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Bell Witch Of Tennessee

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Red River Primitive Baptist Church

In 1791, two Baptist missionaries from Lexington, Kentucky, Ambrose Dudley and John Taylor, established the Red River Baptist Church at a location near the confluence of Sulphur Fork Creek with the Red River, in the Mero District of North Carolina (this area is now in Montgomery County, Tennessee).  The church location has changed a number of times over the years, however, at the time of the Bell Witch "visitation" the church was located in a very important trading center of the era - the town of Port Royal.  In 1871, the church was moved to its present site in the town of Adams, Tennessee.

The Red River church was what we would now call a "Primitive Baptist" church, i. e., the church firmly adhered to the 16th century Theologian, John Calvin's Doctrine of Predestination.  In the early days of the Baptist movement virtually all of the congregations supported this doctrine.  However, beginning in the early 19th century, many Baptist groups began to reject this theological position.  In Middle Tennessee, Elder Reuben Ross was one of the early leaders in this movement.  Today, most Baptist churches reject the Predestination Doctrine and those few churches which continue to support the Calvinistic view are usually referred to as Primitive Baptist churches.

Church minutes are a major source of historical and genealogical information in a frontier society.  Fortunately, the earliest minutes of the Red River Primitive Baptist Church have survived.  These minutes cover a period of thirty-five years (1791-1826).

The first clerk, Elias Fort, had come to Tennessee from Edgecombe County, North Carolina where he had served as clerk in the Kehukee Baptist Association. In the newly established Red River Baptist Church, Elias also served as clerk until succeeded by his son, Josiah Fort in 1801. In 1806 another of Elias’s sons, Sugg Fort, began a ten-year tenure in the clerical post.  Subsequently, from 1816 to 1826, Elias Fort Deloach served as clerk.

During Elias Fort Deloach's tenure as clerk, occurred one of the most significant events in the history of the Baptist movement in Tennessee - the famous funeral sermon of Elder Reuben Ross.  This event is described in the book by John M. Goodman, Jr. entitled Red River Baptist Church – A History, pages 40-41 as follows:

"After years of careful study, Reuben Ross became thoroughly satisfied in his own mind that salvation is for “Whosoever will,” and not for a select few.  He determined to preach his views regardless of what the consequences might be.

"An opportunity presented itself for him to express his views in the month of July of 1817.   He was requested to preach the funeral sermon of Miss Eliza Norfleet, who had died some time previously near Port Royal.  She had been buried in the Fort burying ground on the home site of Elias Fort.  This young lady had been greatly esteemed and beloved in the community where she had lived.    It was reported that she was of a gentle manner and had a very loving character. There were a large number of people who wished to pay their last respects to the memory of the dearly beloved young lady, and also to hear a beloved preacher on this occasion. On the day of the funeral, there was a large gathering at the graveyard.  A rude platform had been built for the occasion.  Reuben Ross, at the appointed time, mounted this platform without fear in his heart and expressed boldly, views that were contrary to those holding to the doctrine of salvation for the elect.  He told his hearers that those who would yield to the influence of the Holy Spirit and become followers of Christ would be saved and pardoned; that none, unless he personally surrendered his heart and life to Jesus, could be saved and that anyone who is lost is lost because, is his own fault.

"Surprising as it may seem, the crowd gathered around the grave seemed to accept with favor the views expressed.  As soon as the sermon had been concluded, Elder Ross descended from the platform looking straight ahead, walked to the place where his horse was tied, mounted him and rode home, a distance of twenty miles.  Apparently, he was not ready to meet, face to face, the kind old brothers that he had labored with for the past ten years.  No doubt, he knew that many friendships would be ruptured because of the stand that he had taken."

The theological turbulence inside the Middle Tennessee Baptist movement, that was evidenced by Elder Ross's sermon, occurred at about the same time as public knowledge of the Bell Witch phenomenon began to become widespread.  Was there any connection?  Probably not, but it is interesting to observe that these two coincident events caused great turmoil within the Red River church during that time frame.

The church minutes record approximately five hundred and forty meetings, including many entries that relate to the life of the church during the time period.  There are approximately 50 specific references in the minutes to John Bell and his family.  Significant entries pertaining to John Bell, Benjamin Batts, Cordall (also spelled "Cordell") Norfleet, Reuben Ross, Josiah Fort, and other people associated with John Bell, are summarized below.

Entries from the Church Minutes

21 August 1803:  Cordall Norfleet becomes a member of the Red River Baptist Church. [See Church Minutes. page 51]

20 April 1805:  John Bell becomes a member of the Red River Baptist Church.  He was received into membership by letter issued by his church back in North Carolina.  [See Church Minutes, page 61]

03 October 1807:  Brother Reuben Ross, an ordained minister, and his wife Milly Ross were received into membership by letter from the church in Martin County, North Carolina.  [See Church Minutes, page 78]

16 September 1814:  Brethren Bell, Norfleet, J. and S. Fort appointed to attend the West Fork Union Meeting on Friday before the second Lord's day next.  [See Church Minutes, page 116]

16 December 1814:  The following entry was made:

"Appointed Brethren [John] Bell, [Cordall] Norfleet, J[osiah]& S[ugg] Fort to the West Fork Union Meeting Friday before the second Lord's day in next month."

[See Church Minutes, page 116]

18 August 1815:  The following entry was made:

"Bro. William Deloach informed this church that he had cited Bro. Norfleet, but Bro. Norfleet not attending.  The church are of opinion that he should make satisfaction for non-attendance before he communes with them."

[See Church Minutes, page 121]

04 September 1815:  The following entry was made:

"On motion agreed that the deacons who called this meeting inform the church what they called them together for.  Upon which the deacons informed the church that Bro. H. Darden, a deacon of this church, informed Bro. Josiah Fort, another deacon of the church privately, on the day of our communion last Sunday two weeks, that he could not go forward in distributing the Elements as usual on account of a dissatisfaction expressed by Bro. Bell to him with Bro. Fort, that Bro. Bell absented his seat given him, whereupon Bro. J. Fort informed the church when convened for the purpose of partaking the Lord's Supper, the Table then being spread, that he nor Bro. Darden could neither of them go forward on account of dissatisfaction above stated. 

"As such the communion was broken up to the confusion and dissatisfaction of a number of people who were present as well as the church. The deacons also informed us that Bro. Goyne and Sister Goyne also had absented their seats and were dissatisfied. Upon the whole they thought in the present confused state of things, that it was best for the church to come together, and they had therefore convoked them. On motion the question was taken. Are we ready to act in church order?  Answer: We are.

"The church then called on Brethren Bell and Goyne and Sister Goyne for their reasons for absenting themselves from their seats our last communion. They came forward and gave general satisfaction. All the male members then present expressed fellowship one with another by raising their hands."

[See Church Minutes, pages 121-122]

16 September 1815:  The following entry was made:

"Upon enquiring for fellowship, it appeared that Brethren Josiah Fort and John Bell were not in fellowship.  As such this was set aside for a hearing.  The Church then proceeded to business.  ......  We then called on Bro. Josiah Fort to give his reason for non-fellowship. He came forward and gave his reasons. After talking this matter over, he got reconciled to the church and was received into fellowship.  Bro. Bell was then called to give his reasons.  He informed us that he was in fellowship with the church but owing to circumstances which have appeared to him since the called conference, he is not in fellowship with Bro. Josiah Fort and pray indulgences of the church as he is not ready for a decision at present.  Indulgences granted 'til next conference meeting."

[See Church Minutes, page 122]

14 October 1815:  The following entry was made:

"The business between Brethren J. Bell and J. Fort taken up.  On motion agreed that Brethren H. Darden, A. Dunn, E. Fort, Jr., Wm. Deloach and H. Darnall be a committee to inquire into the cause of the grief between the two Brethren and report to the church."

[See Church Minutes, page 123]

17 November 1815:  The following entry was made:

"The church met.  Chose Bro. H. Darden moderator.  Conference opened by prayer by Bro. J. Fort.  Peace among us.  It being so late in the evening at our last meeting before the committee in their report, that the report of the proceedings of the church thereon was not then committed to writing and read as usual, therefore the report of the committee with the proceedings of the church thereon were read today, and after some talk on the matter, the question was taken and voted to stand on record of this church which be above."

[See Church Minutes, page 123.  It should be noted that the outcome of the dispute between John Bell and Josiah Fort, cited in the minutes of the 04 October 1815 meeting (see above), was not mentioned in these minutes.  However, I note that Josiah Fort requested and received a letter of dismission at the next church meeting (see below).  Was the John Bell - Josiah Fort dispute settled by Fort leaving the congregation?]

16 December 1815:  The following entries were made:

"After sermon by Bro. Poole, the church met.  Chose Bro. Poole moderator. Opened with prayer by S. Fort.  The members present expressed fellowship with one another by uplifted hand.  Upon motion Bro. Norfleet's case was taken up which is that he has not attended conference meetings in several months past therefore he has been cited and suspended from the communion for non-attendance.  Bro. Darden and J. Fort Were requested to cite Bro. Norfleet and labor with him and request him to attend our next conference meeting.  Also let him know the Church will be under obligation to excommunicate him unless he does attend.

"The clerk requested to furnish Bro. Josiah Fort with a letter of dismission, agreeable to his standing in the church, he having requested the same for convenience."

[See Church Minutes, page 124]

20 January 1816:  The following entry was made:

"After sermon by S. Fort, the church met. Chose Bro. Holland Darden moderator. Conference opened with prayer by the moderator. Thank God for peace among us.

"Bro. Norfleet's case taken up. Bro. H. Darden reported that he and Bro. Josiah Fort had seen and talked with Bro. Norfleet and that they requested him to attend this meeting. Agreeable to the request of the church last conference, Bro. Norfleet, not being present and it appears to the satisfaction of the church, that Bro. Norfleet might have attended conference sometimes back if he would, Upon the whole they are of opinion that Bro. Cordall Norfleet be excommunicated from fellowship. May the good Lord have mercy on him."

[See Church Minutes, page 125]

16 February 1816:  The following entry was made:

"Bro. Elias Fort, Jr., informed the church that he visited his Bro. David sometime in December last, and while there a member by the name of Jacob Isom came to his brother and after quarrelling with his brother, swore he would kill him and presented a gun upon which he, Bro. Elias Fort, interfered and with the help of another man that was present took the gun from Isom who immediately struck E. Fort, who defended himself, and fight ensued. Upon Bro. Fort's acknowledgement, the church was satisfied with him."

[See Church Minutes, page 125]

15 June 1816:   Voted Brethren Sugg Fort, John Bell and Holland Darden as Delegates to the Association.  [See Church Minutes, page 137]

19 July 1816:  John Bell informs the church conference about the dispute between him and Benjamin Batts:

"Bro. Bell informed the church that there was a report in circulation that he had taken unlawful interest for money lent Benjamin Batts which report Bro. Bell says is false, in as much as he never lent Mr. Batts a cent of money nor received a cent of interest from him at all.  Bro. Bell was then called on to inform this church what he supposed gave rise to said report.  He said some time about the first of June past, he purchased a Negro 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 Bell told him if he then sold the Negro, he must pay him (Bell) $150.  Bell then had the Negro in possession and bill of sale for her. Some days afterwards, Mr. Batts and Mr. Boggan went to Bell's house and gave him, they said $150.  Bell counted out $120 and observed that he was satisfied with that.  He then gave up the Negro and burnt the bill of sale.  After some talk on the matter it was postponed for consideration 'till tomorrow."

[See Church Minutes, page 138]

20 July 1816:  The following entry was made in the minutes:

"After prayer by the moderator, the reference of yesterday was then taken up.  The church with the Brethren who were present unanimously justified Bro. Bell in what he did."

[See Church Minutes, page 139]

13 January 1818:  John Bell is excommunicated from the Red River Baptist Church:  

"On motion the case of Bro. Bell was taken up (which is as follows) whereas, the jury of the Circuit Court for Robertson County found Bro. Bell guilty of violating the law of usury, as such we think the cause of Christ and Religion in the hands of Bro. Bell, and agreed at our November meeting to reconsider the business which was investigated and postponed from time to time until now. Now, although we cannot clearly see that Bro. Bell was guilty of taking usury, yet for the veneration, we have for the courts and have for our country, we publicly reprobate the idea of any of our members violating the statute laws of our country. As such we reprove Bro. Bell for giving cause of offence. Bro. Sugg Fort then preferred two charges with their specifications, that is to say, covetousness and treating the church with contempt on Sunday of our last meeting. 

"Specification to the first charge. That Bro. Bell coveted and because he had it in his power, took $20 or thereabouts more than he let Batts have as stated by Bro. Bell in July 1816.

"Charge second. Specification. First, in saying we received a member yesterday (i.e.) our last meeting, who did not walk according to the Apostolic Order.  Second, in saying hard contemptuous words against the church.  Third, in attempting to withdraw his fellowship from us.

"Bro. Bell was found guilty of the first charge, but gave satisfaction for the second charge and the specification.

"The question was taken whether Bell's acknowledgement were satisfactory for the first charge? Answer. No. Whereupon, the vote was taken and he, the said John Bell, was excommunicated from our fellowship."

[See Church Minutes, page 148]

18 April 1823:  The following entry was made:

"Bro. Mat Williams let the church know that there was a misunderstanding between himself and Bro, Benjamin Batts.  On motion agreed that Brethren Dr. Harmer, Wm. Deloach, George James, Pat. McGowen and Jas. Mirrot talk privately with the Brethren and try to settle the matter and make report.  The Brethren appointed reported that the matter of difficulty was in the purchasing some bacon which Bro. Batts says Bro. Williams purchased from him. Bro. Williams says he never did purchase any bacon of Bro. Batts, but says he got bacon from Bro. Batts which he understood his Brother Exum C. Williams was to pay for it. Agreed to postpone the business 'till next conference." 

[See Church Minutes, page 177]

17 May 1823:  The following entry was made:

"The reference of Brethren Williams & Batts taken up. On examination of the matter, it appeared to the church that Bro. Batts had never received any pay for the bacon Bro. Williams got from him (on Exum Williams' account). Whereupon it is resolved by the church that Bro. Mat. Williams pay Bro. Batts his account for the bacon which is 114 lbs. at 8 cents per lb. amounting to $9.12."

[See Church Minutes, page 178]

16 June 1823:  The following entry was made:

"Agreeable to the resolution of the church at their last conference, Bro. Mat. Williams came forward and paid Bro. Batts his account for the bacon which is 114 pounds @ 8 cents per pound, amounting to $9.12, with which Bro. Batts acknowledged satisfaction." 

[See Church Minutes, page 178]

18 December 1824:  The following entry was made:

"It appears to the satisfaction of the church that there is a seeming contradiction in some statements that Bro. Ben Batts made at different times.  Postponed 'till next conference, Bro. H. Darden requested to cite Bro. Batts to next conference."

[See Church Minutes, page 186]

14 January 1825:  The case of Bro. Batts was taken up, but was postponed until the next day.  [See Church Minutes, page 188]

15 January 1825:  The following entry was made:

"After preaching by the moderator, the references of yesterday taken up.  Bro. Batts, not being present, agreed to postpone his case 'till next conference.  Brethren H. Darden and Wm. Deloach requested to cite him to attend."

[See Church Minutes, page 188]

19 February 1825:  The following entry was made:

"After prayer by the moderator, the church met. The case of Bro. Batts taken up. He, not being present, the Brethren appointed to cite him reported they had done so. Brethren H. Grisard and Clayton were called on to state what they know concerning the case of Bro. Batts. Upon their evidence, it appears that Bro. Batts stated to them that he was the cause of a gun being shot under a certain house on his farm in the night. Some time afterwards Bro. Batts, being called on, on a certain occasion, [said] he knew nothing about shooting the gun as above named, but never denied but what he might have told the Brethren he was the cause as they stated, but if he did, he had forgot it. Postponed 'till next conference." 

[See Church Minutes, page 188]

19 March 1825:  The following entry was made:

"After preaching by Bro. William R. Harmer, the church met. Bro. Batts case taken up. He not being present, we are of opinion that our labor of love toward Bro. Batts has been sufficient, and he not complying with our repeated requests to come and see us, we therefore excommunicate the said Benjamin Batts from our fellowship."

[See Church Minutes, page 189]

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