There are two places in today’s Appalachia where you can hear an authentic peal of the churchbells: at Breslin Tower in Convocation Hall at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, and at Patton Memorial Tower in St James’ Episcopal Church in Hendersonville, NC. “What are you talking about?” you may say. “Why, my own local church has bells in the tower!”
But a ‘peal’ is a technical term which comes down to us from the ancient art of change ringing. Change ringing of bells produces not a specific song, but rather a cascade of sound, and requires special bells. They are large, ranging in weight from a few hundred pounds to several tons. Bells for change ringing are hung in stout frames that allow the bells to swing through 360 degrees. Each bell is attached to a wooden wheel with a handmade rope running around it. The harmonic richness of a swinging bell cannot be matched by the same bell hanging stationary, and each swinging bell requires one ringer’s full attention.
Change ringing is based on mathematical formulae in which every bell in a church’s tower is rung in a sequence, or a ‘change,’ followed by another sequence in which they are rung in a different order until a ‘peal’ is completed.
The more bells involved, the longer the bells can be rung without repeating a row. Five bells allow 120 changes. The numbers increase rapidly. Six bells yield 720 changes, seven bells 5,040. Eight bells can be rung through 40,320 changes. As a result of all the possible combinations, peals customarily last about three hours.
The changes, which are notated, are passed along through the sub-subculture of bell ringers just like folk songs. Change ringing is also called “ringing the changes.”
Early American churches outfitted for change ringing naturally patterned themselves after the British model, in which a small number of bells, usually no more than twelve, were used. The first peal was rung in England in 1715. The first peal in North America was rung at Christ Church, Philadelphia, in 1850.
Breslin Tower was built in 1886 and modeled after Magdalen College of Oxford. It was not initially engineered for change ringing, but at first had only clock bells (installed around 1900) that were struck with hammers and did not swing. As a result, the stress placed on the tower was relatively insignificant when compared to that which would occur with change-ringing bells.
To the casual observer the bell tower looks imposing and strong. In reality, however, it required significant renovation to accommodate bells for change ringing (see this Traditional Masonry article for a discussion of how 4SE Inc., a structural engineering firm based in Charleston, S.C., dealt with the challenge.)
Today the tower houses Sewanee’s Bentley Bells, which were made possible by a 2004 gift from Mrs. Donne Bentley Wright of Chattanooga. These English change ringing bells were cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry of London, England, which was also responsible for Big Ben and our Liberty Bell.
Early photo of St James & modern photo, showing Patton Memorial Tower.
Whitechapel Bell Foundry had also cast the bells for Patton Memorial Tower at St James’ Episcopal Church in Hendersonville. The tower and bells were dedicated in 1978, though the church congregation itself was by that point 135 years old.
In 1843, St. James was a scion emerging from the summers-only congregation of St. John’s-in-the-Wilderness at Flat Rock—the “little Charleston of the mountains.” St. James was carefully nurtured by the Rt. Rev. Thomas Atkinson, Bishop of North Carolina, who appointed the first rector, Nicholas Collin Hughes. The first church of St. James Parish was consecrated on September 19, 1863, with eight communicants.