When you see a church steeple in the distance, what is the first thing that comes to mind? For many people, church steeples are synonymous with Christianity. But why do churches have steeples in the first place? What is their history and what purpose do they serve today? Let’s explore a bit of the history and symbolism of church steeples. We will also discuss how they are an important part of so very many church buildings. If you’re curious about church steeples, keep reading!
We all understand a steeple is to be a tall tower on a structure, topped by a spire of some sort and can include a bell tower other components. Steeples are quite prevalent in Christian churches and cathedrals, and the term generally refers to a religious edifice.
1. Why do churches have steeples? It’s tradition.
Steeples are likely a holdover from the middle ages or before. You will come across writings that insist that the original steeples preceded the church and were used as pagan symbols. There are a small minority of people who think that it’s still wrong and sinful to have a church steeple because of that belief. It’s a belief that is disputed and unsubstantiated.
Anyway, from our perspective here we aren’t going to sit around and have a debate on how and why steeples came into being hundreds or thousands of years ago. The same argument about pagan roots is commonly made about the Christmas tree and other common practices and symbols.
We can at least know that tradition of church steeples easily dates back to the eighteenth century in Europe. As people immigrated to America they brought with them people who remembered churches as grand buildings which always had high steeples.
It seems that there were times in history when some churches let their motives go off the rails and wanted larger and taller steeples as a way to show the wealth and power of the church. I really believe and hope that those were the exceptions and not the rule.
Church Steeples Come to America
The first churches in the new world were quite small and they didn’t have many of the amenities that we see in modern church buildings. However, many early church buildings were modeled after traditional European churches. As people began settlements in the early formation of America, even some of the small churches would include a steeple and sometimes a church bell as part of the structure or as a stand-alone.
Churches of various denominations could become the center of the town or community. Since clocks that were accurate were not easily accessible in those earlier days, the bells and/or clock tower/steeple of the church could signal the people in the surrounding community of the time to worship or other meetings.
The bell in a church steeple could be used to call people to church or to signal special events. Additionally, the steeple could be used as a lookout tower in case of an attack.
2. Why Do Churches Have Steeples? To Identify the Building As A Place of Worship
The main reason that churches have steeples in modern society is to identify the church building as a place of worship. Many church steeples feature crosses or other religious symbols, which help to identify the church as being part of the Christian faith. Many people look at the steeple as a symbol of where we should direct our faith and our attention, Additionally, steeples often serve as a marker for people in the community.
As steeple can serve as a visual reminder that there is a greater power, God, who is at work in our lives for the greater God. If we let it, a steeple can even serve to prompt our minds down a path of encouragement when we go through difficult times.
It can be a prompt to worship as it stands there pointing upward – not as a way to get to God as some believe about the Tower Of Babel, but by symbolically stating that there is a God who is worthy of our praise and worship.
Steeples can draw various emotions from various types of people, or really may not affect them at all. However, identifying that building, that place, that land is set aside as a place in which to worship God does have value to many.
3. Why Do Churches Have Steeples? It Creates a Landmark.
Church steeples may be seen from a long distance away and thus they are an easy way to identify a church building. They become landmarks in a way. At first thought, you might think that to be because of a little pride or boastfulness. Well, some could use it that way. However, a good tall steeple can become somewhat of a landmark for people to see.
How is that a bad thing?…unless the church members are full of pride and boastfulness. I don’t think that most churchgoers think of a steeple in that way, do you? In some areas, the tall steeples even help people when they are navigating unfamiliar roads and cities.
We have all sorts of landmarks in this world. I, personally don’t have a problem with a steeple in a God-loving church becoming a landmark for people to see. We serve a great God and a steeple can be a testimony to that.
This is important because many people in a community may be looking for Christian churches when they visit or relocate to an area. Church steeples also serve as markers in communities, often helping people navigate their way through the congested areas.
4. Why Do Churches Have Steeples On Today’s Buildings? For The Beauty.
Many church buildings have been easily identified by their church steeple. There are many elaborate churches in our world and there are many elaborate steeples. Church steeples have been very prominent in church architecture, They can add beauty and, depending upon your culture and how you were raised, maybe a sense of tranquility.
A quick search on the internet will bring you images of hundreds and hundreds of images of church steeples from all over the world. Some of these are magnificent structures that came with extravagant costs. You will find that some are breathtaking. It’s another debate for another time in terms of the legitimacy of spending the church’s money on incredibly elaborate structures. Those decisions should be made by the congregants, their leaders, and their God. However, prominent steeples can be things of beauty.
5. Why Do Churches Have Steeples? They symbolically Draws Our Eyes Heavenward.
Yes, that is one of the reasons that people will mention if you get in a conversation about steeples. And, actually, there is quite a bit of symbolism behind a spire reaching toward the heavens. I come from a traditional background and sometimes I don’t even notice a steeple because we see so many of them here in the southern part of the United States.
However, people do understand the symbol and the image that there is an object that is pointing upward to get our eyes looking up to something greater, someone bigger and mightier than all of this world.
If that symbol becomes too much of a focus, or people begin to revere an elaborate steeple more than the presence of God, then that’s a problem. maybe that happens, but I’ve never been in a case where it did.
So, What About Church Steeples? Good, Bad, or Does It Matter?
In the four churches where I served two of them had very traditional church steeples. In my early 20s in my first position as a church staff member, I remember my Sr. pastor put a tape recording of chimes in the tower of the steeple. He had a loudspeaker that was in the steeple and every Sunday morning he would play those chimes for about an hour or so before Sunday worship. Wow, did we ever get complaints, but he stuck with it for quite a while!
My second full-time position was in a church that really didn’t have a steeple. It had a bit of a protruding facade at the front with a cross on it, but it was a nontraditional look and I wouldn’t label it as a steeple. My third church was very traditional, had been built in the 1950s, and had quite a large steeple. The church sat up on a hill and we had quite a few lightning strikes and damage until we put an elaborate system on the rooftop that prevented damage from lightning.
Then I came to the largest church in which I served for 20 years. It had a new worship center that was looked very nice and very modern with no steeple. However, the old building which became the church chapel and youth center had a huge steeple that required quite a bit of repair while I was there.
So, I’ve been in churches with large steeples and been with churches without them and neither bothered me in any way. I think that it is a tradition that is fine if it fits the community, your culture, and what you think is best for your congregation. I will say that, in the long run, a steeple can be very expensive. So, there is that to consider.
Bottom line – as I said earlier, I don’t think steeples about which to have an enormous debate. If you’re building a church and your people want to have a steepled church, then consider it. But I would also consider the fact with the money invested in the construction of a steeple and years of maintenance on it, you could use that money elsewhere in the kingdom of God.
That’s just a thought.