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Historical Use of Bells in Christian Denominations

Updated on January 22, 2019
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Beverley Byer has been writing professionally for a number of years. Her work has been published in magazines and newspapers.

Bell at the front of Mary Taylor Methodist Church, Milford, CT
Bell at the front of Mary Taylor Methodist Church, Milford, CT | Source

Christianity's Introduction to Bells

In some of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) books, instruments, including bells, are mentioned. In fact, it is thought that Moses was responsible for the introduction. In Numbers 10, God told him to make two silver trumpets and use them to call the faithful, receive God’s protection from enemies, and to herald feasts and ceremonies. Exodus 28: 33-35 described the hem of the robe of priest Aaron as being engraved with golden bells and pomegranates, so the Lord could be serenaded when Aaron walked. Psalms 98: 4-6 and 150: 5-6 tell us that Jews believed in making “joyful noises” to God. Since Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism, it is not surprising that bells became an integral part of Christian rituals.

Under Roman rule, the practice of Christianity was prohibited in the first three centuries. So, bells did not enter Christian setting until somewhere between 400 and 500 AD. Evidence points to Paulinus, the bishop of Nola, in the Campania region of Southern Italy, as being the first to use them. Ringing bells was how he summoned the monks to worship. Monks, along with the friars, were actually the ones who spread the use of bells throughout Europe. The very first foundries were located in monasteries.

In 604 AD, Pope Sabinian sanctioned the use of bells in the church. In the 8th century, Bede, an English saint, introduced bell ringing at funerals. By the 9th century, they were an important part of all Christian ceremonies. And by the 12th and 13th centuries, almost every church had at least one. The Eastern Orthodoxy took a while to warm to the idea though. They preferred to use the semantron: a wooden hand-held slate, which they hammered with mallets.

Bells were made mainly of cast metal with tongues or clapper devices attached on the inside, in the middle, to hit them for sound. Large bells were housed in towers called belfries, believed to be developed in the 11th century. They began as separate structures away from the church, especially in the East. The West seemed to prefer their belfries atop the church building. Also in the East, bells remained stationary and the clappers were moved by the limbs of the ringers. In the West, they were swung back and forth with ropes.

According to the article “The History of Bell Ringing- Discover Bell Ringing” from the website www.bellringing.org, prior to the 14th century and the Protestant Reformation, bells in churches and monasteries hung on a spindle and were rung by deacons pulling a rope. After Reformation, they were mounted on whole wheels followed by a stay and slider to give ringers more control. In the mid-17th century, a technique called change-ringing developed in England. It consisted of consecutive peals from a set of bells, eight to twenty-one, with each bell offering a different note. In the late 18th century, Catholic and later Protestant bells were harmonically tuned with a tuning fork or boring lathe. Bells of the Russian Orthodoxy were not tuned.

In 1586, British bell ringers began receiving payment for their services. It remained a job for men until 1896 when English woman Alice White became the first female to ring a complete peal. Today some churches use automated bell ringing or recordings of bell ringing.

Handbell choir
Handbell choir | Source
Close-up of handbells
Close-up of handbells | Source

Christian Use of Handbells or Carillon

Since regular bells were large and situated in towers, they could not always be used for practice, so handbells were developed. They were first cast by English brothers William and Robert Cor somewhere in the late 17th to early 18th century. People began using handbells to play hymn melodies. Soon, musical arrangements were being made exclusively for them, and the bell choir was born.

Use of Bell Ringing in Christian Denominations

Many churches engraved their bells according to function. But before they could use them in worship, the bells had to be blessed by clergy in a ceremony is called “baptism of bells.” In Catholicism, bishops did the blessing. In orthodox denominations, the ceremony was quite elaborate.

During the Middle Ages, bells were thought to have supernatural powers. They rang to ward off the devil or evil (from both the living and the dead), plagues, weather-related disasters, and enemy invasions. They also tolled to call the faithful to worship, inform those unable to attend that it was time to honor God with pray, signal that something profound was about to take place in God’s house, and for special ceremonies and events such as blessing a newly married couple or protecting the soul of a departed in a funeral.

Early on, many Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches rang the “Angelus Bell” three times a day: 6:00 am, noon, and 6:00 pm to call parishioners in the community to pay homage to Christ or His mother Mary by “reciting” the Lord’s Prayer or the Angelus (Ave Maria). The tradition reportedly stemmed from Parma, Italy in 1318. The “Peace Bell” rang to command the faithful to say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys for the “Blessing of the Peace.”

Catholics and Anglicans rang the “Passing Bell” to inform the community that a member was about to pass. The slow, mournful peal beckoned them to pray for the soul’s safe journey. Once the person died, bells tolled a stroke per year of their life. They also tolled the gender of the departed (twice for women, three times for men). Today bells may toll only when the departed arrives at the church or leaves the church for burial.

In the first half of the 20th century especially, Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists rang “Sanctus” bells to signal the transubstantiation or consecration of the Eucharist (changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ), and to inform absentees that it was time to kneel in prayer as Jesus was becoming present in the Eucharist. They rang small altar bells inside the church to inform the congregation to prepare for the event, and ready themselves to receive the sacred elements. The bells would ring four times: at the start of consecration, when the Host or communion bread was raised, when the chalice or cup of wine was raised, and prior to the congregation receiving communion. Anglicans also rang Sanctus bells when the sacred elements were moved from the side altar to the High altar (main altar).

Lutherans rang bells twice: when the communion bread was raised, and when the cup was raised. In Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christian denominations, tower or outdoor bells rang instead of Sanctus bells at the start or during the lifting of the bread and wine. They called the moment Anaphora or Eucharistic Prayer.

Modern church bell
Modern church bell

Other Bell-ringing Occasions in Christian Denominations

Many Protestant denominations rang bells during the recital of the Lord’s Prayer in worship as an invitation to absentees to join in. The Methodists rang bells to signal the beginning and the ending of worship or Benediction. They pealed three times to denote the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Bells also pealed to signify Holy Week, but were silenced from the end of worship (mass) on Holy or Maundy Thursday to the Gloria in Excelsius at Easter morning vigil, proclaiming and rejoicing the risen Christ. And, they peal during the Gloria at Christmas worship to celebrate their first ringing in a new liturgical year.

Invention of the Bell

Bells were first invented in China some 4,000 years ago. By the time the production process traveled to Europe, they were made of various shapes, including square, from clay, wood or metal. According to the article “History of Bells,” from the website www.historyofbells.com, bells are considered percussion instruments. Today their function and symbolism vary across countries and cultures, including religion.

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