What We Know About the Middle Collegiate Church Bell After Weekend Fire

Early Saturday morning, just before 5:00am, a yet cause-unknown fire broke out and then rapidly spread through three buildings in New York City’s East Village along Second Avenue. The fire department responded with gallant speed, arriving to the scene within three minutes to combat what grew into a six-alarm fire. Their rapidity was not enough to prevent one of the buildings – the historic Middle Collegiate Church – from nearly entirely succumbing to the flames.

When firefighters wrested control of the blaze and the clouds of black smoke dissipated, all that was left of the 1892 building was the stoic stone façade and imposing steeple. Lost was the Gothic-style sanctuary, the lauded skylight dome, Tiffany stained-glass windows, and centuries of artifacts amassed throughout the church’s history. But a couple days on, the condition of one of those artifacts remains a mystery: "New York's Liberty Bell."

Before his death in 1728, Abraham de Peyster, the 20th Mayor of New York City (1691–1694) and Governor of the State of New York (1700-1701), commissioned the creation of a bell to be gifted to the Middle Dutch Church (to which Middle Collegiate Church traces its founding), which was then under construction.

The bell was cast in Amsterdam in 1729 using a bronze alloy containing silver from coins donated by Dutch citizens. An inscription added to the bell’s waist reads, in part, “A legacy to the Low Dutch Church of New York.” It then set sail for America, pre-dating the Philadelphia Liberty Bell by 25 years.

The bell memorably rang out to mark the founding of the United States in 1776. It then rang again at the inauguration and death of every president since George Washington. Its reverberations have been heard for important community occasions for nearly 300 years, including the acquittal of John Peter Zenger in 1735 (a landmark for press freedom), the death of King George VI in 1952, and annual Sept. 11 remembrance services. 

The Rev. Jacqueline J. Lewis, the current presiding minister, has indicated she believes the bell has survived the calamity, but is uncertain. She is hopeful engineers will be able to save the belfry steeple, which houses the bell and appears relatively isolated from the surrounding devastation. “No fire can stop Revolutionary Love," wrote Rev. Lewis. We wholeheartedly agree.

If you would like to support the restoration work of Middle Collegiate Church, contributions are being collected online.

Image: Firefighters battle the early-morning blaze at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City on Saturday, December 5, 2020. Credit: Middle Collegiate Church.