Why Do Churches Have Steeples

Have you ever stopped to wonder why most Christian churches have tall towers and steeples? It turns out there are many practical and spiritual benefits to building toward the heavens.

Pagan imagery

To convert people to Christianity, the early church had to adopt some pagan rituals and symbols that made the new religion more familiar and palatable to the masses. This is why Christmas is in December (to coincide with the solstice celebration instead of Jesus' probable birth date in April) and possibly why churches originally had steeples. The obelisk was a powerful symbol of fertility in pagan religions, and propagating that into the physical space of the church made Christianity look powerful in return. Of course, as Christianity gained followers and paganism was less of a threat, the steeple was seen as a way to build the church closer to God.

Practical uses of a steeple

Besides converting pagans, steeples were very handy in a practical sense as well. Similar to watchtowers, steeples could be used to spy threats approaching from a distance. Steeples also became bell towers, where they would chime the hour, religious ceremonies, and special occasions.

The traditional parts of a steeple consist of: the tower, usually with a clock; then the belfry, where the bell was rung; the lantern, where a lantern or spotlight was shone at night; and the spire, the decoration on top, often made of copper for its durability (developing a patina and lasting over 100 years without much cleaning or maintenance), gave the overall height and brought the church closer to God and the heavens.

Churches were often at the center of the town, built on a hill if one was around. This made the church the easiest thing to spot. Farmers and villagers need not remember how to get to the church, they just had to look toward the tallest tower on the horizon. How far a steeple could be seen often mirrored how big the parish was. So building a taller steeple could easily increase your flock just by being visible from a larger distance.

The church was also a way for towns and nobles to compete with each other. The bigger and more ostentatious your church, the richer your parish. It was a symbol of pride (and devotion) to have the largest church around. This race to the top continued for thousands of years; Ulm Minster in Germany has the highest spire. Completed in 1890, it was the tallest building in the world until surpassed by the Philadelphia City Hall. As business took over more importance and resources from the church, the race for tall spires became the race for tall skyscrapers, with New York, Chicago and cities all over pouring money into companies rather than into clergy.

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