Church Bells

Regional Synod of Canada
Reformed Church in America

"The time draws near the birth of Christ.

The moon is hid, the night is still;

The Christmas bells from hill to hill

Answer each other in the midst."

Alfred Tennyson

There hasn't been anything more peaceful than waking up Sunday mornings by the sound of church bells. From far off the sound would come, becoming clearer and clearer until the bells from another tower would answer the call of the first one, and together they would remind the people that his was the Lord's Day. Over the sleeping rooftops their voices would echo, outdoing each other in sound and vibration.

From my bed, snugly warm under the blankets, I saw the sun peeking through the windows, casting moving shadows on the wall, when the wind played with the leaves of the tree beside the house. It was as if they were playing tag. I thought about the song I had learned in Sunday School:

"When the bells ring on Sunday, solemnly they go back and fro

And they say, bim, bam, bim bam.

We are servants of the Lord.,,"

Servants of the Lord calling the people to God's house. I didn't think the bells were calling very solemnly. They sounded so happy; - they were running after one another; - they were playing tag like the leaves on the wall. I would stretch those moments as long as I could . . . the golden sun on the wall, the music of the church bells, this day, different from all other weekdays, Sunday, a day of rest!

For many of us, church bells have been part of our lives. Bells have rang in times of danger; when a dike broke, and there was the threat of flooding the land; in case of fire or in a storm when a S.O.S. was sent out by a ship at sea. Bells have tolled at funerals when a body was brought from church to the last resting place. They have rang at festive days and called people to church. Church bells have been part Of our lives, reminding us that there is a time and place for everything under the sun. Calling us to the house of God, together with the saints, to praise His holy name. And yes, there also is the tower and the steeple, pointing UP, reminding us of our relationship with the Creator; reminding us that our lives should be tuned in to Him.

Round the world today bells peel out glad tidings of the Saviour's birth. In cities chimes sound joyously from cathedral towers, while in the belfry of a small church a single bell spreads through the countryside the same message; "Christ is born!"

Bells as we know them today, have not always been here. Jewish highpriests wore bells on the borders of their robes. They also used handbells in their ceremonies. Before the first bells were used by Christians on their churches, a caller would 90 around summoning people to church.

It is believed that it was about A.D. 400 that church bells were first used in Italy. Bells were introduced into France about A.D. 550; and in 680, Benedict, Abbot of Wearmouth, took a bell from Italy to England, the first one to be placed there on a church. It was decreed by a Saxon king, Egbert, that all church services should be announced by ringing bells.

Sometimes bells were placed in bell towers, separate from the church. Usually those churches did not have a tower, maybe because of the lack of funds to build a tower. In the Netherlands those early bell towers were called "bell chairs" and were constructed out of 6 to 10 heavy oak logs. They were placed about 3 to 4 metres deep in the ground. The bell would hang on a cross beam and a little square roof would protect the bell from rain. This particular type of bell tower was found mainly in the northern part of the Netherlands, and only a few still exist.

A bell tolling for a dying person was called a "soul bell" or "passing bell". The tolling bell was mentioned as early as A.D. 680 when the bell of Whitby rang for the death of Abbess Hilda. Even Christians were superstitious and it was thought that evil spirits would catch the soul when it was leaving the body. When the tolling bell called, people would pray for the departing soul. In later times, bells would toll as a mark of respect, and often struck the number of years a person had lived. In some parts of England, bells would ring from eleven to twelve on Christmas Eve. People believed that Christ had been born exactly at midnight. It was called "tolling the Devil's bell" or the "Old Lad's Passing" to warn the powers of darkness of Christ's approaching birth. The tolling would cease the very minute midnight would arrive and the bells would start ringing in, the joyful event. It is also said that fiends and goblins hate church bells because they summon believers to prayer.

Another old belief in Germany was that monastery or church bells that had been buried in the ground for safe keeping during the wars would chime again on Christmas eve and could be heard by all who listened in the right attitude.

Amazing enough I found several similar stories that took place in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. In one story it is said that the land lord, instead of going to the midnight service on Christmas eve, was feasting at his castle when a beggar came to ask for lodging. He was sent away by the landlord himself. That night the old beggar died of hunger and cold, the earth swallowed up the castle with all the celebrating people. When the worshippers came home from church they found a pool where the castle once was. Each Christmas eve the bells that once hung in the castle chapel can be heard ringing from the pool.

In current years it was believed that if bells were not properly christened, harm would come to them. In the Dutch village Of Lochem, two bells not christened with the usual ceremonies were stolen by the devil and cast into nearby ponds where they could be heard only at Christmas, according to a local legend. However, it is not always the devil who plays tricks on bells or people. It happened during the reformation, according to an other story, when the Protestants occupied a Roman church, that one of the five bells broke I oose and fled from the bellfry- The bell landed in a pool, and this bell can also be heard at Christmas.

Even in Vallencia, Spain, there is a story of a woman who heard bells under the floor of a church there. When some excavating was done, they discovered a large bell and a statue of the Virgin.

Because of early associations with churches, bells soon acquired a sacred character. Usually religious inscriptions were engraved on them, "Glory to God" being a popular one. On a tenor bell, dedicated to the St. Nicholas church in Brighton, England, was this inscription:

Pray for our children, Pray for our sailors. Pray for this town. I to the church the living call And to the grave do summon all.

This one was found on a bell of medieval times:

"Jesus Maria Johannes Baptista is my name;

By ringing for God's glory, His servant I became (translated)

The St. Matthew church in my home town, nicknamed "Old John" - and old she is, being from the llth century, has this inscription:

"To the glory of God. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard "

(Psalm 19:3)

Yuletide rejoicing and the pealing of bells was closely related in medieval times. Poor persons went around with handbells to attract attention, during this season, and ask for alms. Ringing hand bells is still being done when the Salvation Army soldiers remind us to share of our riches with the poor. As soon as the church bells started to peal out on Christmas eve, people in Italy lighted candles around the manger scene and started their activities. In Scandinavia, the signal to stop all work was when the chimes started their ringing. Jacob Rus tells of his childhood in Denmark, where the village band would climb the tower and play a in four directions so they would be sure that no one would be forgotten. After the hymns the big bells with their deep voices would sing over field and heath, and Yuletide was on its way. During the Puritan era, ringing of the bells was forbidden in Britain; a crier with a handbell would go around reminding citizens that no celebrations would be allowed ' However w hen Charles II came to rule, church bells were being honoured again.

During this advent season, we are constantly reminded of bells and Christmas. Music in shopping centres remind us of Christmas bells; so does wrapping paper, Christmas cards and street decorations.

It is my wish that when we see the real celebration of Christmas.

John Keble writes in a poem;

"Wake me tonight, my mother dear,

That I may hear

The Christmas bells, so soft and clear,

To high and low, glad tidings tell

How God, the Father, loved us well-"

Yes, He loved us so much that He gave His only Son, so that we could have eternal life. God's Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

We will never comprehend this, and we don't have to. Ail we have to do is open our heart for Jesus and let Him in.

Charles Wesley expresses it so beautiful in one of his hymns, where he writes,

"Come, thou long expected Jesus,

Born to set Thy people free;

From our fears and sins release us;

Let us find our rest in Thee."

"Israel's Strength and Consolation,

Hope of all the earth Thou art;

Dear Desire of every nation,

Joy of every longing heart."

May you all experience this joy, when you kneel at the manger in Bethlehem.

VANESSEN, Mrs. Henry

Pioneer Christian Monthly (01-12-1979)

  • LOCHEM: Bells, bell ringers and bell ringing
  • VALÈNCIA: Bells, bell ringers and bell ringing
  • Bells (history and general topics): Bibliography


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