Exodus 39:22-24 "And beneath
at the feet pomegranates of violet, purple, scarlet, and fine twisted linen:
And little bells of the purest gold, which they put between the pomegranates
at the bottom of the tunick round about: To wit, a bell of gold, and a
pomegranate, wherewith the high priest went adorned, when he discharged his
ministry, as the Lord had commanded Moses."
Ecclesiasticus 45:9-11 "And he girded him about with a glorious girdle, and
clothed him with a robe of glory, and crowned him with majestic attire. He
put upon him a garment to the feet, and breeches, and as ephod, and he compassed
him with many little bells of gold all round about, That as he went there
might be a sound, and a noise made that might be heard in the temple, for
a memorial to the children of his people."
When Christians were still
being persecuted by the Romans and overtly by Jews, the only bells that could
be used were small handbells; but when Constantine put a stop to the
persecutions, larger bells came into general use. Tradition (small "T")
attributes Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, Campania, Italy, with introducing them
into Church use around the year 400, and St. Patrick (A.D. 389-446) is said
to have taken metalworkers to Ireland so they could make bells for the churches
he built there. These earlier bells weren't the great cast bells we generally
think of, but were hammered-iron bells, the technology and/or materials for
the former not being readily available out in missionary lands. It wasn't
until the 8th c. that the gorgeous cast bells came to outnumber the less
sonorous iron ones -- bells of great enough size that bell towers began to
be constructed just to house them.
Over time, founders experimented with their bells' shapes and features to
control for pitch and tone, and eventually devising various methods of ringing
them. Where there are different types of bell in one church, each is used,
alone or with others, for a different purpose -- one bell or stroke pattern
to announce death, another to call the faithful to prayer, another to announce
the grade of the Feast being celebrated, etc. They were once used daily to
announce the canonical hours and the
Angelus. Descriptions of these various functions
once made their way onto the bells themselves, which are often inscribed
with their name (see below) and/or a line of poetry signifying their use.
Just one example:
Laudo Deum verum plebem
voco congrego clerum
Defunctos ploro, nimbum fugo, festa decoro.
(I praise the true God, I call the people, I assemble the clergy;
I bewail the dead, I dispense storm clouds, I do honour to feasts.)
One of the most
stunning uses of church bells is their ringing at the elevation of the Host
and the elevation of the Chalice in the Mass, an act that announces to the
entire world that a miracle is taking place. Later this typically
came, in most places, to be done only by a small handbell (the "Altar bell"
or "Sanctus bell") inside the Church, but many places retain use of the large
bells at this time. It's an exquisite moment (there are no words, really)
-- one that would compel one to kneel if one weren't already kneeling.
Note that each of the bell functions listed are either a call to the faithful
to pray (for the one dying or recently dead, for the storm to pass, in humility
and gratitude to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, etc.) or, at the least,
a reminder to them of God's presence in the world. This is the essence of
their powerful sacramental nature, their sheer beauty being another aspect
of it. So important and beloved are these bells that, since at least the
800s, they have been consecrated in a ceremony that grew to involve the bell's
being given a name, the reciting of psalms, an exorcism against evil spirits
of the air, a washing in holy water followed by drying it, an annointing
with oils (Oil of the Sick on the inside of bells
in 7 places, Chrism on the outside of the bell
in 4 places), an incensing of the bells, and a reading of the Gospel account
of Our Lord's visit to Mary and Martha (Luke 10). Though not, of course,
a true "Baptism," this blessing came to be called "baptism of the bells."
During the Protestant rebellions, some denominations came to see bells as
being "a Catholic thing," too sacramental in nature to tolerate. This bit
of doggerel sums up the attitude:
Not all the Popes Trinkets,
which heere are brought forth,
Can ballance the Bible for weight, and true worth:
Your Bells, Beads and Crosses, you see will not doo't
Or pull down your scale, with the divell to boot.
So down came the bells, sometimes
out of that anti-Catholic animus, but beginning for more prosaic reasons.
King Henry VIII valued bells less for their beautiful, sacred purpose, than
as scrap metal. R. Chambers's "Book of Days" (1869) tells us how God's Providence
rewarded such a thing:
King Henry VIII, however,
looked upon church-bells only as so much metal that could be melted down
and sold. Hence, in the general destruction and distribution of church-property
in his reign, countless bells disappeared, to be sold as mere metal. Many
curious coincidences attended this wholesale appropriation. Ships attempting
to carry bells across the seas, foundered in several havens, as at Lynn,
and at Yarmouth; and, fourteen of the Jersey bells being wrecked at the entrance
of the harbour of St. Male, a saying arose to the effect, that when the wind
blows the drowned bells are ringing. A certain bishop of Bangor, too, who
sold the bells of his cathedral, was stricken with blindness when he went
to see them shipped; and Sir Miles Partridge, who won the Jesus bells of
St. Paul's, London, from King Henry, at dice, was, not long afterwards hanged
on Tower Hill.
Other denominations weren't
quite so anti-bell -- some even relishing them; but the secularism that
Protestantism sired came to eclipse even these, with secular luminaries such
as Thomas Paine coming to rail against the use of bells. In a screed he otherwise
used to insult religion
3 ("the men most and best
informed upon the subject of theology...hold all the various superstructures
erected thereon to be at least doubtful, if not altogether artificial") --
especially public religion -- and to insult priests and the very existence
of the priesthood, he wrote:
As to bells, they are a public
nuisance. If one profession is to have bells, and another has the right to
use the instruments of the same kind, or any other noisy instrument, some
may choose to meet at the sound of cannon, another at the beat of drum, another
at the sound of trumpets, and so on, until the whole becomes a scene of general
confusion. But if we permit ourselves to think of the state of the sick,
and the many sleepless nights and days they undergo, we shall feel the
impropriety of increasing their distress by the noise of bells, or any other
Quiet and private domestic devotion neither offends nor incommodes any body;
and the Constitution has wisely guarded against the use of externals. Bells
come under this description, and public processions still more so. Streets
and highways are for the accommodation of persons following their several
occupations, and no sectary has a right to incommode them. If any one has,
every other has the same; and the meeting of various and contradictory
processions would be tumultuous. Those who formed the Constitution had wisely
reflected upon these cases; and, whilst they were careful to reserve the
equal right of every one, they restrained every one from giving offence,
or incommoding another.
Mr. Paine was obviously
well-schooled in England's incessant anti-Catholic propaganda and deformed
by the same spirit that led to the terrors of the French Revolution. Religion's
OK for idiots who believe it only as long as it's a matter of "quiet and
private domestic devotion" -- in other words, if you have to be religious,
shut up about it (hey, that's what they used to say about perverted
sex. My, how times change...).
And this ultimately secular Protest-ant attitude is why the Pledge of Allegiance
4 has come to be offensive in America,
why prayer in school has been abolished, why homosexuality is a "lifestyle"
that can't be "judged," why abortion is a matter of personal "rights," and
why we can't use the word "morality" to defend ourselves in the public square
against the assaults of pornography, materialism, and unwarranted,
non-contextualized media violence. And, ultimately, this is why Christians,
who dare to take stands on Good and Evil, have come to be among the last
groups in the world (aside from the physically ugly, the fat, white boys,
smokers, and the truly politically "conservative") whom it is OK to mock
and insult -- Catholic Christians most especially. Protestantism throws each
of the teeming millions back on himself and rips apart the the common language
and Christian culture that binds men and their families together. It amounts
to opinion -vs- opinion, which leads to people speaking of "your reality"
and "my reality," or of something being "moral for you, but not for me,"
etc. Long live radical individualism; long live Protestantism! The "divell"
has won another victory.
Bring back the bells! Bring back Christ to every facet of our
For an interesting, almost
point-by-point contrast to Mr. Paine's view on bells, read
a passage about bells from J. K. Huysmans' "La-Bas."
Hmm.. I wonder if this writer
is talking about the entire Bible (the Bible which was compiled by and given
to the world through the Catholic Church) or just those books the Protestants
D. MacColloch, The Later Reformation in England 1547-1603 (London, 1990)
3 He insults religions as "trades," but has a
soft spot for Quakerism: his Daddy was a Quaker, you see, and Quakers "provide
for the poor of their society" and "...have no priests. They assemble quietly
in their places of meeting, and do not disturb their neighbours with shows
and noise of bells. Religion does not unite itself to show and noise. True
religion is without either." Pope Paine has spoken! All heed his infallible
words! And I wonder if the Quakers got their ideas of "providing for the
poor" from the Catholics, who've run hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens,
schools, etc., or semblances thereof, ever since they were allowed in public
Not that the Pledge of Allegiance,
written by a Socialist and including the incorrect sentiment ("indivisible")
that the States don't have a right to secede, is anything to crow about in
se, but patriotism and the love of one's country (not necessarily one's
government) is a virtue -- and it is love for America that is under attack
by those who run to the ACLU with their anti-pledge animus. Because of its
anti-secession lies and the modern confusion between "country" and "government,"
it wouldn't bother me if the Pledge were to disappear tomorrow; I just don't
like the motives of those attacking it for the "under God" part (added to
the pledge in the 1950s at the insistence of the Catholic Knights of Columbus,
by the way) any more than I like the State-worshipping motives of those who
came up with the pledge in the first place.
This page is dedicated
to the bells of Holy Rosary Church, Indianapolis -- from smallest to largest:
Assumption, St. Rita, St. Francis, St. Anthony, St. Joseph, San