Material History of American Religion Project

Saved by the bells

Advertisement for Stromberg-Carlson carrillons

While investigating the material environment of American religion, we've noticed that people often want something that makes a church feel like a church. On the American frontier Christians built the simplest church they could afford, often a simple unadorned box. As soon as they had the resources, however, they started adding elements that made the building more spiritual, more holy, more--well, more church-like. Such desiderata include spires, wooden pews, and organs. (See the example of the portable reed organ.)

For many Christians--especially prosperous Christians--bells are another mark of true church-ness. In pre-modern Europe, bells were important, because they called to worship those who had no clocks. Bells played a similar role in American frontier communities. In twentieth century America, however, bells have no practical function--especially when the people come from beyond earshot of the bells--besides pretty sound, an inescapable reminder of the church's presence, and a general feeling of church-ness.

While a few wealthy urban churches installed bells or carillons in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, such ornaments were beyond the range of the average church until post-World War II technological change made them affordable for most middle-class congregations. A 1955 Northern Baptist magazine carried this advertisement for an electronic bell system that amplified the sound of small pieces of metal, making it possible for a church to have the carillon sound without the expense of a full set of bells or the tower to house them. As James Hudnut-Beumler describes in his paper on the "Many Mansions of God's House," the 1950s and early 1960s marked a peak of church building among American mainline Protestants. Due to post-war suburbanization, they were building new churches in new communities--like the one pictured in this advertisement. And due to post-war prosperity, they had the resources to add bells--amplified chimes, but bells nevertheless--to make the new churches sound more church-like.

One more note about this advertisement. The post-war period was not only a time of church growth; it was also a time of anxiety about the American family. Gender roles were in flux and children flirted with delinquency. Americans turned to the booming churches, seeking support for the traditional family structure in this complex era. This was the era of the youth fellowship and the family night supper. It's no surprise, then, that the carillon company would offer family reconciliation as a benefit of installing a set of bells.

Missions December 1955, 7.

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