Early in the morning of Saturday, December 5, 2020, a fire broke out in a vacant building on the corner of Second Avenue and Seventh Street. The blaze quickly spread to its historic neighbor, the Middle Collegiate Church, with devastating impact: a sanctuary roof collapsed, a dozen stained-glass windows and a skylight dome by Tiffany blown out, a church gutted. One historic treasure housed inside the church did survive, however; a cherished object that has lasted almost three centuries in our city.
The church’s bell, known as the Liberty Bell of New York, had remained atop its home in a tower looming high over Second Avenue since the day of the fire, its future unsure. On June 16, the completely intact bell was at last safely secured and lowered from its belfry on high, and prepared for its trip to a temporary home at the New-York Historical Society as part of a new exhibit. Once the bell reached the ground, current presiding minister Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis rang the bell 19 times — commemorating both Juneteenth and the first enslaved Africans brought to this nation in 1619.
“The bell’s echoes are a reminder of the yawning gulf that remains between our nation’s foundational promises, and the systemic racism that still separates us from them,” notes the church’s website. “And it’s a promise that we will do everything in our power to enact those dreams in law and culture. We aren’t liberated yet. But damn it, we’ll be free.”
Much like the younger but more famous Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, New York’s Liberty Bell was rung in July of 1776 to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence. However, also like its Philadelphia counterpart, which didn’t really rise to national prominence (or come to be called the “Liberty Bell”) until the 1830s, when abolitionists claimed it as a symbol of the fight to end slavery and live up to our country’s true promise to provide “Liberty and justice for all,” New York’s Liberty Bell has also gained prominence over the years as it’s been rung by the church to call attention to various social justice causes.
The bell was a gift to the Middle Dutch Church (predecessor of the current Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church) that was commissioned in 1728 by Abraham de Peyster, the city’s 20th Mayor in the late 17th century and New York’s governor at the dawn of the 18th. The bell was cast in Amsterdam in 1729 using a bronze alloy containing silver from coins donated by Dutch citizens, giving the bell its so-called “silver tone.” Once completed, it was shipped to New York, predating the fated-to-be-cracked bell in Philadelphia by 25 years.
The Dutch congregation was established in 1628, building its first church in lower Manhattan in 1731, a site that became home for the new bell. From that spot in 1735, the bell rang out when John Peter Zenger was acquitted of libel in a landmark case for the cause of freedom of the press. Four decades later, on July 9, 1776, the bell sounded out for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but shortly thereafter was removed to Pennsylvania to protect it from invading British forces. It was returned to the church on Nassau Street after the Revolution, and was used to commemorate George Washington’s presidential inauguration in 1789 and his death a decade later — a tradition the church has carried out for every president.
Starting with Zenger, the church has also sounded the historic bell for other occasions important to its community, including remembrance services for September 11th and the death of civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis in the 21st century. (The Historical Society is including the bell as part of a just-opened exhibit called “The Sound of Resilience,” honoring the 20th anniversary of 9/11.)
The bell moved with the congregation to its new sanctuaries in Manhattan, starting in 1836 with the Second Middle Collegiate Church on Fourth Street, a.k.a. the Lafayette Place Middle Dutch Church. That building was abandoned in 1877; the bell was then housed in the Collegiate Church of St. Nicholas on Fifth Avenue in Midtown until that building was razed in 1949.
The Gothic Revival-style structure of the Middle Collegiate Church at 112 Second Avenue was designed in 1892 by architect Samuel B. Reed. Constructed entirely from Indiana limestone with a facade three bays wide, the church features a gabled three-story central bay and a hexagonal limestone spire on the four-story southern bay. The 130-ft-high hexagonal limestone spire of the five-story tower on the northern bay — which the New York Times called “one of the most conspicuous objects in that section of the city” when the structure was dedicated — became the New York Liberty Bell’s new home after it was transferred from St. Nicholas. Today, the Middle Collegiate Church remains part of the East Village/Lower East Side Historic District.
While the bell has a new home for now on the Upper West Side, that’s not as far away as it may seem; the New-York Historical Society got its start, and had ifs first permanent home, just a couple of blocks up Second Avenue from the church. The future of the historic church itself does however remain somewhat less certain. The congregation has vowed to rebuild. “This is our Notre-Dame,” a church member told the Times shortly after last year’s fire in the East Village. “Just like them, we will rebuild too.”