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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 devised 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 names (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: 1
Your Bells, Beads and Crosses, you see will not doo’t
Or pull down your scale, with the divell to boot. 2
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 (“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 noisy instruments.
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 has come to be offensive in America, why prayer in school has been abolished, why the old bath-house promiscuity associated with active homosexuality is part of 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, white boys, smokers, and political traditionalists and conservatives) 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 lives!
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.”
1 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 left in.
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 by Constantine.