Stupid Question ™
July 29, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Is it true that church steeples are pagan in origin?
—Justin L. Fountain
A: The basic claim of this unfounded rumor is that steeples are descendants of phallic pillars or idols worshipped by ancient pagans.
The “proof” consists entirely of noting that ancient phallic idols and modern steeples were both vertical religious structures. No direct relationship is demonstrated.
Specific claims are suspiciously inconsistent, relating steeples variously to Babylonian towers, Egyptian obelisks and generic phallic pillars. They come from anti-Roman Catholic (and sometimes atheist) sources who see pagan influence everywhere from Jesus’ long hair (traced back to Zeus) to neckties (which look like upside-down obelisks).
Martin Luther got this ball rolling in the 1520s by calling the Catholic Church a new Babylon (an ancient city symbolizing evil in the Bible).
Anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists began taking Luther’s metaphor literally. Alexander Hislop’s 1858 “The Two Babylons, or The Papal Worship Proved to Be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife” is the most often cited by pagan-hunters. It wildly misreads myths to “prove,” among other things, that communion wafers are round as a sop to Sun worship.
Hislop didn’t mention steeples, but readers who followed his illogic soon made the connection. The steeple myth was enshrined in Ralph Woodrow’s very popular 1966 book “Babylon Mystery Religion.”
Woodrow, however, now believes his own book is nonsense. After being challenged by a high-school history teacher, he checked all of Hislop’s sources and discovered “Two Babylons” was utter BS. Woodrow withdrew his own book from circulation and replaced it with “The Babylon Connection?”, which debunks pagan-hunting.
As for real history, churches generally lacked towers until the 600s. That was the advent of bell towers—separate structures, inspired by military watchtowers, used to announce worship times and advertise the location of the church. They had low-pitched wood roofs.
Eventually, the wood was replaced with more durable stone, which due to its roughness had to be steeper to allow rain and snow to slide off. Over the course of three or four centuries, churches became fancier, the towers were incorporated into the church building, and the roofs stretched into the decorative points of the modern steeple.
This is a course of slow evolution, not direct and intentional borrowing from a pagan idol.
Ohio State University comparative studies professor Thomas Kasulis notes that towers are ubiquitous in world religions as symbols of an inspiring connection with the heavens. And while steeples probably have subconscious phallic symbolism, that’s hardly the intent.
“I don’t think [the steeple] is any more or any less sexual than a cigar,” he said.