April 1, 2016 - When one drives around the small town of San Augustine, Texas, one will note many older church buildings scattered all around the area. Some are constructed of wood, some brick, and some even stone. But one thing they all have in common is a steeple. Have you ever wondered why most churches sport a high steeple, usually topped off with a cross?
The tradition of church steeples dates back to the eighteenth century in Europe. As people immigrated to America they brought with them church architects who began designing churches as grand cathedrals which always had high steeples. One thought is that the vertical lines of the steeple helped to visually enhance the lines of the church, directing the viewer’s eyes vertically toward the heavens, and to God, and thus help keep the people in a heavenly frame of mind coming into worship.
In most churches stained glass windows were used to tell stories since in the early church very few could read and write. The images on the stained glass windows told stories found in the Bible without using words.
The steeples had other functions. Many of them contained large clocks, while others contained bells. In the very early days reliable clocks were very rare and expensive. Since most of the people told the time from the sun and its shadow, it was difficult to announce when the church service would begin. Thus, the churches would ring the bells to announce the time of the meeting. For the sound of the bells to be heard, the steeple had to rise above all the other buildings in town so that the sound would not be obstructed.
Tall steeples were also believed to inhibit evil spirits from entering the church which many Christians believed plagued church buildings. Even the extremely steep roofs, sharp steeples, and gargoyles were added to churches in great numbers by parishioners hoping to drive away evil creatures.
These church bells were useful for community emergencies like fires, but also served as town halls for the community to hold meetings. The sound of the bells made it easy to find the church and the height of the steeple allowed people to see where the church was located, even if they were new to the town.
In the beginning, Christian worship was at sunrise. Sunrise and sunset are the only two times of the day about which everyone can be unanimous without accurate time pieces. In the New Testament it appears that most important things happened at either the third, sixth, or ninth hour. But after Christianity became legal, pious Christians wanted to worship at different times of the day, and on all days of the week. Thus it became necessary to develop some means of announcing the time of worship to the general public. Church buildings acquired bell towers for this purpose, and they evolved into today’s church steeples. Now that we all have accurate time pieces, we don’t need church bells to tell us when to set out for church, so steeples are becoming decorative.
I have noted in recent years that most of the new “mega-churches” built in the large cities have abandoned the traditional steeple. The new buildings look more like a large office building. Perhaps one would never suspect them to be a church, and this bothers me.
In summary, the bells called us to worship, the steeple told us where worship was, and the verticality of the churches directed our attention upward toward God as we entered the church for worship services. Even though there are many different ideas about the origins of church steeples, today it is still easy to spot a church from a fairly long distance. The distinct church steeple still directs our attention upward, and the end result, hopefully, will be that we are drawn to God. Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32) Those new church buildings without the steeple perhaps are missing the point of that verse.