On Sunday, November 24, 2013 a dream that has been in place for the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Thomaston for nearly 90 years finally came true with the dedication of the church’s bell tower. Since the late 1920s, the church had longed for a tower to hold the bell that once rang throughout the town, however due to financial constraints which led to the selling of part of the property (where Hotel Upson was once located) the dream had to be put on hold. However, after nearly three years of planning and construction, having a tower and courtyard area on the old hotel property became a reality.
Dr. Ed Cliburn, Pastor Emeritus at First Baptist, spoke during the dedication ceremony and shared three stories about the history of the bell, which was first cast in 1854. The first story began in 1873 and involved a young lawyer and his lady friend who lived just beyond the church, of whom he wanted to send a note to. The lawyer sent the note with the help of a young black boy and cautioned him to ring the bell before entering the house. During that time doorbells were not common and the boy did not know what bell the lawyer was talking about; the only bell he knew of was the church bell. As the newspaper reported, thankfully he was stopped just before he rang the bell, because many citizens throughout town may have thought there was a fire or some other dangerous event in progress.
Dr. Cliburn continued with the second story which dealt with the calling of R.J. Willingham as the new pastor for the church in 1881. His first Sunday in the pulpit was to be January 5 and he set out on his horse on the Saturday for the 20-mile ride to town from Talbotton, where he was from. However, he was soon met with increasing snow and could not travel the entire distance in the winter weather, so he sought shelter in a house beside the road. Early the next morning the young preacher set about his journey once again in nearly a foot of snow and when he reached what we now call Old Talbotton Road he heard the church bell ringing in the distance. He followed the sound all the way to the church.
The final story Dr. Cliburn told was a humorous one and one he noted Victor Thurston used to tell on himself. When he was 12 years old, his job was to ring the church bell and he would do so for funerals as the mourners walked from the church to the cemetery. For the funeral of J. Young Allen, a notable lawyer-preacher in town, Victor got a little carried away ringing the bell and before he thought to stop he was approached by deacon chairman W. E. Adams who said, “Victor, you can stop tolling the bell now. The funeral has been over for 15 minutes.”
Dr. Cliburn told the crowd that he used these three stories to remind everyone of the three uses of the church bell. The first is to call people to worship and Bible study, the next is to expressing grief and offer comfort to those who are grieving and the last is to sound an alarm. He closed out the service with the following words:
“It is my hope and prayer that whenever we hear this bell rung that first, we will realize our never ending need to study the word and to worship. Second, I trust that we will be reminded of the hope of heaven which God gives to believers. Finally, and this is most important, while we do not need to use this bell to summon us to a fire or some local catastrophe, we desperately need to be reminded of a great peril, the moral collapse of our nation, what Winston Churchill called Christian civilization. It used to be that we could count on our schools to impart Christian morality. The Bible was studied and used in our educational systems, but the atheists have won their court cases and the schools can do little to help. It used to be that the halls and offices of government stood for righteousness and goodness and that is rapidly disappearing. The only institutions in this nation left to keep it from tumbling into the abyss of moral decay and collapse are our churches. To meet this challenge our churches, those who lead and those who follow, must learn to take firm stands for that which is right and good. We must take stands in our pulpits, in our Bible studies, and yes, in the pews. Our time and country cannot survive with ‘comfortable Christianity.’ We must be willing to make greater sacrifices and to more readily serve with the energy God lets us have.”