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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

15 May 2006


Q: What do you know about the origin of church steeples?

SteepleA: Building towers above churches obviously occurred after Christianity became a “legal” religion and began in earnest around AD 600. The practice seemingly came from military architecture. Before that time, Christians took great pains to divert attention from their gathering places. Once special houses of worship came into being, various projections started to arise from them. The use of elaborate towers developed in medieval times. From these came our modern steeples.

These towers allowed churches and cathedrals to stand out among other buildings in the cities or among the hills and trees in the country. They saw their greatest expression in the strongly vertical architecture that was common in the Gothic period and beyond. Their designers hoped to lift eyes (and thoughts and emotions) above ground level and man’s earthly concerns by building these soaring structures. This thought appears in the construction practices of many non-Christian religions, as well.

As bells became more common, steeples were also used to house and elevate them. Sound traveled much greater distances when starting high above the ground and reached more members of the community with the ringing call to worship. The bells also announced fires, oncoming enemies, and deaths of congregational members through an organized pattern of rings and tolls. Thus, there were practical, aesthetic, and spiritual reasons for the development and use of steeples.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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