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What is the origin and purpose of church bells?

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The tradition of ringing church bells dates back to AD 400 when Paulinus of Nola first introduced bells in association with a church. In AD 604 Pope Sabinianus officially sanctioned bells’ usage. 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. The custom is particularly sophisticated in the Russian Orthodox Church.

The primary purpose of ringing church bells today is to signify the time for worshipers to gather for a church service. Many Anglican, Catholic, and Lutheran churches also ring their bell tower bells three times a day (6:00 A.M., noon, and 6:00 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 (see Psalm 55:17 and Daniel 6:10). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the Lord’s Prayer was prayed three times a day in the early church. However, the Bible makes no mention of this, and it would appear that the Catholic Church was trying to supplant the Amidah of Hebrew tradition. The thrice-daily ringing of church bells 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. 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. Please note that not all Anglican churches follow the Catholic traditions surrounding the Eucharist. The High Anglican Church is very similar to Catholicism, but the Low Anglican Church is closer to Protestantism in several ways.

The idea that the sound of bells ringing has spiritual value is thought to have originated with pagan 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. The belief that bells drive away demons is pure superstition and should have no place in the church.

In later centuries, bells were rung on Christmas Eve to welcome Christmas with a “joyful noise” (Psalm 95:1; 98:4). Of course, bells are sometimes used as musical instruments in their own right, and many church services feature the music of bell choirs.

To conclude, the Bible neither promotes nor forbids the ringing of church bells. The tradition of ringing bells at a certain time of day or during certain rituals seems to be a Catholic tradition, infused with superstition. 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.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022