted attempts to return it to England for repair, Philadelphia foundry workers John Pass and John Stow were given the task of melting, recasting and re-inscribing the bell. The pair increased the copper in the bell's ingredients to make it less brittle, and 19 days later, hung and tested it again. Unfortunately, the additional copper deadened the bell's tone, making it sound worse than before.

Pass and Stow were teased unmercifully and vowed to try again. The second casting was successful, and for the next 86 years, the bell rang for occasions great and small.

Legend has it that a hairline crack appeared in the bell when it was tolled to mourn the death of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall on July 8, 1835. Years later, the crack was repaired in time for George Washington's birthday on February 22, 1846.

The bell rang beautifully that February day -- until noon -- when it suffered a "compound fracture" that ruined its tone. No further attempts were made to repair the bell, and it has forever since been recognized by its "dog leg" crack.

First Called 'Liberty Bell' in 1839
More than a quarter century before the Civil War, many American citizens were deeply opposed to slavery. Abolitionists such as Henry David Thoreau, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Barrett Browning questioned the idea of slavery in a country that had fought for its own freedom from tyranny and oppression. In 1839, William Lloyd Garrison, a particularly passionate abolitionist, featured a poem in his publication, "The Liberator," that said liberty should be for all people, and called the State House bell the "Liberty Bell." The name stuck, and the bell later became known by that name exclusively.

Following the Civil War, the bell was used as a unifying force when it was secured to a railroad car and exhibited across the nation. In later years, the bell was also adopted as the symbol for suffragettes, when women struggled for the freedom to vote, and by Civil Rights advocates who marched for integration and equal rights.

Liberty Bell Present and Future
Today, the Liberty Bell resides in a pavilion near Independence Hall in Philadelphia where it has been on display since 1976. Phil Sheridan has a barrel full of interesting tidbits about the bell. For example, it's dusted every day, and is polished twice a year with a special wax to protect its finish.

Dignitaries, celebrities and ordinary folk from around the world come to gaze upon the Liberty Bell and to ponder its symbolism and significance, says Sheridan. In the past year, Colin Powell and John Ashcroft have both visited the bell.

"It would be easier to name the senators and congressmen who haven't been here" says Sheridan. "We have a photo of Shimon Peres with the bell, and one of the Dalai Lama, standing beside it with a big smile on his face, flashing the peace sign. The bell is loved by the entire world."

This fall, the bell will be moved to the Liberty Bell Center, a new glass structure where visitors will be able to gain an understanding of its history and its inspiring stories.

"The Liberty Bell means different things to different people," remarks Sheridan. "It's a symbol of our country, of the freedom our country stands for. Independence Hall is the closest thing Americans have to a sacred 'site,' and the Liberty Bell is the closest thing we have to a sacred 'relic.'

"The bell is not perfect; it's fragile, it's flawed. But in spite of its weaknesses, it has endured. And you could say the same about our country. It's not perfect, it's flawed, but it has endured."

Pat Centner, a regular contributor to AgapePress, is a staff writer for AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association. This article appeared in the July 2003 issue.

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