The Church Bell/s

Holy Dormition Chapel Bell

Holy Dormition Chapel Bell

My beloved in Christ,

In recent days and months there has been some discussion on the significance and the use of bells. What is the purpose of church bells? Where did the tradition of church bells originate?

The history of ringing church bells dates back to AD 400. Paulinus of Nola was the first man to introduce them to the Christian Church, and Pope Sabinianus sanctioned their use in AD 604. Church bells became much more common in Europe during the Middle Ages, and the Eastern Orthodox Church carried on a long history of using bells during the divine services. The Russian Orthodox Church also has a long history with bell ringing.

Bells are a distinctive part of Orthodox Christian divine services. Bells are used for a number of purposes throughout the liturgical cycle, such as a summons for the faithful to divine services and as an announcement to those not present in church of specific moments in the services.

In the early centuries of Christianity, the Church was often persecuted and did not have the opportunity to openly call the faithful to services. The faithful were notified of times of services by personal contact or by the presiding clergy at the end of the services. After the persecutions ceased, various means of announcing services arose, but the pealing of bells appeared to become the preferred method. While bells are known from antiquity, the first use of bells in Christian context was in Western Europe. Tradition, although probably inaccurate, ascribes the invention of bells in the late 4th century to Saint Paulinus, the bishop of Nola in Campania, Italy. However, there is no record in Europe of the use of bells religiously until the early 7th century. Bells came into use in the Eastern Greek Orthodox Church in AD 865 when the Doge of Venice gave twelve large bells to Emperor Michael. These bells were hung in a tower near Hagia Sophia Cathedral.

Bells were introduced in Russia almost simultaneously with the Baptism of the Rus in AD 988, coming to the Eastern Slavs through Western Europe. These bells were generally small and used in small sets of only two or three bells. By the 14th century, however, bell foundries had come into existence that produced very large bells. Large bells in Russia weighed up to 144,000 pounds.  

Operation of bells in Eastern Orthodox Europe differed from those in the West. In the East the dapper strikes against a stationary bell. In the West the whole bell is swung while the clapper is stationary.


During Orthodox divine Church services, bells are used at specific times. Bell ringing is used to announce and summon the faithful to divine services, to express the joy of the divine services of the Church, and for those not present at the service to announce the times of important moments in the services. Often the tolling of a bell is used to announce the death of important church and civil personalities. For example, I recall the church bell ringing at Holy Cross Seminary, where I was a student, when President Kennedy was assassinated.

In settings not pertaining to Church services, bells are used to signal special occasions and announce assembly of faithful and citizens. In Monastic settings bells may be used each day to awaken the monks and signal the daily discipline and routine of Monasteries. Also, ringing of bells had been used often to alert inhabitants of towns and cities of approaching armies and attackers. A storied example of such a use is the large bell at Saint Sofia Cathedral in Novgorod, Russia, that was used to warn of the approach of Ivan the Terrible's army to the city. Angry at its use, the tyrant had the bell punished by having one of the ears, used to hang the bell, cut off so that it could no longer be hung and rung.

In our Liturgical tradition the bell/s are rung at the arrival of the Bishop, at the Great Doxology, at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, at funeral services, at religious processions, at Holy and Great Week, at Pascha and Resurrection service etc. Bells can remind Christians of the Lord's presence, and the music often produces a calm, joy, and reverence in those who listen with faith.


In Christianity, the ringing of church bells was traditionally believed to drive out demons and other unclean spirits. Inscriptions on church bells relating to this purpose of church bells, as well as the purpose of serving as a call to prayer and worship, were customary, for example 'the sound of this bell vanquishes tempests, repels demons, and summons men".

As you can see, the church bell at Saint Andrew, our Holy Dormition of the Mother of God Chapel, is not there for decoration, but for liturgical purposes.

Now you know!

With agape,

+ Father George