The Georgetown Lutheran Bell Takes a Stand

When in the course of bell restoration, it becomes necessary for one bell to dissolve the bands which have connected it to the foundry, and to assume among the bells of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle it, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that it should declare the causes which impel it to the restoration. 

We do so now. Leaving our pastiche of the Declaration of Independence aside, the Georgetown Lutheran Bell has had a few months of profound transformation. What started as something of a historical enigma – When was this bell cast? Where did the bell come from? – has, through a bit of sleuthing, ended with a better grasp of bell making techniques in America across the centuries, as well as a more accurate understanding of the congregation’s accounts and records.

The mystery of the Georgetown Lutheran bell

First, we had the facts. Georgetown Lutheran Church, heavily indebted from the Civil War, had sold an eighteenth-century bell that had hung in the original steeple (as documented in a Supreme Court case from 1829) sometime around the year 1871 to raise crucial operating funds. 

More facts: In 1937, a well-meaning congregant got wind of a cast iron bell available in Romney, West Virginia, for which he paid $25 and the fuel to drive it back to Washington. This bell, after a few decades of display in a purpose-built pagoda in the church gardens, was moved inside for safekeeping and relegated to a church closet, lumped on a cart between some boxes and ecumenical impedimenta. This is where we found it.

Bell at Georgetown Lutheran Church Before Bell Restoration

Image: The old bell at Georgetown Lutheran Church, waiting for love before restoration.

Then came the stories. Some said this old bell was the same as the lost original, recovered from a dump heap in West Virginia, having been identified by an inscription in the iron. The salvage firm, no doubt stirred to emotion by this wayward bell, had written a letter to the congregation and offered its return. This bubble was quickly burst: No such inscription exists.

Others theorized the original bell wasn’t sold at all, but rather rushed into West Virginia and buried – hidden away so that it wouldn’t be smelted by the armies of the North or South to produce ordinance and ammunition. A most romantic notion.

Many in the congregation wanted to restore the bell and return it to its rightful place in the stone bell tower; however, the current tower has never held a bell and is not outfitted with the proper rigging. Rather, an electric carillon long since in disuse was installed in the 1930s.

Bell restoration begins

The bell currently held by Georgetown Lutheran Church was cast in the middle- to late-nineteenth century. Where the original bell from the 1780s has gone, nobody knows. But a bird in the hand, as they say. So we began restoration work on this later bell, calling upon the B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry to complete the work. After a rigorous inspection, cleaning, and dye penetrant testing to discern the extent of cracks and defects, the bell was ready to be polished and returned. But how do you present a bell that’s never hung in a tower?

The folks at the bell foundry built a custom stand for prominent display. A robust steel frame upholds the weight of the bell and is hidden within a wooden shell. Industrial casters are tucked underneath, enabling the church to move the bell more easily around the property, as needed. The original stock has been given new life with a deep clean and a coat of paint, and is secured to the stand with new steel supports.

Georgetown Lutheran Church Bell with New Stand at the Bell Foundry

Image: The Georgetown Lutheran Church bell mounted on a new stand at the B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry in Ruther Glen, Virginia.

What happens next?

Time to bring the bell back to Georgetown Lutheran Church and rededicate it to the service of the congregation. When pandemic protocols and more favorable weather allow, the National Bell Festival will host an intimate garden party to celebrate the bell’s return and to sound that much-anticipated first ring. Don’t miss out! Become a Bell Raiser to be the first notified when exciting events like this become available.


Georgetown Lutheran Church Bell Tower

Georgetown Lutheran Church

This article is part of a curated series on our work to restore the bell at Georgetown Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C. Continue exploring:

The National Bell Festival would like to thank B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry for their exceptional work in preserving this bell of historic importance.