Sunday Church service started with someone assigned to pull the rope to ring the bell. Our modern cell phones leave none of us wondering what time it is or when the church service will begin. So it is that the long-standing Church tradition (starting 400 AD) of ringing a bell atop a church, has fallen out of popularity. Many churches today are with a campanile (bell tower) yet without a BELL; more accurately identified as a cupola, added to the church gable roof for aesthetic purpose.
Larger churches historically made bells a major purchase — very large one or a carillon of several. With the advent of electricity such carillons and chimes have been harmoniously timed, giving quite a musical introduction to celebrating a religious service or to radiate inspiration throughout the community. Historically in Western Europe especially, church bells brought people together to announce church service as well as community news and events. Many rural villages and towns yet today see their church and its bell as a centerpiece of their lives.
It has always seemed to me a little short of a miracle, that church bells made of heavy cast bronze or amalgam could be elevated to the lofty heights of church roofs and bell towers. No doubt the greatest bell phenomenon is “Big Ben” hanging in the clock tower of Westminster, London, England. Big Ben weighs 27,000 pounds as compared to our sizable Liberty Bell in Philadelphia at 2,080 pounds.
John Donne (1572-1631 - poet, priest, lawyer) gave a most memorable sermon on death which prompted Ernest Hemmingway (over 300 years later in 1940) to write the novel – For Whom the Bell Tolls. Bell tolling used to be an expected integral part of church funerals, with tolling beginning and ending the service. That single clap of the bell with a pause between, carries the solemn and somewhat disturbing message of death.
Of historical interest is Paul Revere (1792-1828). Besides his famous system of lanterns and midnight ride (April 18,1775) identifying the British invasion by land or sea, he was by trade a silversmith and engraver; skills that saw him climb into bell towers to give service and repair.
The first church I served (1960-1963) celebrated its centennial when I was there. It was a red brick, gothic structure in Columbus, Ohio and was equipped with three bells, each with an electric switch. Flipping all three switches at the conclusion of special religious observance was such a celebratory experience. Further, this church was electrically equipped with a tolling bell. This large congregation averaged over a funeral a week, giving full use of that bell.
I almost forgot the bells associated with my early pedagogy. These bells were atop all the schools I attended (1930s-40s). In my one-room country school a student was assigned by the teacher (whose pocket watch was the only time piece in the school) to pull the bell rope hanging in the hallway at 8 a.m. to put school in session and then to conclude our lunch and recess periods. The janitor pulled that rope in my high school.
As you can see, experiencing the absence of bells today is a real loss for me. It is also a loss of a centuries-old tradition.
However, time brings inevitable change. The wonders of our cell phones are a profound advancement and convenience.
It may be that only the few oldsters like myself notice belfries losing their ring.