ALLENTOWN, Pa. | Anybody who's been around the Lehigh Valley any length of time has heard about Allentown’s Zion’s Reformed United Church of Christ's Liberty Bell Shrine Museum, and the story of how the bell was kept at the church during the British occupation of Philadelphia from 1777 to 1778.
But after a lot of work, a long-sought goal of the church’s pastor, Rev. Robert "Bob" Stevens, and others was achieved. In a letter received earlier this month by the museum’s new director, Rev. Joshua Knappenberger, it was learned that the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission had approved the historical marker nomination for the church.
Stevens notes the help of state Sen. Pat Browne and his office staff in their support for the project.
"We could not have gotten it done without them," he said.
The markers are significant in giving the state of Pennsylvania’s official recognition of the historical worth of a property. Over the years, the church has received several plaques from groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution. Stevens, who will be retiring as Zion’s pastor later this year, wanted to get this done. No date for the dedication of the plaque has yet been established.
The roots of Zion’s Church go back before the Revolution. When William Allen laid out his plan for the village he called Northampton Town, he set aside the property between Hamilton Street and what became Walnut Street for a church. The first building was a log structure where a parking deck is today. It was a Union church that was shared with a Lutheran congregation that was later St. Paul’s Lutheran.
One source suggests that at least part of the property was intended as the church’s cemetery, but that never happened. It was shortly thereafter on Oct. 8, 1763, that the church’s Lutheran services were interrupted by the arrival of local farmers from the frontier seeking protection from what they feared would be an attack by native Americans. A recent raid in Whitehall had left 22 settlers dead.
"As I was a preaching the people came in such numbers, I was abliged (sic) to quit my Sarmon (sic)," the minister wrote.
By 1770, there was a movement among some members of Zion’s congregation to contemplate building a new church. But it was not until 1773 that it began to get off the ground. The money was raised through the form of a lottery. Many years later, in 1937, when the church’s official history was being written, the concept of gambling to build a church brought condemnation from its authors as immoral.
Today’s generation, to whom lotteries are common, would probably be more tolerant. The Lutheran congregation continued to hold services there until they got land to build a church in the 1790s. After the Lutherans ceased to worship in the log church, its lumber was sold.
The Zion’s Church building was a handsome stone structure that would have been at home in the Philadelphia of its day. The Liberty Bell was not the first bell that was tied to Zion’s Revolutionary history.
On July 8, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was read for the first time in Allentown, the small bell outside the church was rung to gather the people of the village for that reading. That bell, after being put to other uses in the 19th century, was restored in the 1990s and is now a treasured historical item that is rung by the church during its Fourth of July service.
It was the British occupation of Philadelphia from 1777-78 that sent the State House Bell, as it was then known, to Allentown. The reason for its departure, ordered by the Continental Congress, along with the city’s other bells, is not known exactly. It is usually given that there was a fear that the British would melt them down to make either cannon or bullets that would be used to shoot at Washington’s Army.
"The British were in need of ammunition," says Zion’s official 1937 history, "and what a delight it would have been to them to convert the herald of freedom into cannon balls!"
Two things are questionable about this. The British, then the world’s only super-power, had plenty of ammunition, and what we call the Liberty Bell would not be called that until many years later by abolitionists in the 1850s.
To the patriots of that day, it was not "the herald of freedom" but simply the State House Bell. And because the State House, what we call Independence Hall’s steeple was badly in need of repairs, some historians wonder if it could have been rung at that time. There is a greater possibility that the bells were moved so that if it was necessary, they could be turned into cannon by the patriots to hurl cannon balls at the British.
Proof of this possibility can be found in the papers of the patriot leaders in New York, when that city's bells were removed before the British occupation in 1776. They refer to the bells as the "sinews of War" that could be useful in arming the forces of Washington. Washington himself fully supported their removal from New York for that reason.
Whatever the reason, Pennsylvania German farmers from what was then western Northampton County aided in moving the Liberty Bell and other Philadelphia bells. This may have happened by night because it is known from diary accounts that the citizens woke up one morning to hear no bells, something that was very unusual at a time when many people depended on them to keep track of time.
The exact route of the bell’s trip north is still disputed. Thanks to the Moravian diaries it is known that the wagons broke down and had to be repaired in Bethlehem. When they got in the vicinity of Allentown, they most likely took part of the route of the King’s Highway, known as the Reading Road after the Revolution that ran from Reading to Easton.
This would have placed them relatively close to Trout Hall, country home of James Allen, the third son of William Allen.
"The road in front of my house has become the busiest highway in North America," Allen wrote in his diary. And indeed, the troops of militia that moved down it were many.
Although years later artists liked to depict the Liberty Bell at the center of a wagon as riders in tricorn hats galloped around them, this was not the case. As one source has suggested, as the region was swarming with Tories that would have quickly reported it to the British, chances were good it was hidden in some way and then moved largely at night.
It was then moved up what is now Church Street and hidden underneath the church. There, it and presumably all of Philadelphia’s other bells were kept until the summer of 1778. Diary writers note one day they were not there and the next they were ringing again.
Why Sir William Howe, the British commander, did not send scouting parties into the region around Valley Forge and further north remains a mystery. Some believe Howe hoped he could persuade the Americans to come to him and beg for peace. Others think Howe just enjoyed the comforts of Philadelphia too much to go out in a Little Ice Age winter to chase rebels in the snow.
Perhaps Benjamin Franklin had it best. When he was representing the new nation in France, the foreign minister approached him with the news that Howe had captured Philadelphia. "There you are wrong," Franklin is said to have replied, "it is Philadelphia rather that has captured General Howe."
Although what the National Park Service calls, "a long-standing oral tradition" kept alive the stay of the Liberty Bell in Zion’s Church, locally it was not until 1824 that prominent local attorney Robert Wright Sr. made reference to it in a speech.
In the Civil War era as the bell became known as the Liberty Bell, Allentown began to honor its role in the revolution. On Oct. 27, 1893, on its return from the Chicago World’s Fair, the Liberty Bell was placed on a trolley line’s flat car. Crowds lined the streets from the railroad station to Zion’s Church as it was stopped in front of the church. Photos of the time suggest that this was all done in the rain.
In the 1830s, Zion’s Church underwent another change and became a red-brick, white-steepled structure that could have graced the green of any New England village. In 1886, under the direction of local architect Lewis Jacoby it became the Victorian Gothic beauty it is today. The Liberty Bell Shrine Museum was added in 1962. And now at long last, it will get its official recognition by the state.