The oldest church bells in the United States hang inside the Old North Church's steeple in Boston. It's also where Revolutionary War patriots followed Paul Revere's famous instructions to hang one lantern if British Troops approached by land, two if by sea.
Turns out Revere himself rang the church's bells in his youth, and these days members of a guild are still bringing them to life every weekend. They have a special ringing event for Independence Day, so we wanted to find out more about their quirky, historic hobby.
Walk through the church's entrance and you'll notice a white door on the left with a small sign hanging on the doorknob. It reads, "Private Bellringers Only."
Narrow, creaky wooden steps wind up to the room where four enthusiasts were about to engage in a centuries-old craft. They commuted from around the Boston area to pull red and black woolen ropes that dangle from eight holes in the ceiling. There's one for each mammoth bell up in the belfry.
“Each ringer is in control of one bell,” 26-year-old John Bihn explained, “and so in order to ring anything there's an element of teamwork where each ringer needs to ring their bell in the right place in order for it to sound musical.”
Bihn is the M.I.T. Guild of Bellringers' ringing master.
“About 40 years ago, M.I.T. students discovered that there were these bells hung for change ringing at Old North,” he said. The guild has been playing and maintaining the bells ever since.
Change ringing is a 17-century English style of pulling full-circle church bells in a repertoire of repeating patterns. It's more math-y than melodic. Bihn, a statistician, said the bellringing guild's 25 members are often teachers, librarians, or retirees who don't need to be affiliated with M.I.T.
“Some enjoy the history behind it, some like the mathematical patterns that come up, others love the music of the bells and ringing such a large instrument,” Bihn said.
The ringers start each session by raising the bells into an upside down position. The bellframe is fitted with a wooden stay and slider to control the rotations. It can be hard to visualize so Bihn demonstrated with a small model made of wood.
Next the ringers pull their ropes in turn to play a descending scale.
“The bells, once they start swinging, have a lot of momentum,” Bihn said, “which is how we can have a community ranging from young ringers to ringers even in their 70s that still are able to ring these huge thousand pound bells.”
“There's something extremely visceral and extremely satisfying about ringing a really heavy bell that literally weighs 10 times what I do,” Katarina Dutton said. The 31-year-old math teacher happily memorizes the complicated change ringing permutations. Players can't read sheet music while pulling the ropes, but instead follow cues shouted out by a conductor. To communicate during the session they nod and make eye contact with each other.
The ringers, who are also known as campanologists, acknowledge their hobby can be pretty geeky.
“What I like to say is it's combinatorics with loud numbers,” Dutton said, then elaborated, “which combinatorics is the math field of taking a set of numbers and rearranging it or putting it in different orders or different groups.”
Dutton pulled out a notebook filled with handwritten sequences with names including, “Plain Hunt” and “Plain Bob.” Numbers denote each bell's place in the variations.
“It's just a fascinating art form, right?” Nikki Stewart asked, “It's equal parts, music and algebra.”
Stewart is executive director of the Old North Church Foundation which oversees the building's operations and preservation. She said a lot of people are surprised to learn Paul Revere founded the first ringers guild as a teen about two decades after the bells arrived in Boston from England in 1745.
“While we don't know for certain, there is a lot of speculation that part of the reason he may have chosen Old North as the tower to hang the signals from is because of his familiarity with the steeple from when he was a bellringer,” Stewart said.
It takes years to learn the intricacies of bellringing. Performance sessions usually last 45 minutes and require both physical and mental endurance. “It can be kind of meditative if you get going right,” Ricky Morse. “It's fun and social.”
Todd Silver likes the team sport aspect of ringing “the big bells,” but admitted playing them is no small task. “The hardest part of what I'm doing now is getting the bell to ring at precisely the right time, which is always what you struggle with,” he said, “There's a technique in there that I've not mastered yet, but I'm getting there.”
Ringing master John Bihn said it's critical to be in the tower with people who know what they're doing, “because otherwise the rope might fly all around the ringing room and cause a lot of trouble.”
He also joked about it being hard to call their sessions “practices” since people in the neighborhood can hear when they make a mistake.
While the 21st century guild members might not strike the bells perfectly every time, Katarina Dutton said it's still pretty cool that the bells have never been automated and are always played by actual humans.
“And I'd love it if people who hear us on the street could appreciate that and recognize that for how awesome it is,” Dutton said. “This is something that's been happening truthfully and totally honestly for hundreds of years.”
Handling the ropes in the famous tower can be like stepping into a time machine, according to Bihn. “It is really exciting thinking that I'm ringing the same bells that nearly 300 years ago Paul Revere was ringing.”
All eight of the Old North Church's bells will fill the air throughout the North End's streets on Saturday morning for an Independence Day celebration that kicks of at 10 a.m with the M.I.T. Guild's ringing. The event will also include dramatic readings from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, “Paul Revere's Ride.”
This segment aired on July 1, 2021.