Let Freedom Ring! Historic Bell Tolls For Radical Racial Healing
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WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- On a sunny February day, hope and healing bring people from all across the country to a tiny church in Williamsburg, Virginia. To understand why, we need to go back 240 years to the founding of the church -- and the nation.
The man who started First Baptist Church is found at a tavern, a popular meeting spot in Williamsburg, Virginia's capital in 1776.
The man is named Gowan and he works at the King's Arms Tavern. Although a slave, he is one of America's first ordained black ministers.
A Church is Born
"He hears the patriots talking -- Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and many others," says Linda Rowe, a historian at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. "They're passing things like the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which includes a free exercise of religion clause."
In 1776, it was illegal for more than five slaves to gather without permission from their slave masters. So First Baptist began in secrecy, somewhere in the woods surrounding Williamsburg.
"The white society saw religious meetings of slaves as threatening, as inspirational toward rebelling or attempting to loosen the bonds of slavery," Rowe explained.
Gowan's name first appears in the historical record in 1779, but not in a positive light. The Virginia Gazette prints an ad accusing him of stealing a horse, a hanging offense. Fortunately, he is never charged, and over the next few years, his congregation grows to more than 200 members.
The year 1793 proved to be a watershed year for Gowan. Despite accusations of involvement in a multi-state rebellion plot, he gained membership for his church in the mostly white Dover Baptist Association.
A Good Name
Thanks to the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, CBN News got a rare look at the minutes from the October 1793 meeting, with Gowan's name listed with pastors of other churches in the association.
That same year, Gowan is freed from slavery. The manumission deed is the first time we see the surname he chose for himself: Pamphlet.
"That's been a subject of intense interest, as you might imagine; we don't find anyone else, white or black, named Pamphlet," Rowe said when asked about his choice for a surname.
She offers one theory.
"I happened to run across a compilation of pamphlets from the 18th century that had to do with every subject imaginable. And it occurred to me, did he adopt that name because he knew of the effectiveness of pamphlets circulating on various topics?" she wondered.
Pamphlet's now 500-member congregation met in a wooded area called Raccoon Chase on the outskirts of Williamsburg. Then, around 1805, a white neighbor heard their worship and offered them the use of his carriage house in downtown Williamsburg.
Gowan Pamphlet dies within two years.
Leaving a Legacy
"His legacy is determination to keep this church alive, to bring it the respect it deserved," Rowe reflected. "And to persevere in the face of all kinds of adversity."
She agreed his church wasn't going to exist in the shadows. "It was going to be in the open," she said.
Some 50 years later, First Baptist dedicates their first church building on the same property. Within a short time, they acquire their bell.
One hundred years after that, in 1956, they move to their present building. But the bell was not installed properly and soon became inoperable.
Although the bell remained silent throughout the Civil Rights era, the church does not. They host activists like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks.
This year, to celebrate the church's 240th anniversary, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is taking on the task of restoring the 500-pound bell.
In light of heightened racial conflict in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, a nationwide campaign began called, "Let Freedom Ring Challenge".
The campaign invites Americans of all races to register "to ring the bell for freedom" throughout the month of February.
People from all around the country are encouraged to submit videos responding to the call.
"I will ring the bell for hope," Leonard Marshall, author and former NFL football players, said.
Hussam Ayloush, executive director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he will ring "for immigrants."
Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner vowed to ring "for little boys and little girls whose brown skin is made to make them feel less than."
Celebrating 240 Years Later
That brings us to today's celebration. Inspiring messages were given from dignitaries like Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP, and Suzan Johnson Cook, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.
Valerie Simpson sang "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand." The packed crowd reached across the aisle to do just that.
Dr. Rev. Reginald Davis, current pastor of First Baptist Church, exhorted the enthusiastic crowd.
"And so we come to ring the bell -- to drive out the spirits of division and those practices that are causing us to forget that we are one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all," he said.
The first to ring the bell are from a family who knows a lot about racial reconciliation, descendants of Thomas Jefferson by two women: his wife, Martha, and her half sister, slave Sally Hemings.
"It was just a powerful moment," Shannon Lanier, the sixth-great grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, said. "You can feel the spirit move inside with so much hope and energy in the building."
"When you cross that line, that's where the good stuff happens," David Works, fifth great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Martha Jefferson, added. "You really find out what other people feel and think; you walk in their shoes. And you see that it's better together than apart."
Civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson summed it all up.
"People, black and white, came together and found common ground, and that's the great challenge today -- how do we move from, from a racial battleground to economic common ground, to moral higher ground?" he said.
Two days after the celebration, CBN News met with Pastor Davis, amid a steady stream of bell ringers. He reflected on how things went from a broken bell in a small church to a nationwide cause.
"The idea just began to surface that we can repair this bell, looking at the backdrop of our nation," he said. "Let's encourage a new start. You had the birth of the nation, you had the slaves -- let's merge that together because we want one America."
Rev. Davis said he had that thought in mind when he rang the bell Monday with his family.
"I made a connection with the past," he said. "And I also made a commitment to myself, that I'm going to do all I can to make sure that those who suffered, bled and died, that the work that they have done to get us to where we are now would not be in vain."
CBN News Reporter Efrem Graham also rang the bell, "In honor of my 97-year-old grandmother and my ancestors, who have made my life possible."
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