Mr. B crawled around the cement beams near where the giant church bell was mounted, reading out the letters engraved on the top as Noel frantically wrote down each letter: C.I.N.C.I.N.N.A.T.I. Cincinnati! Then: “Buckeye Bell Foundry, 1886.” The rest of the inscription read: “First Baptist Church, Coffeyville, Kansas. Presented by W.S. Upham 1886. Praise Ye the Lord.”
The church building in which the bell now hangs was built in 2000, but the church to which it was shipped (probably in the early 1900′s) was founded in the late 1800’s by Baptist missionaries.
To find this 100+ year old church bell in the middle of Sichuan left us stunned. The pastor told us that it had hung in the old church until it was closed during the mid-50’s and the bell was carted away.
In the 1980’s, following the launch of the reform and opening policies, churches all over China were allowed to re-open. Church property that had been confiscated was returned. Sometime in the early 1990’s the local government contacted the Catholic Church in Yibin and told them they could come pick up their bell. The Catholics replied that it wasn’t their bell and told them to call the Protestant Church. They did so, and thus was a 100 year old bell returned to the church. When the old building was torn down and a new one put up in its place, they built a steeple and hung the bell. They ring it every Sunday morning at 10:00.
Two days later, in Ya’an, we were in a park talking with some old men who remembered much about the days when Esther lived there (and even claimed to remember Esther). When we showed them the picture of the old Baptist Church in Ya’an, with a bell clearly visible in the steeple, their faces lit up. “We remember that bell,” they said in unison, then proceeded to tell us that the church bell was rung at 7AM and 12 noon every day, thus functioning as the city clock. When it rang at 7, it was time to get up and go to work. When it rang at noon, it was time to go home, eat lunch, and have a rest. I asked how long this lasted after 1949. “Until 1958,” they said.
The previous evening we had visited the church and seen the bell. Much to our amazement it was also from a bell foundry in Cincinnati (although not the same one as the Yibin bell). This one had also survived the political campaigns of the 50’s and 60’s and was returned to the church in the 1990’s. It is now rung at 9:00 every Sunday morning.
I was most intrigued at how these bells had survived the Great Leap Forward, a devastating political campaign that was launched in the late 1950’s. The goal of the campaign was to ‘surpass England,’ in terms of industrialization, within the space of 25 years. To do that, the country needed iron to turn into steel. As a result, everyone was called upon to melt down the iron objects they owned and turn them over to the government. I couldn’t imagine how it was that these bells had not been melted down!
“How did this bell survive the Great Leap Forward,” I asked one of the pastors. “They tried to burn it,” he said, “but it didn’t work. It was too strong.”
The same can be said of the Church.