For more than 50 years, the melodious tones of handbells have echoed from the sanctuary at First Baptist Church in Mooresville.
In 1967, Elizabeth Painter donated two octaves, consisting of 25 bells, to the church in memory of her husband, Dr. William W. Painter, who had died the year before.
She probably had no idea how big the ministry would become when she died in 1976, about the time Wanda Whitlow started playing in the original handbell choir. Whitlow, now 80, says she can’t remember exactly when she started, but said the best guess would be in the mid-70s.
“We were mostly regular sanctuary choir members and there was only one small group,” she said. The church purchased three more octaves, added a choir for the youngest beginners, a student choir, another adult bell choir and a chime choir.
Whitlow was still playing with the Grace Notes Choir until a couple of years ago, when the practices at night became too hard for her to attend. A member of the sanctuary choir singers, she switched to the Joyful Chimes Choir that meets in the mornings, right before her senior choir practice at the church.
Whitlow has enjoyed the change. “I just love the music, you know, and the chimes, the chimes have such a relaxing sound,” she said.
Many must feel the same way, because, as the Rev. Eddie Hicks, minister of music at First Baptist Church, said, “Once you experience them (bells), they are with you for life.”
The oldest group, the Jubilee Bells, had so little turn over they added a second adult choir, the Grace Notes. Speaking of the Jubilee Bells, Hicks said, “Most of those in that group have played for decades because of the joy and fellowship they receive from ringing.”
Hicks has been the minister of music at First Baptist Church since 2003 and has witnessed the growth of the handbell ministry. With 61 members, the bell choirs also go to nursing homes to play for the patients as well as perform at handbell festivals.
“The handbell ministry at First Baptist is important because it provides another unique venue of worship, teamwork, music education and is multi- generational. Handbell ministry is also a great way to bless your community outside the walls of your church,” said Hicks.
With weekly practices, you must be dedicated to be in one of the choirs. “If you are not there, a set of bells won’t be played, so you must be passionate about the ministry,” said Hicks.
The church has at least one handbell performance during worship each month and during the Christmas season there is a handbell performance every Sunday.
The church was echoing again on April 30, as the bell choirs joined in with the church orchestra to present the annual Praise Him with Instruments concert. The orchestra, directed by Hicks, played as the bell choirs changed places for their performances.
The choirs performed songs such as “Amazing Grace,” “This Little Light of Mine” and other familiar religious songs before the Jubilee Bells finished the show with “If You’re Happy and You Know it.”
Hicks directs the sanctuary choir, with 70 members. “ We also have a 55-voice children’s choirs, two preschool choirs, a sign language choir and a Praise team,” he said.
“I have a passion for seeing the church truly worshipping through music. It is a powerful blessing to be a part of leading the church to worship. I say to churches who have handbells and are not using them to start no matter how small. There are some great resources for as few as six ringers. Find a handful of committed ringers and watch it grow and bless your worship and music education in your church,” said Hicks.
Marty Price is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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