The Messengers of God – a Historical Review 

    Orthodox church offices starts with the ringing of the bells to invite the faithful for the commencement of the service and to bring the Church flock together for the liturgical worship of God. A large part of the Typikon, which governs the order of a church service, is dedicated to the description of the timing and order of the ringing; so in the minds of its authors the ringing is not the office as such. Its purpose is to gather the faithful and to signal the start of the specific stages of an office for those not in attendance. So what is the history of the tradition of bell-ringing at the Orthodox church?

Word of mouth 

    There is a long history behind the sounding the church bells to bring the faithful together. This tradition took time to evolve, as it did for the present-day worship offices to acquire their present form, which is as complex as it is magnificent. The deeper we go into the centuries, the more simplicity we find in the order of the worship services and in the means used to summon the faithful. The practice of gathering the faithful with the melodic sounds of a silver horn dates back to the times of the Old Testament. The rituals of the first Christians were even more basic, given the persecution that they were facing in those times, and the consequent need to be discreet. The communities were small but close-knit. It was perhaps for this reason, that the Holy Martyr Ignatius of Antioch (†107) advised in his letter to Saint Polycarp of Smyrna: “Have the gatherings as often as possible; invite everyone by name (To Polycarp, 4). In the first century, summoning the faithful at the Church of Jerusalem was the duty of the Archdeacon (Peregrinatio ad loca sancta, 29, 30). He used the following formula to inform the church members about the place and time of the office: “Let us all convene at this and that place (e.g. the Martyrium or the Eleone), and be ready by a given hour.” 

Knocking on the door

    According to the account of Johannes Cassianus (De institutis coenobiorum, IV, 12), monks in the cenobitic monasteries of Egypt were summoned for the worship services simply by knocking on the door of their sells, whereupon each monastic was expected to go outside. Likewise, in the life of Saint Pachomius the call for communal worship or a shared meal was referred to with the Greek word “κρούεσθαι” (or ‘knock’), and thus the term ‘knocking’ (κρούσμα) acquired the specialist meaning “call for worship”, and can still be found in the Typikon. In his Historia Lausaica, Palladius of Galatia (c. V – VI centuries), refers to the instrument for making the signal. In the part of the book about Saint Botwulf of Thorney, he wrote: “having completed the usual prayer rule, he immediately struck the doors of all the cells with a wake-up hammer to call the monastics to the Church for the matins (Historia Lausaica, Ch. 104 (89)). As we can see, a simple hammer used to be one of the most common tools for calling the faithful to church in the old times. Eventually, this tool was succeeded by a new one – the striking rod.

The striking rod

    The use of the striking rod was reported in historical sources from as early as the sixth century. As mentioned in the life of St. Theodosius the Cenobiarch (†529), written by his contemporary, Theodor, Bishop of Paetrea, the faithful were called for the liturgy and hours by sounding a wooden rod; this fact is also confirmed by Saint John Moschus in his work titled “Spiritual Meadow”. In Greek, several words were used to refer to the instrument – ξύλον (‘wood’), κρούσμα (‘stress’), σύμαντρον (‘signal’), and σίδηρον  (‘iron’). The latter did not begin to be mentioned in the monastic rulebooks until the 11th and 12th centuries. Iron striking rods used to be common in the Orthodox churches, but are now in use mostly in the churches of Mount Athos, Sinai, Palestine and some Russian monasteries. Striking rods were made of different materials, and came in different sizes; two types of the rod were used, depending on the occasion – the heavy variant to the most important services, and the everyday kind for all others. In shape, the instrument resembles an elongated plank that can be placed on a shoulder (for the hand-held variant), and struck with a hammer. By striking at different points, the player could vary the pitch of the sound, making the signal for the start of the worship a real work of musical art. Interestingly, Archimandrite Antonin (Kapustin) who visited Mount Athos in the 19th century reported in his writings (titled “Remarks of a worshipper from Mount Athos”) that an expert performer could play a variety of tunes on the instrument for at least half an hour. 

Church bells

Eventually, striking rods began to be replaced by the church bells. Church bells were first introduced in the West. One of the first accounts of their use can be found in the writings of St. Gregorius Turonensis, a bishop and a church historian (†594). Saint Daig, the Bishop of Ireland and also a blacksmith (†586) reports making around 300 bells, a fact which can be interpreted as evidence of their growing popularity. In the East, church bells (also called Campans) were not introduced until centuries later. Their first mention in the chronicles goes back to the ninth century. According to one of the records, twelve bells were delivered to Constantinople by a duke of Venice at the request of the then emperor of Byzantium Basil I the Macedonian. All were intended to be put up at one of the churches. Incidentally, the acceptance of the bells in the East was cautious at first, and their use was limited to a few churches of Constantinople and Thessalonica. Saint Eustathius of Thessalonica wrote in one of his notable accounts that the Crusaders who invaded Thessalonica were troubled by the sounds of the striking rods, but rejoiced at the ringing of the bells of the Church of Saint Dimitrius.

Overall, the use of the church bells to call the faithful to prayer has deep historical roots; their introduction in the East dates back to the ninth century. Even as they were becoming more common, the more traditional striking rods were the preferred instruments, and theu have remained in use to this day in some of the oldest monasteries. In Russia, too, church bells were a rarity at first, but the subsequent advancement of the art of making church bells made bell ringing a ubiquitous part of Orthodox religious practice and its worship services. 

About the author

John Nichiporuk,
Master of Theology specializing in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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