The bell tower has become an enduring symbol for a church or worship space. I don’t think this has always been the case. Other buildings historically have had bell towers. In past eras, schools, city halls, fire stations, warning or observation structures may all have been equipped with rooftop free-standing towers to hold bells. But, over time, the church is the one building type that functionally and symbolically has come to be associated with its bell structures.
Historic bells are regularly rung at St. John's Episcopal Church in Tallahassee.
In our modern cities, the church steeple remains while other historic bell structures are nearly all gone. Few, if any, schools, public, or life-safety buildings need a bell to call attention or sound an alarm. Many churches now use a steeple form, empty of bells, strictly as a symbol. However, many churches continue to actually use their steeples for bells. The sound of chimes, heard in many neighborhoods, unmistakably herald the presence of a church.
The modern design of the Holy Spirit bell tower holds traditional bells.
A number of church steeples are preserved in their historic form. The bells at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Tallahassee date from the 1880’s. They have been restored and are heard regularly ringing in the downtown district. The same types of bells were installed at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Waco in the 1960’s. This example is a modern metal tower, but the traditional bells are still rung by hand from the room below. Modern or traditional, historic or contemporary, the church bell still is a defining symbol associated with sacred space.