In this article, we take a look at the steeple.
Now, when I started to research this topic, I thought that the steeple was simply the pointy thing on top of the church. As I have learned from investigating many other topics for Way Back When, there is a bigger story here. Let’s take a look. What is a steeple? There are several components that make up the entire steeple structure, and there is a terminology used in describing and defining a steeple. A steeple is a tall tower on a building, such as a church, that is capped by a spire, often incorporating a belfry and other components. Okay, so what does this mean?
Let’s start at the top. The pointy thing that we think of as a steeple is actually called the spire. A spire is a “tapering conical or pyramidal structure on top of a building, particularly a church tower.” The word spire stems from the Old English spir, which means sprout or shoot. There were two meanings associated with this word: 1) to show martial power (the earliest spires were located on top of military buildings); and 2) to reach to the skies – a symbol of piety. Often, there was a weathervane on top of the spire, which was a carryover from the earlier settled coastal community meeting houses where people needed to know the direction of the wind as their ships and boats came into port. Based upon available drawings, our original spire appears to have had an octagonal shape and it had a weathervane at the top.
Beneath the spire would often be a structure, called a lantern. We did not have a lantern on our original steeple, but I’m telling you about this anyway since so many meeting house steeples had these. A lantern is not just a light, as we think of it; it is a structural level of a steeple tower which has openings around its sides allowing natural light in, to illuminate the structure beneath it, also often seen on top of domes (like a skylight). It might hold a light (as in the Old North Church which displayed one lantern if by land or two if by sea on the night of Paul Revere’s ride). There might be several lantern structures in a steeple. A lantern structure could be large enough to be used as a study or library. Such was the case in the Old South Church of Boston where Parson Prince used to write his sermons while inside the lantern.
Below the lantern would be the belfry. A belfry is the section of the steeple that holds the bell. In searching definitions of this word, we find that belfry originates from the Old French word, berfrei, which meant a watchtower or a siege tower, and later the Middle English word, belfrei. Since bells were used in watchtowers, the word became associated with bell towers. The walls of a belfry have openings to allow the sound to escape. Often, the openings were uncovered, like ours was, but some belfry walls had louvers to prevent rain and snow from entering. Our belfry had eight columns that supported the spire above.
Below the belfry would be the tower or tower base (also known as bell tower or steeple tower), which in many steeples also held the clock. The tower base could be a short structure built upon the church roof, or it could rise from the ground up, like our 1797 meeting house, which had a full tower. At the top of our tower, there was a short balustrade, which was essentially a low wall around the top of the tower, comprised of small columns or pillars.
All of these components served to form a multi-storied structure atop the church. Not all components were built into all steeple towers. Below are two photos. The one on the left illustrates the general description given above of a typical steeple tower. The one on the right is a sketch of our original 1797 steeple. Ours would be termed a spired belfry because there was only a spire and a belfry upon the tower base. Note the very tall spire and that our tower base was built from the ground up.
Way Back When
by Margaret Morabito, Church Historian
Here's The Steeple (1797)
6 PAYSON HILL ROAD
RINDGE, NH 03461
First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
1797 Second Rindge Meeting House