When Bells Toll

A visit to Russia provides vivid background for this article

Professor of speech, Andrews University

What do they tell, those tolling bells? Maybe the time of day for London's lords and ladies as Big Ben deep-throats the hour from the old clock tower. It may be the invitation to worship at the vil­lage church on Main Street. Or perhaps the annual gong of civil thanks for national welfare on a brisk November day; even a heavy sigh of mourning—such as the muted sound from the clap that cracked the Liberty Bell at the death of John Marshall, America's first Chief Justice, in 1835.

Yes, when bells toll they have a message —a message of time marking, a call to wor­ship, of thanks or honor giving, and even more. In time of danger they summon help, as when the militia drew up to the Lexing­ton meetinghouse green to meet the chal­lenge of the redcoats. The colonists' liberty was in peril, and this sent Paul Revere dashing on horseback through town and hamlet, echoing an alert. The nation in pain was giving Independence its birth to freedom — freedom born of bell - ringing ideas stirred on by new ideals and ideas that have influenced many a people since to seek their own freedom charter. The words of Scripture: "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the in­habitants thereof" were cast on the lip of the old Liberty Bell, now hanging in the Hall of Independence in Philadelphia. Though silenced in its tolling, this famous bell, thrice cracked and twice recast from the self-same metals, hangs mute today, but it is a practical symbol of God's call to free­dom found in Leviticus 25:10. Today we see a global response to this call for free­dom ringing in many lands of earth. It is written deep in American history. Is not the one hundred and second word of the Declaration of Independ­ence "liberty"? And likewise the thirty-fifth word of the Constitu­tion?

For preachers and evangelists of the Advent message "liberty" is a key word. "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free," said Jesus, who in His opening sermon in Naz­areth declared He had come "to proclaim deliverance to the cap­tives." And all who are called as her­alds of His message are commissioned to proclaim liberty to those bound by the cords of selfishness and sin.

Tolling bells have always held a fascina­tion for people. Recently I saw another big bell in another United States—the U.S.S.R. To go from the Red Square through the gate into the Kremlin, which is really the Russian word for Fortress, gives one a sense of the strength of this somewhat new United States of the fifteen Soviet Republics. That red-stoned two kil­ometer enclosure, made by walls six to sixty feet high and spaced by some twenty tow­ers beside the Moscow River, encloses the world's largest bell—the Tsar Bell, in real­ity the "king of bells." And big it is. Many of us have seen and heard America's large bell at the Riverside Church in New York City and marveled at Mr. LeFevre's play­ing of the eighteen-ton "bourdon" in the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial Car­illon. Well, that is the largest bell ever cast in England. But, the Tsar Bell! This contrasts with all other bells in size at least. Note the picture that compares its size with admiring visitors This is not eighteen tons but approximately 200 tons. How high? 19 feet 3 inches. How big in circumference? 60 feet 9 inches, and its greatest thickness 24 inches. How old is it? Well, back in 1733-35 it was cast in Moscow and added to the Ivanovskaya belfry in 1737. Unfortunately, a section was broken from it before it was hung. This left an opening in its side 7 feet high and 8 feet wide and rendered it unfit for service. But there it stands—big, bold, black. To the Russian people it is a trophy to the "big­ness" so real in this country of the north. It has one thing, and perhaps only one thing, in common with the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, and that is, it doesn't ring. The Tsar Bell has never rung. And it never will. It was intended for a Tsar's cathedral, but was broken before it ever served.

It stands, a symbol, not so much of lib­erty as of bigness. A visitor to the Soviet Union cannot but be impressed by their long list of world's "largest." Here is an empire of 8,650,000 square miles, the largest in the world. Consider for a mo­ment Moscow University with its 32 stories towering 787 feet and consisting of 40,000 rooms. Its Central Festival Hall has eight of the largest chandeliers in the world, weighing 2i/2 tons apiece.

The Butirki Prison in Moscow houses 40,­000 inmates. The largest single chamber of legislation, the Supreme Soviet Presid­ium, seats 1,370 members. The Lenin Li­brary houses more than 22 million volumes. Industry likewise is big. In this land one finds the longest electrified line in the world —3,240 miles between Moscow and Irkutsk in Siberia. The largest power station is 4/10 of a mile long at Kuibyshev with an even larger one at Bratsk, Siberia, sched­uled for opening in 1965. The trans-Siber­ian pipe line, now under construction with a 2,319-mile span, is the largest in the world. The largest excavator is at Sverlovsk in the Urals and has a dragline with a 328-foot boom and a 311,4-cubic yard bucket. The highest crane is at the Bratsk power station in Siberia, which lifts 22 tons to a height of 465 feet.

On the Volga at Kalinin one can see the world's largest hydrofoil boat as it skims the surface at the amazing speed of 62 mph. Other significant big water triumphs in­clude the most powerful icebreaker, the atomic-powered Lenin, built in 1959. It has a length of 4393/4 feet, a beam of 881/2 feet, and a speed of 18 knots. They also claim to have the largest submarine fleet, called the Krasni Flot, having not less than 480 boats.

In Moscow itself is the world's largest out­door swimming pool-300 feet across. And this is heated, which in itself is a singu­lar feat, for Moscow has reached the lowest temperature ever recorded in a capital city —43.6 degrees Fahrenheit in January, 1940. For the traveler, Moscow introduced in 1959 the largest omnibus—an articulated vehicle 57 feet long with seating for 200 persons. Moscow and Leningrad both boast subway systems unequaled in station gran­deur, with extremely low passenger fares. Russia also offers the largest airline (350,­000 miles). Its Aeroflot airliners are im­pressive, weighing 184 tons with a wing span of 212 feet, capable of carrying 220 passengers. Besides these giant airliners, she also has the fastest propeller-driven transports, the TU-114's, whose turboprops average 540 mph.

If bigness were the only yardstick for measuring a nation, this would certainly be the greatest. But in any roster of the na­tions, from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia, each has some claim to fame. In America we speak much about the high standard of liv­ing. However, it is not the standard of living but the standard of life that really counts. And any nation or any individual that fails here is doomed. Yes, bells can toll for nations as well as individuals. And when the bells toll, what then?

When bells do not toll, that also is sig­nificant. The silent bells of this northern land also tell a story. In Novgorod, for ex­ample, one of Russia's oldest cities, with a history dating back to the twelfth century, there are 44 churches, most of which have survived the devastation of World War II. But few of these are used for meetings to­day. They are either museums or the gath­ering places for discussion of politics, and the steeples of these old churches are but shells.

I climbed to the vacant belfry of one and discovered that the bells had been removed and placed in cement at the en­trance. They are museum pieces, relics shall we say, of a bygone era. For in this land people who look to religion are usu­ally regarded as weak or elderly, unable to enter into the blessings of the material­istic age to which the world has so swiftly moved. Marxist ideology, which regarded religion as the "opiate of the people," is still of paramount interest among these people. But it is impressive to note their eagerness to understand the West.

After cycling through the big Novgorod city park with ten-­year-old Urey on the carrier of my paratrooper cycle, I paused to meet his father, family, and friends. We easily exchanged queries with the help of knowl­edgeable teen-agers. "And do you have freedom here?" I asked the father. "Indeed, we do. We are free from any worry about getting or losing a job, free from worry about being taken care of if we get sick or when we get old!" And on he went, but never once did he mention the freedom of religion. I gathered that for him and for millions like him freedom is "freedom from" rather than "freedom for." There is surely a world of dif­ference between the two.

It was on the Nevsky Prospect in Leningrad that my tourist guide, Nadia Rumianzeva, proudly showed me the stately Kazan Cathedral, which is today the head­quarters for scientific atheism. Here is where the plans are laid that require all youth in the late teens and early twenties to take courses in the related fields of sci­ence, all of which are taught from the standpoint of atheism. I came away with the impression that in this great country to be­lieve in a personal God is regarded as both unscientific and out of date.

Though religious freedom is guaran­teed by the Russian Constitution, in prac­tice it is really a guarantee of freedom from rather than freedom for religion. How this devotion to religious freedom oper­ates in the world of books impressed me as I was being shown through the twenty-one modern reading rooms of the Lenin Li­brary in Moscow. In this great library with its 22 million volumes, I asked my gracious host, the executive secretary, to show me the religious book collection. What did I find? Books by the thousand, freely avail­able, but practically all were antireligious. Standard religious works by well-known Christian authors are practically non exist­ent. In none of their indexes could Mr. Or­b, the kindly executive secretary, find any book by an Adventist author. Names such as White, Nichol, Froom, or Maxwell are completely absent. This is true of Russian language books, imports, and translations. I was interested to see the microfilm room and the two first microfilm readers—both Recordaks brought in from America dur­ing World War II and now Russian made and widely used. And what do you suppose is the most widely used religious micro­film? The translations of Mark Twain that discount and scoff at religion.

If the bells of the churches here are silent, there is a reason. Were they free to ring they might well revive the people's interest in religion, for this nation at heart is deeply religious, as is borne out in their music and art. Their very silence speaks a message. Liberty to read and freedom to worship are precious rights. But these can be abridged and become meaningless un­der certain circumstances. When freedom of religion becomes freedom for antire­ligion then real freedom fades and dies.

Natasha Olsen, my twenty-two-year-old university-trained and well-informed in-tourist guide, walked, cycled, rode the Mos­cow subways with me, and was quite ready to answer my questions. "Natasha, you have shown me many wonderful things these past days," I said as I was about to leave. "And we have talked freely, but never about personal religion. I want to ask you a question: Do you believe in God?" "Indeed, I do," she replied. "Just as I be­lieve in any word on a page of a book. God is just a word, no more, no less."

As I waved good-by to little Natasha, and good-by to the big and impressive city of Moscow I said to myself that perhaps David had insight far beyond his day when he said: "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." Then I thought of Paul's great statement: "How can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?"

Someday this land and this people as well as every other land and every other people will hear the gospel proclaimed in its fullness. Just how this will be accom­plished we cannot say. It is possible that radio will play a big role in bringing at the last hour of history the good news of re­deeming grace to those who have never known the real gospel. Should not we who know God's last message take this great country on our hearts and pray that soon the latter rain will fall in copious showers, bringing life and revelation of the living God that will prepare a people to stand in the power of His grace when the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more? Is not the everlasting gospel for "every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people"?

The Holy Spirit Impresses Truth—It is the Holy Spirit that makes the truth impressive. Keep poe­tical truth ever before the people.—Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 57.


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Professor of speech, Andrews University

June 1964

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