Value of Bells: Connection to Histories

The fourth main value of bells I perceive is their connection to histories. The first history I mean is the particular history of Western Europe. Today we are familiar with one main use of tower bells that dates to the middle ages—to signal to faithful Christians. For example, tower bells would signal when to pray the Angelus, when to come to church for Mass, and when the bread was transubstantiating into the host. Church bells frequently still signal the beginning of a church service. Bells in Western Europe during the middle ages were also critical signalers for secular affairs, which is perhaps lesser known today. They would sound the alarm of advancing armies or fire and announce the opening of markets or nightly curfew. The sound of bells regulated the workings of a city from dawn to dusk. Bells were upheld as symbols in another crucial history in the USA—the fight for freedom stretching from abolitionism to the civil rights movement. Abolitionists used the Liberty Bell as a symbol for their movement to free slaves. A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. described bells ringing for freedom in his civil rights speeches.

Bells remind us of these histories, and in doing so, remind us in turn of their values. Today, I think tower bells in North America are primarily associated with churches and are heard as messengers of the faith. The future of bells here, I think, lie in their power to reclaim their association to more secular values. While we no longer need bells to regulate our day, the sound of bells can serve as advocates for community values—collaboration, orderliness, and promoting the common welfare—and our American value of freedom.

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