The school bell rings and calls you to class. The chimes in the clock tower toll the hour. Small round bells jingle on a winter sleigh as it passes by.
Did you know that bells were our first musical instruments? Simple bells were invented by the Chinese almost five thousand years ago. This early type of bell—a hollow metal ball with a pellet inside—makes a pleasant tinkling sound, so the ancient Chinese named it “ting.” We still use their description for that sound—ting-a-ling.
The use of simple bells soon spread to all the nations of Asia and Africa. The high priest Aaron wore small golden bells on his robes as he went about his temple duties (see Ex. 28:33–35). Shepherds hung them about the necks of their sheep and cattle to help locate the flocks. Camel drivers placed bells on their ill-mannered beasts because the tinkling sound had a soothing effect on them. In India, elephants wore anklets of small bells around each foot to frighten away jungle snakes.
The Chinese were also the first to make the familiar brass or iron handbell. These could be tuned to different notes on the scale so that a set of eight or more bells could be played like a musical instrument. These handbells were used by the Chinese and people of other nations in religious ceremonies.
In about A.D. 500, Christian missionaries teaching in Europe carried handbells to assemble the people. As churches were built, larger bells made of brass or iron were hung in the church towers.
During the Middle Ages these bells ruled the daily lives of the citizens. They were rung to signal the start of work, the opening and closing of shops, the time to prepare the daily meal (for which they were called “pudding bells”), and the evening curfew, when all must cease work and retire to their homes for the night. They rang to call people to regular church services, to weddings, and to funerals.
As the towns and their churches grew larger, so did the size and number of their bells. There are still many fine examples of such bells to be seen in Europe and Asia. The largest is the Tsar Kolokol bell in Moscow. Cast in the early 1700s, it is nineteen feet tall and weighs two hundred tons. To sweeten its tone, the Russian people added gold and silver jewelry to the molten brass while the bell was being cast. When finished, the bell was so heavy that it could never be rung.
Bells were brought to North America by the Catholic priests who accompanied the early Spanish explorers. These bells were hung in the Indian missions, where some still ring to this day. North America’s most famous bell, the Liberty Bell, was cast in 1753. This United States symbol can be seen in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The bell cracked in 1835 and has been silent for more than 150 years.
Bells of many kinds were once widely used in the United States. In addition to calling people to worship and children to school, large fire bells were mounted in towers and rung to direct firemen to the blaze. Locomotive bells warned of an engine’s approach to crossings and stations. And small bells on almost every horse-drawn carriage and sleigh announced their passing.
Today some churches and cathedrals still have a set of bells in their towers. A set of tuned bells—eight or more—is called a peal, and simple tunes can be played on a peal. When twenty-three or more tuned bells are hung together, the set is called a carillon. A carillon’s bells for high notes weigh only a few pounds, and its low-note bells may weigh several thousand pounds.
Bell ringing is a popular activity in the United States, England, and Europe. Almost forty thousand children and adults in the United States alone perform musical compositions using tuned handbells.
A famous bell in Church history is the Nauvoo bell, which originally hung in the Nauvoo Temple in Illinois. It was brought to Salt Lake City by the second group of pioneers and now hangs in a tower on Temple Square. For many years it was rung to signal daybreaks, departures, and the presence Indians. Today the 150-year-old bell is rung hourly to mark the passing of the day.