Bells Are Ringing


Bells chiming at the monastery identify the beginning of specific prayer times. Church bells in general are an auditory call to worship and attention to the gathering of God’s people.

Have you ever considered how many bells we have heard in our lives and what they have meant? Today we are surrounded by bells or alarms.

I faintly remember hearing the bells of a nearby elementary school. I was a preschooler pretending to take an afternoon nap. Each day through the open windows I compared the bells to the nearby alarm clock and learned at least partially to tell time. Later school attendance, as with all students, regimented me moving from one class to another by bells.

Now my life involves a bell/alarm that sounds when the refrigerator door is ajar, when the coffee is ready, and when the air pressure in a car tire is low (quite annoying).

There is a story of an elderly grandmother telling her grandchildren about bells. As a true old timer, her tales of the past, especially when she herself was a young girl, fascinated the newer generation. She recounted how on a warm or hot school afternoon in her one-room school- house, the children would rush to the windows when they heard certain bells. A horse-drawn hearse was passing, and the attached bells signaled to all what was happening. What the children really cared about, however, was seeing if there were any white ribbons on the horses. That was the sign that it was a child’s funeral. She told her grandchildren that this occurred several times a week.

At that time (about one hundred years ago), infantile paralysis, was a deadly and mysterious disease. We now know it as a viral infection, polio. As with most infections, most infected individuals are asymptomatic. For some, however, the prognosis is grim. Even in my childhood, for better or worse, it was our most feared illness. Even the newly available antibiotics were unable to counter it.

As a college student, I remember walking with other students to a nearby elementary school where I received a small, white sugar cube to eat. Previously, each cube had received a liquid drop of what we considered to be a miracle medicine. This was the polio vaccine, sometimes administered via an injection and other times orally on a sugar cube.

As the twentieth century turned into the twenty-first century, there were numerous print and electronic lists of the “ten most important” advances or events of the 1900s. This included such items as sports events, politicians, songs, or scientific advances. On everyone’s list for this latter category was the “widespread availability of vaccines for deadly diseases.” However, the history of vaccines goes back much farther than that. 

When one sees the “average lifespan” for previous centuries and even decades, it is stunningly short compared to today. A major contributor to those short lifespans was the host of deadly infections including polio, smallpox, typhus, cholera, diphtheria, and others. We hardly give them much thought today because of the availability of vaccines.

This trend began in England in the nineteenth century with Edward Jenner. Living in a world terrorized by smallpox, Jenner realized that milkmaids seldom suffered from the disease. He noted that the same women did, however, have a superficial skin infection referred to as “cowpox.” He found that he could transfer a small bit of pus from a milkmaid infection to an uninfected individual and that the recipient became resistant to any subsequent smallpox infection. The Latin word for “cow” is “vacca,” as in our word “vaccination.”

This was the trigger for subsequent vaccine developments that have, truly, changed the course of human history. It is stunning to see, especially in the United States, behavioral resistance to vaccines on the rise.

This is not just a COVID phenomenon. There are widespread reports of parents refusing to vaccinate their children against these once common diseases. This occurs despite decades of wonderful results from near universal childhood vaccinations. The science defending the vaccinations is undeniable and yet Americans seek to display their “independence” by refusing to protect their children and the rest of the population.

That sound you hear, friends, is the sound of bells on hearses. Some of them are drawn by horses bearing white ribbons.

 Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

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