church played a major role in everyoneís
life back in the days of
Bell. Nightly prayer meetings, revivals,
and similar activities were commonplace on Tennessee's early frontier, and the
church was frequently called upon to settle personal issues such as disputes
-- the formal act of removing someone from the congregation -- was common among
early churches. Anything the church's
elders deemed to be in violation of Holy Law, or which caused embarrassment to the church,
often resulted in excommunication. Because the early settlers were so
devout in their religious convictions, excommunication was considered to be
the worst thing that could happen other than death, and the associated shame
would follow the person until death.
Bell was excommunicated from the Red River Baptist Church in January of 1818 at
the height of the Bell Witch disturbances. Oddly, Bell's excommunication
was not brought about by the disturbances as one might think, but by a dispute
with a neighbor, Benjamin Batts, over the sale of a slave a year
The July 19, 1816 church meeting minutes provide us with
the following background information:
informed the church, that there was a report in circulation, that he had
taken unlawful interest from money lent Benjamin Batts; which report Brother
Bell says is false; in as much as he never lent Mr. Batts a cent of money or
received a cent of interest from him at all.
was then called on, to inform the church what he supposed gave rise to said
report. He said sometime about the first of June past, he purchased a
Negro slave girl from said Batts for which he gave said Batts $100, but did
not get possession of said Negro for several days afterwards.
insisted the Negro was worth more and insisted to have liberty to sell her
again. At last Brother Bell told him if he then sold the Negro he must
pay him (Bell) $150. Bell then had the Negro in possession & a
bill of sale for her.
afterwards, Mr. Batts & Mr. Boggan went to the Bellís house and gave
him they said $150. Bell counted out $120 and observed he was
satisfied with that. He then gave up the Negro & burnt the bill of
talk on the matter, it was postponed for consideration till tomorrow." 1
For July 20, 1816, the record states:
"The church with the
Brethren who were present unanimously justified Brother Bell in what he did
agreeable to the evidence that came to them." 2
Unsatisfied with the churchís
action, Batts took up the matter in a court of law where, in the fall of 1817,
John Bell was tried and convicted of
"usury," the charging of excessive interest. Being that he was
an elder of the church, the news of Bell's
conviction spread quickly throughout the
Red River community, Port Royal,
Springfield, and Drakeís Pond.
actions embarrass the church, so they charge him with the same offense a
Because of the negative
publicity given the church as a result of his
being convicted in a court of law, the church decided
to "reconsider" Bellís usury case; i.e., charge him with the same
offense a second time. The following was
recorded in the church minutes of the November 15,
1817 church meeting:
"On motion agreed to reconsider the case of
Bell, as decided in July 1816. On motion agreed
to set Brother Bell, as decided, aside for a hearing,
on the matter of taking USURY. He having
been found guilty by the Jury, in the Circuit
Court, for the County of Robertson, as such
we think the cause of Religion or the Religious
cause suffers in his hands." 3
Bell is found
guilty and excommunicated from the church:
At the January 1818 meeting of the Red River Baptist
John Bellís religious fate was decided based on the charges of
"covetousness" and "contempt" that were
formally brought against him at another meeting the prior month.
The charge of "covetousness" carried one
that being Bellís having been found guilty
of usury in a court of law. The charge of "contempt"
carried three specifications, the first of which
was Bellís allegedly saying that the church had received
a member who did not walk according to the apostolic
order. The second specification of contempt
stemmed from Bellís allegedly having said "harsh
contemptuous words" against the church, and
the third specification stemmed from Bellís allegedly
having threatened to withdraw his membership
from the church.
In is interesting to note that the second and
third specifications of the "contempt" charge seemingly came out of
nowhere, between November 1817 and January 1818.
After reviewing John Bellís case, the church made
following decisions, as recorded in the church minutes for January 13, 1818:
"Brother Bell was found guilty of the first charge
gave satisfaction for the second charge & the specifications.
The question was taken whether Bell's
acknowledgements for the 1st charge
were satisfactory? Answer, No. Whereupon the vote was taken, and he the
said John Bell was excommunicated from our
petitions the church for reconsideration:
Bell petitioned the Red River Baptist Church for reinstatement several times.
On October 16, 1819, a committee composed of the leadership of several area churches reviewed the matter and recommended Bell's reinstatement.
Unfortunately, however, the Red River Baptist Church would still have to agree
with the committee's report.
On February 19, 1820, the
church decided to formally review the committee's report and still refused to
reinstate Bell's membership. He relentlessly tried to clear his name
with the church, but sadly, he died on December 20th of that year. The lone
entry for December in the church minutes solemnly read, "No conference in
accuser was later excommunicated for thievery:
On a lighter and
somewhat humorous note, Benjamin Batts himself was excommunicated from the
church several years later, in March of 1825, for stealing bacon! 6
Many books, movies,
articles and web sites incorrectly state that John Bell had a dispute with
Kate Batts, which ultimately brought the "Bell Witch" into fruition.
As we can now clearly see, Bell's dispute was with Benjamin Batts, not Kate
Batts. Benjamin Batts was the brother of Kate's husband, Frederick
Batts. More information about the "Kate Batts Myth" can be
found in the
Witch Questions and Answers section.
For Thought and
1. Despite this major
event in John Bell's life occurring at the height of the haunting/disturbances,
no mention of it is made in the early accounts of the Bell Witch legend.
And likewise, no mention of the haunting or any "extenuating
circumstances" is made in the church minutes.
2. The charge of
"contempt" and its specifications seemingly came out of nowhere, all
of the sudden. The "covetousness"
charge alone was enough to have Bell excommunicated, as the record shows.
So why would the church find it necessary to suddenly come up with an additional
charge and specifications for which no prior hearing was even held? Was
there some other, possibly hidden reason why Bell's fellow church elders
wanted him gone -- a reason they would rather not state on the church's official
Pat Fitzhugh, Author / Historian
The Bell Witch Site