March 24, 2019, 8:42 PM

Bell Choir

Musical Note:

Mount Zion Presbyterian Church is fortunate to be the home of a dedicated and growing group of handbell ringers. This history of church handbell choirs comes to us courtesy of the Lancaster Handbell Ensemble:

Hand bells have been traced as far back as the 5th Century B.C. in China. The oldest existing bells with handles found in China dated from 1600 B.C., although bells of various kinds and shapes have been found all over the world.

Handbells are descendants from the tower bells in England. Around the 16th Century, the art of tower bell ringing was becoming established in England. A set of five to twelve bells was rung in a numerical sequence as opposed to a melodic pattern. This was called "change ringing". It took hours of practice of pulling on the ropes that caused the bells to ring in different orders creating the intricate patterns of melody. This much ringing of the tower bells was disturbing to the surrounding villagers, so small bells were developed so the ringers could practice indoors out of the cold bell towers and therefore, also not disturbing the neighbors!

Eventually, this type of bell ringing became an art in itself. As the art became more and more sophisticated in the 18th Century, larger sets of hand bells were cast. “Tune ringing” (ringing melodies and simple harmonies set to music for festive occasions such as Christmas) peaked around the middle of the 19th Century. By the 20th Century, the popularity of tune ringing began to wane. Then at the end of World War II, tune ringing began to resurface.

English handbells are thought to have been introduced to America by the Peake Family Ringers in the 1830's and in 1840 by P.T. Barnum. In 1923, Mrs. Margaret Shurcliff of Boston organized the Beacon Hill Ringers with groups forming in the Northeast United States. The New England Guild of Hand bell Ringers was formed in 1937, and then in the 1950's and '60's, hundreds of groups began to spring up throughout the United States in churches, schools and other organizations.