Why do churches have bells

Church bells

Time beat, betrayal, musical instrument, nuisance, monument, research object

They ring in the new year, call to worship and prayer, strike the hours: church bells. For some the wedding bells ring, for others the death knell rings. In the past, of course, they were much more important; people actually followed their strike, warning the bells of catastrophes and war. Today they disturb some at night, for others they are objects of scientific investigation. And for many a piece of home.

Today almost everyone has a watch on their wrist. Nowadays, the chiming of the church bells is no longer necessary. However, very few people want to do without bells - for many they have an ideal value: Because no one chimes sounds like the next, bells sound like home for many. Bells can have something to do with identity. Folk songs sing about them, and Radio DRS1 continues the tradition of Radio Beromünster on Saturday evening with the program “Zwischenhalt”, which started Sunday with “home bells”. There are already four CDs under this title with recordings of bells from Switzerland.

Every bell has its own function, it is struck on certain occasions, at a certain time of prayer or on a special occasion. Accordingly, they have a name that often corresponds to their liturgical function: Mary's or angelus bells are used, for example, for ringing the angelus. There is a ringing order for every ring.

The oldest bell foundry

The Rüetschi bell foundry in Aarau is the oldest bell foundry in Switzerland. Bells have been made in Aarau for almost 700 years. Today it is one of the last bell foundries in Switzerland.

Why are there church bells?

Last but not least, bells are also monuments - many have been in service for centuries, the oldest bells still hanging in Swiss church towers go back to the 13th century. Most chimes make music - some pick up a chord from a chorale or an element of the liturgy, for example. Many also have something to offer aesthetically. They are adorned with coats of arms, evidence of founders and pictures from the Bible, for example. And almost always they are adorned with a Bible verse, a prayer or a motto that they carry out into the country with every attack.

Pagan symbols

The bells were invented by the Chinese. Originally, they were considered pagan symbols. Despite initial misgivings, the monasteries took them over in order to call punctually for prayer times. It is no coincidence that one of the oldest bells in Switzerland hangs in the choir of the cathedral (the former collegiate church) of St. Gallen. It dates from the 7th century and has not yet been cast, but made of riveted copper sheet. Thus, technically correct, this is not a bell, but a bell.

The bells finally made it from the monasteries to the parish churches. A magnificent bell and a handsome church tower were an expression of pride and prestige - and of course wealth, in the up-and-coming cities of the late Middle Ages and early modern times. The mendicant orders deliberately renounced large towers and magnificent bells and contented themselves with ridge turrets - small turrets sitting on the ridge with a single bell in them, which called the monks and nuns to prayer.

Memory of peace

The story of bells is also a story of war and peace: over the centuries they have been melted down again and again in order to forge cannonballs or weapons from them in times of war. Seen in this light, many bells are a reminder of how fragile peace can be. This is certainly one of the reasons why the inscriptions, Bible verses and prayers on the bells very often have to do with the desire for peace.

Bells are also the subject of a (relatively young) branch of research. For several years there has been a Europe-wide research project with the aim of preserving historical bells.

  • Pro Bell (EU research project on the maintenance and protection of bells)

There are several bell museums in Germany

Protest against church bells

Again and again there are complaints, residents perceive the bells as noise, especially at night. IG Stiller or its exponent Samuel Büechi from Trogen in Appenzell in half of Switzerland women for the night's rest and against the hour strike between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. - sometimes with a good helping of polemics.


About Stefan Mittl, bell expert and arbitrator