Historic bell, pastor and children

The Rev. Jim Midkiff stands with several of the children in his congregation at the church with the old bell.

The little bell that sits beside Beech Grove Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), partially hidden by a large bush, doesn’t exactly look like all that much.

At 1,700 pounds, the crystal-lined metal bell is half the size of its larger siblings that grace the ears of parishioners in large cathedrals, and, in fact, it’s been almost 15 years since it’s been properly rung itself. 

But for what the church’s bell may lack in size and stature, it makes up in character, said the Rev. Jim Midkiff, who pastors there.

“I’ve always said this is a little church that does things in a big way.”

And for those who can remember it, the Beech Grove bell rang big.

The bell, purchased in 1903 from a Sears, Roebuck catalog for $50, is once again being noticed by passing churchgoers on College Street in the little McLean County town. Recently, several members of the church unearthed an old Messenger-Inquirer article from 1975 that recounts part of the bell’s history.

It’s a history, church leaders agree, that serves an important reminder of the role this little church plays in the community. 

It’s hard to say exactly when the Beech Grove Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was truly founded. It was, at least, before 1885, according to the church’s record books. That’s when a school in the community charged the church group $1 to build a meeting room atop the schoolhouse already on that plot of land. The site sits on a little hill that overlooks Kentucky 56, a few cow pastures and the rest of the sleepy town.

There’s disagreement about what school that actually was, but court records seem to indicate that it was Beech Grove’s first high school, where subjects such as biology, chemistry, psychology, physiology and higher mathematics were taught. It seems, however, that the high school was at the very least called “the college,” which likely influenced the name of the road that led north to it.

Regardless, the school and church did not associate much, other than that they shared the same building. By 1895, however, the trustees of the church purchased the lot and brick building for $575 and renovated it, installing a belfry by 1902 that would be home to the bell only a year later.

In Lula Wells Sandefur’s 1975 account of the church history for the Messenger-Inquirer, she says some of the community actually made fun of the church for buying a bell from a catalog.

“After all,” she said, “Sears wasn’t as big then as it is now.”

That bell, which hung there proudly for years, was the brunt of jokes for only so long. The community grew to depend on its toll every Sunday morning before church. That was, until the church was remodeled in 1947. The bell was carried off and left on the farm of a church deacon. 

It seemed abandoned and forgotten. 

Until 1974, when some younger church deacons heard elders talking about the old bell, they went off to find it. The church raised money to refurbish and raise it, and it stood once again on a tall metal platform beside the church house once more until an addition in 2001 put it in the way of traffic, and it was dismounted and placed in the front garden where it remains today.

“Bells have traditionally been a part of a church, since back before cell phones and other forms of communication,” Midkiff said. “You could ring the bell if there was an emergency in the community. You could ring the bell to gather people together.”

And while the Beech Grove bell may not be ringing anymore, it is certainly still bringing people together. Church elder Gene Sandefur can share memories with younger adults even now of children at the church trying, with all their might to get the old bell swinging. 

“When it was on the tower, kids just loved ringing it,” he recalls. “With a 1,700-pound bell and a 50-pound kid, you can imagine how much fun they had ringing it. It took took an adult to start it and stop it.”

As the church once again points its attention at its old bell, he said he wishes they could once again restore it to its proud glory. People, he said, have always been connected to the bell. He wants to connect the community with the bell once again, although no specific plans are in place to do that just yet.

And what better time, said Midkiff and church elder Otis Griffin, then now? They said the Beech Grove Christian Church is growing fast. People from as far as Owensboro come to the little church on the hill to worship and pray. Midkiff said he has tried to instill a compassion for the community that hinges not on driving up membership, but simply on introducing the people to Christ.

“It’s not all about filling the pews,” he said. “Our job is to minister to the people, whether it’s inside or outside the church. Christ didn’t have a church building that he preached from.”

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