Date of Award

2016

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Communication

First Advisor

Carolyn Marvin

Abstract

ABSTRACT

HOW CHURCH BELLS FELL SILENT: THE DECLINE OF

TOWER BELL PRACTICES IN POST-REVOLUTIONARY AMERICA

Deborah Lubken

Carolyn Marvin

Americans sounded church bells for multiple purposes: publishing local time, opening markets, alerting firefighters, celebrating and protesting political events, announcing deaths, conducting funeral processions, and, of course, assembling religious congregations. This dissertation approaches these uses as distinct communication practices that were implemented to achieve specific ends, interpreted through different frameworks, and modified to accommodate evolving needs and expectations. After addressing the uses of bells for political expression in the revolutionary and early national periods, I investigate the retreat of four such practices from the center of American life to its periphery: the death knell (sounded to announce the deaths of individuals), the funeral bell (sounded to gather and conduct funeral processions), the fire bell (sounded to alert and direct firefighters), and the churchgoing bell (sounded to assemble religious congregations for services). Shortly after the Revolution, Americans began to complain publicly about bells that rang or tolled too loudly or for excessive durations. These complaints, however, were practice-specific and arose according to different schedules. Americans moved to suppress funeral tolling in the late 1780s, petitioned municipal authorities to regulate the churchgoing bell by the 1820s, and began to anticipate fire alarms without bells by the late 1850s. Death knells, which conveyed information but did not summon inhabitants to congregate publicly, slipped quietly into memory. Audiences opposed (or defended) the funeral, fire, and churchgoing bells for different reasons and conceived annoyance, necessity, and harm in ways particular to each practice.

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