So, Jesse Babcock Ferguson stands up in front of the Nashville Church of Christ and announces that he talks to dead people. How big would that church have been in 1857? Would it have been segregated?
Let me try to get at something, too, that I’m wondering about. Spiritualism was non-Christian. But it was highly influential on Christianity at the time (either in terms of acceptance or standing against it) and there were Christian Spiritualists, who found ways to combine their beliefs. But speaking very broadly, it seems like Spiritualism has class and real estate (for lack of a better phrase) components. In other words, you were likely to find white Spiritualists in town and with money. Straight up Christianity is more for the lower classes or for hicks.
Now, I think, obviously, this works somewhat differently among black people as there was the assumption that the more left alone black people were, the more the chance they weren’t real Christians. And, obviously, whether and how much Christianity was taught to slaves was, for slave owners, a fraught decision. But I think Christianity, among enslaved people in Tennessee, was a marker of “civilizing” (which, again, a vile word in this case, but I hope you see what I’m getting at). And certainly, by the late 1800s, Christianity among black people was a sign of having your shit together. So, it works as a class marker–if you’re going to church regularly, you’re near a church, probably in town, and you care about your neighbors seeing you as the right kind of person.
But then, we get to Nashville at the turn of the century and there’s a group of urban upper class white folks now who are huge into Spiritualism. It’s been having an influence of some sort undeniably since Rev. Ferguson was all “I hear dead people” half a century before (possibly earlier). And who is setting up for these seances? Who’s taking coats and hats? Who’s making sure all the guests have food and beverages?
So, there’s something about this juncture that I think is important, though I can’t quite understand yet what it is. One of the hardest things about the South for me, as an outsider, to get is how segregation means “we don’t exist in the same social realm” (which I feel like I get just from the Midwest I was raised in) but also “we occupy the same house for much, if not all, of the time”.
Anyway, it seems like a weird moment. Like a way of acknowledging and appropriating the skills you believe your servants might innately have but which you have gone to great lengths to beat out of them.
BUT that’s actually not the point I wanted to make. Here’s the other thing I wonder. The first written account of the Bell Witch comes out in 1887. By now, Ferguson’s sermon is thirty years old. Spiritualism is raging in popularity among the hoity-toity.
Do you, as a Bell, tell that story to frame your family as Spiritualists of a sort before there was even such a thing? And, do you do so in order to claim a certain class status? Yes, the Bells were wealthy. They were wealthy in Robertson County. No offense Robertson County. They were rich hicks.
Is the Bell Witch story a way to signal that the Bells deserve to have their class standing recognized in town as well?