Washington’s Bells: Georgetown Lutheran Church

The first concept of a Lutheran church along the banks of the Potomac began in the early 18th century, when a group of Lutherans from Germany, having settled in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland, migrated to the Potomac Valley. They were enticed by an offer of land from George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore. With them they brought their religion, and a sprinkling of itinerant pastors ministered to these settlers from as early as 1733.

A generous pioneer developer, with an eye toward eternal reward, donated a plot for the erection of a Lutheran church and a congregation was promptly organized. Thirty-two years before the city of Washington became the capital of our nation (1790), Georgetown Lutheran Church was organized north of the Potomac River and today remains the oldest Lutheran congregation in Washington, D.C. A deed recorded in Frederick, Maryland, on May 17, 1770, and a decision of the Supreme Court in 1829 concerning the title to a Lutheran church property, prove the existence of an organized Lutheran congregation in the area as early as 1769.

A modest building was erected of sturdy, forest-hewn logs, which served as the first church. Soon, a steeple was added with a bright-toned bell, iron cast in England. This bell may well have sounded the call to freedom. The old bell continued to ring until deep divisions between the North and South rocked the nation.

Finding the church greatly in debt from the ravages of Civil War, the newly installed Rev. Dr. George A. Nixdorff had the bell sold around the year 1871 to raise crucial operating funds. A 1955 history of the church gave this context to the bell’s sale: “When the need of money was urgent, the congregation disposed of its bell [with] which the old sexton, named Styles, announced the hour of worship and departure of souls to the land beyond.” 

From there, the story goes dark until 1937, when a bell was found discarded in Romney, West Virginia. A kind individual, reading the name of the church in the bell’s inscription, wrote a letter to the congregation and salvaged it from destruction. A friend of the church, William H. Stombock, took his wife and a truck on a drive to Romney (a journey of almost 3 hours from Washington, D.C.) to collect the church’s original bell. He paid $25.00 for its return.

The bell then stood in the vestibule of the church for a couple years, before being encased in a stone frame on the church lawn abutting Wisconsin Ave. This was dedicated as a memorial to Mr. Stombock by his wife, following his passing in 1940. To prevent vandalism and unnecessary weathering, the bell was brought back into the church for safe keeping some decades later, where it has remained. The bell has been kept silent since war and poverty brought it down.

That’s about to change.

To commemorate their 250th year, the National Bell Festival is partnering with Georgetown Lutheran Church to restore the bell to its full resounding glory and install it back in the church as a living, ringing piece of history. It is the story not just of one church or one Georgetown neighborhood, but the story of our capital and our nation. We are thrilled to work toward its restoration. Want to help? Consider sponsoring a bell or donating to the National Bell Festival. Together, we’ll make it ring!

 

Georgetown Lutheran Church

This article is part of a curated series on our work to restore the bell at Georgetown Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C. Continue exploring:

The National Bell Festival would like to thank B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry for their exceptional work in preserving this bell of historic importance.