In the book Early Bells of Massachusetts by Elbridge H. Goss[1] in 1874 writes: “more intimately than any other instrument are bells associated with the religious and imaginative, as also with the most joyous and the saddest feelings of mankind.” A quaint old writer describes their threefold duties thus:

To call the fold to church in time,

We chime.

When joy and mirth are on the wing,

We ring.

When we lament a departed soul,

We toll.

The importance of bells as a means of communication in early New England is described by Edward and Evelyn Stickney—experts in the bells of Paul Revere and Sons—in a 1976 publication: "For our ancestors, church bells played an important part in the life of the community and each peal had its own meaning.

The ‘Gabriel’ bell woke the people of the parish; the sermon bell announced it was time for the church services; the ’pardon’ bell rang before and after the sermon during prayers for the pardoning of sins; the ‘pudding’ bell, which undoubtedly was the most popular, told the cook to prepare dinner while the church goers headed for home; the ‘passing’ bell tolled three times at a man's death with a ring for each year of his age."

Historically among the nations, Russia has always been in contention for the largest bells, and the greatest number of them. “A bell in Moscow is 19 feet high, 63 feet 11 inches round its margin, and weighs in at 443,772 pounds. ….One of the largest bells in the United States is the alarm bell on the city-hall of New-York, which weighs 23,000 pounds. The “Old Liberty Bell,” in Philadelphia, which was used to “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof,” though not a large bell, has a world-wide reputation. It was imported from England in 1752 (at White Chapel Foundry), but broken upon its first trial. It was then recast in Philadelphia, and again broken. A second time recast, it was placed in position in June 1753, and this bell was used until “on Monday, the 8th day of July, 1776, at 12 o’clock at noon, this very Bell rang out to the citizens of Philadelphia, the glad tidings, that a new nation had a few days before sprung into existence, proclaiming in language understood by every ear, All Men are Born Free and Equal.” When the American forces left Philadelphia, in 1777, this bell was removed to Allentown, to keep it out of the hands of the British army. It was afterwards returned and used for fifty years, when it cracked.”

The use of the bell by churches was written in England about as early as the end of the 7th century by Bede the Venerable In the 10th century, St. Dunstan, considered by many as the most famous of all the Anglo-Saxon saints, hung bells in many churches.

In Church daily life bells were rung and named according to liturgical hours. For example, “…the Vesper Bell was the call to evening prayer. The Compline bell summoned the people to the last religious service of the day. The Sanctus Bell was hung in a small turret outside the church. It was rung at the words of the church service, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts.” The Passing Bell was so called from being tolled when any one was passing out of life; and all within hearing of it were enjoined to pray for the soul of the dying. Thus the poet John Donne says:--“Prayers ascend to heaven in troops at the good man’s passing bell. It is probable that from this custom of tolling a bell at the death of a person, arose the practice of tolling a bell at a funeral.”

It was common in 1751 to hear the Curfew bell as attested to by Thomas Gray in his poem the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard:”

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,

The Ploughman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

 

The Curfew Bell was of civic rather than church design: and though its origin has been ascribed to good King Alfred the Great of England in the year 890, yet it seems more probable to have been introduced into England by William the Conqueror from Normandy in 1066. “The name, ‘curfew,’ indicates a French origin. The French words, ‘couvre feu,’ translates as ‘cover fire.’ Rung every evening at eight o’clock, it was the summons for all the people to extinguish fires and lights in the houses, and retire for the night. From this bell we have undoubtedly our custom of ringing the nine o’clock evening bell. In London around 1556 bellmen were appointed to ring a bell at night and cry, Take care of your fire and candle, be charitable to the poor, and pray for the dead.

 

Bells have been used for a long period to strike the divisions of time. In the 11th century, clock bells were in general use in European monasteries: … [bells] were rung to drive away infections, to dispel storms, to abate lightnings, all of which were thought to be the work of the evil spirits of the air.

In the Prologue of Longfellow’s “Golden Legend,” where Lucifer calls upon the powers of the air to destroy the Cathedral of Strasbourg:--

“From its station drag, the ponderous

Cross of iron, that to mock us

Is uplifted high in air!

Seize the loud, vociferous bells, and

Clashing, clanging, to the pavement

Hurl them from their windy tower!

Not only do the spirits make answer:

O we cannot!

For around it

All the Saints and Guardian Angels

Throng in legions to protect it;

They defeat us everywhere!

All thy thunders

Here are harmless!

For these bells have been anointed,

And baptized with holy water!

They defy our utmost power.

But the bells themselves make answer:

I praise the true God!

I call the people!

I assemble the clergy!

I lament the dead!

I drive away the pestilence!

I grace the festival!

I mourn at the burial!

I abate the lightnings!

I announce the Sabbath!

I arouse the indolent!

I dissipate the winds!

I appease the avengeful!”

 

Longfellow’s “Song of the Bell,” tells some of its uses concisely:

Bell! Thou soundest merrily,

When the bridal party

To the church doth hie!

Bell! Thou soundest solemnly,

When on Sabbath morning,

Fields deserted lie!

 

Bell! thou soundest merrily;

Tellest thou at evening,

Bed-time draweth nigh!

Bell! thou soundest mournfully,

Tellest thou the bitter

Parting hath gone by!

 

Say! How canst thou mourn?

Thou are but metal dull!

And yet all our sorrowings,

And all our rejoicings,

Thou dost feel them all!

 

God hath wonders many,

Which we cannot fathom,

Placed within thy form!

When the heart is sinking,

Thou alone canst raise it,

Trembling in the storm!

Tennyson, also, sweetly sings:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,

The flying cloud, the frosty light:

The year is dying in the night;

Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

 

Ring out the old, ring in the new,

Ring, happy bells, across the snow:

The year is going, let him go;

Ring out the false, ring in the true.

 

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,

For those that here we see no more;

Ring out the feud of rich and poor,

Ring in redress to all mankind.

 

Most churches use their bells as musical instruments that “notify anyone nearby that the church is there and is a “place of hope, help, and prayer.” “The centuries-old church tradition of ringing bells is a way of glorifying God.”

 

It is always with great amazement that we recall the melody and words of many Christmas carols at anytime and anywhere! The words of many an old carol are part of an elegant oral tradition that passes on the values of peace and good will among men. Recall these words with its melody and let’s all croon along together…

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“I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play,

And mild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

 

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along

The unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

 

Till ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day;

A voice, a chime,

A Chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

 

As in despair I bowed my head;

‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said;

‘For hate is strong,

And mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men!’

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

‘God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men!’”

 

The bronze 831-pound bell installed in the Shrine to Mary Undoer of Knots’ Veteran Memorial Bell Tower is an original, authentic Paul Revere Bell. Cast according to church records in 1826 by Paul Revere’s partner and son, Joseph Warren Revere—and according to public records—purchased in 1833 by the Congregationalist Church in Chicopee Falls, MA.

 

[1] I quote him extensively here in this article.

Winter scene at bell tower.jpg

I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY