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John Bell and the Red River Baptist Church

(The Benjamin Batts Dispute)


The church played a major role in everyoneís life back in the days of John 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 between neighbors.

Excommunication -- 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.

Red River Baptist Church Historical Marker

John 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 earlier.  The July 19, 1816 church meeting minutes provide us with some background:

"Brother Bell 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.

"Brother Bell 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. 

"Batts 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.

"Some days 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 sale.

"After more 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.

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 Brother 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

At the January 1818 meeting of the Red River Baptist Church, 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 specification, 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 the following decisions, as recorded in the church minutes for January 13, 1818:

"Brother Bell was found guilty of the first charge but 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 fellowship." 4

John 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 December." 5

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 FAQ section. 

For Thought and Discussion

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 record?

Pat Fitzhugh, Author / Historian


1. Red River Baptist Church Minutes (1791-1826), p. 180.
2. Red River Baptist Church Minutes (1791-1826), p. 181.
3. Red River Baptist Church Minutes (1791-1826), p. 189.
4. Red River Baptist Church Minutes (1791-1826), p. 191.

5. Red River Baptist Church Minutes (1791-1826), p. 215.
6. Red River Baptist Church Minutes (1791-1826), p. 241.

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