I had the opportunity this past week to attend a conference on spiritual life in Wisconsin. While I was there, during a time of silent contemplation, I noticed the ringing of carillons (bells) playing the melody of a familiar hymn.
I have heard carillons ringing in several churches in Olean (and elsewhere) over the years but on this occasion I found myself wondering how the ringing of church bells and carillons came about. I enjoy playing in a bell choir my church sponsors so I spent some time looking into the history of church bell ringing. I share my discoveries with you today.
The Bible neither promotes nor forbids the ringing of church bells but, for many Christians, the ringing of bells from a church tower is certainly a “joyful noise,” reminding them of God’s presence in the world. And the music produced by bell choirs has blessed many people for
The tradition of ringing church bells dates back to 400 A.D., when Paulinus of Nola first
introduced bells in association with a church. In 604 Pope Sabinianus officially sanctioned their use. By the early Middle Ages, church bells had become common in northern Europe, reflecting the influence of Irish missionaries. The Eastern Orthodox Church has a long and complex history of bell ringing and the custom is particularly sophisticated in the Russian Orthodox Church.
In medieval times, swinging bells were first used as a way of notifying people of fires, storms,
wars and other events. A ringing of bells from the lowest note to the highest note indicated that an attack had taken place. The use of bells in a musical fashion originated in the 16th century.
A carillon is a musical instrument that is typically housed in the bell tower (or belfry) of a church.
The instrument consists of at least 23 cast bronze, cup-shaped bells, which are serially played to produce a melody, or sounded together to play a chord. A traditional manual carillon is played by striking a keyboard to activate levers and wires that connect to metal clappers that strike the
inside of the bells, allowing the performer on the bells to vary the intensity
of the note according to the force applied to the key.
The first carillon was in Flanders, where a "fool" performed music on the bells of Oudenaarde Town Hall in 1510 by making use of a baton keyboard. The word "carillon" is from the French “quadrillon,” meaning four bells. Most modern carillons (such as those used by churches here
in Olean) are operated electronically.
The first tuned handbells were developed by brothers Robert and William Cor in Aldbourne, Wiltshire, England, between 1696 and 1724. Originally, tuned sets of handbells were used by change ringers to rehearse outside their towers. Change ringing is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns called "changes.”
Tower bell ringers' enthusiasm for practicing the complicated algorithms of change ringing tended to exceed the neighbors’ patience, so in the days before modern sound control, handbells offered them a way to continue ringing without becoming too obtrusive.
A handbell choir or ensemble (in the United States) or a handbell team (in England) is a group
that rings recognizable music with melodies and harmony, as opposed to the mathematical permutations used in change ringing.
The primary purpose of ringing church bells in modern times is to signify the time for worshippers to gather for a church service. Many Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran churches also ring their bell tower bells three times a day (at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m.), summoning the faithful to recite the Lord's Prayer. This tradition was influenced by the Jewish practice of praying three times a day. The ringing of church bells three times a day also resembles the Islamic tradition of the adhan in which the faithful are called to prayer from a minaret.
Bells are also rung during most Catholic and High Church services in preparation for the Eucharist. A small hand bell or set of hand bells (called altar bells or sanctus bells) is rung
shortly before the consecration of the bread and wine and again when the elements are shown to the people.
The idea that the sound of bells ringing has spiritual value is thought to have originated with ancient winter celebrations in which bells were rung to drive out evil spirits. Some
churches still refer to the so-called apotropaic power of bells in their descriptions of sanctus bells. In later centuries, bells were rung on Christmas Eve to welcome Christmas with a “joyful noise.”
(The Rev. Dan McDowell is pastor of First Baptist Church of Olean. Contact him at email@example.com)