What Is the Origin of Church Steeples?
What Is the Origin of Church Steeples?

Steeples, the pointed roofs of churches, have been included in church buildings since the conversion of Constantine and his proclamation making Christianity the official religion of his state. The origins of steeples, however, have been traced back to several different traditions.

Israelite origins

Obelisks, popular in North Africa and the Middle East, are phallic symbols.
Obelisks, popular in North Africa and the Middle East, are phallic symbols.

Acclaimed author Joseph Campbell, the author of "The Hero with A Thousand Faces" and "Myths to Live By," has written that "There are still in existence today remarkable specimens of original phallic symbols...steeples on the churches...and obelisks...all show the influence of our phallus-worshipping ancestors," including ancient Israelite and Canaanite tribes. These tribes had rituals including the baking of long loaves of bread for blessing, which were, in turn, placed under poles representing the fertility and power of the gods. Eventually, the tall poles became focal points for community worship and were included in the earliest churches as Christianity swept through the region.

Northern European Origins

An Irish phallic symbol.
An Irish phallic symbol.

Scholar Ruth Andersson notes that when Christianity was gaining strength in its early years, priests and practitioners often adopted local traditions and religious symbols and beliefs as a way to convert non-Christians. "Pagan symbols abound within the church," says Andersson. "The steeple probably has its origins in the phallic obelisks or pillars of pagan practice. Particularly in the British Isles," she continues, "phallic imagery---as well as imagery of women represented by large vaginas---is commonplace, both in pagan sites and in churches. Lots of people never notice!"

The Steeple and Its Protectors

Gargoyles on Notre Dame in Paris.
Gargoyles on Notre Dame in Paris.

In the Middle Ages, steeples were built as high as possible not only to point to heaven but also to protect worshipers from the evil spirits many Christians believed plagued church buildings. Steep roofs, sharp steeples and gargoyles---as hideous and as scary looking as possible---were added to churches in great numbers by parishioners hoping to drive away evil creatures.

Uses of the Steeple

A mission bell in Texas.
A mission bell in Texas.

During the Middle Ages, steeples stopped being merely decorative reminders of pagan pasts and became functional as the housing for church bells. By the 15th century, most churches had steeples with bells, which were rung on the hour and to announce religious ceremonies and holidays. The steeple traveled with settlers to America. There, too, the steeple housed bells and was one of the few decorations on church buildings not removed for the sake of plainness in early American religious life.

Misunderstandings About Steeple Origins

Many Christians understand the origins of the symbolism of the church and how it developed out of other, older religions, but a large number does recognize the historical fact behind such symbolism. Such practitioners claim the steeple was invented in the Middle Ages to repel Viking attacks in the British Isles; Abbe Suger, who transformed Saint-Denis in Paris, was told to build steeples by a holy messenger; or steeples exist for the purpose of raising a cross higher than any other building in a city or town. None of these stories are accurate, according to historian Sarah Crewe.