Bells of Nature’s Secular Sanctuary

All through (Christian) college and (Super Christian) seminary I heard bells–the chimes from the bell tower, marking the hour, or playing a hymn to call us to chapel.  Sometimes the sound was soothing.  Other times, bothersome.

Both Thomas Paine and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were irritated by bells.  Too many church bells always calling people to prayer and preaching, church and heavenly thoughts.

Paine felt that bells could be a nuisance, a distraction, from real world concerns:

“As to bells, they are a public nuisance. If one profession is to have bells, and another has the right to use the instruments of the same kind, or any other noisy instrument, some may choose to meet at the sound of cannon, another at the beat of drum, another at the sound of trumpets, and so on, until the whole becomes a scene of general confusion.”

“Worship and Church Bells” (1797)

Stanton, in her Reminiscences, bluntly says,

“[I dreaded that every] Sunday we had the bells of six churches all going at the same time. It is strange how long customs continue after the original object has ceased to exist. At an early day, when the country was sparsely settled and the people lived at great distances, bells were useful to call them together when there was to be a church service. But now, when the churches are always open on Sunday, and every congregation knows the hour of services and all have clocks, bells are not only useless, but they are a terrible nuisance to invalids and nervous people. If I am ever so fortunate as to be elected a member of a town council, my first efforts will be toward the suppression of bells.”  

I love her style.  

Sometimes a certain pealing can be. . .appealing, even beautiful.  Here’s something I penned a few years ago:

I Hear the Bells of Nature’s Church

I hear the bells of Nature’s church,
So, on my cap, and off to search
A lightened pack of curiosity, joy
Not felt so strong since yet a boy
I bend to grasp my walkingstick
And saunter deep to forest thick
One eye a telescope to scan the distant ways
One eye a microscope the ants, beetles afoot amaze
And now a choir draws my ear
Just passed the peaceful grazing deer
Anthem familiar, hymn pure and sweet
I quicken steps with lighter feet
The wood-en door swings wide to show
A stream and falls in full-singing flow
I sit to listen on a boulder pew
With a smile of knowing I’m of the chosen few
A voice beyond the cascade rises
Calls to higher altars—spiritual surprises
I leap the stones with expectation
Senses alive to wild exhortation
The woods grew darker, the way unclear
Though feeling lost, I lost all fear
When near, above me the sermon came
Upon a pulpit a tongue untame
The wisdom spoken, the courage pronounced
A truth unbroken, good news announced
With words unhuman, no words indeed
The sound sufficient, a heart to lead
The preacher ascended in feathery robe
And left me stunned with meaning to probe
For the owl herself had only said
What I already knew, What I’d already read
The scriptures and sermons, the choirs and prayer
Are all open to everyone anytime there
There in the wild inspiring places
The congregants greet you with furry, feathery faces
Your fellow parishioners shuffle, scurry, slither and fly
Teach like the trees, the mountains, the sky
And if you are listening and open each day
You might hear the bells, as they gladly, out there,
call away.

Chris Highland
August, 2009

Recorded by Patty Ann Smith on YouTube


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