History Things I Wish I Understood Better

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?

2 thoughts on “History Things I Wish I Understood Better

  1. I wish I knew more history of that particular church; I’m more familiar with the denomination in south central Tennessee and in the rural areas.

    If that particular church (which I think was known as the Disciples of Christ then) was still following Alexander Campbell’s teachings pretty closely (and probably were, because David Lipscomb was just a kid then), they would have not been too surprised at Brother Ferguson’s statement. They probably would have seen it as a gift of the Holy Spirit, like speaking in tongues, etc., because the church had a long history of such spiritual events at its revivals and didn’t look as sideways on such things as it did after Lipscomb brought his conservative Presbyterian (translation: None of that foolishness; siddown and sing, you) roots into the denomination, ultimately molding the southern branches into the Church of Christ. I also suspect, again because of the Campbell-Barton Stone fundamental abolitionist views, that black people would have attended services there, too. I couldn’t speak to whether they were segregated in seating, however; I hope not, but again, I couldn’t say.

    Could Brother Ferguson’s commentary have been part of the outgrowth of the national rise of interest in spiritualism after the Fox girls’ incidents? I think they were very popular around that time, plus Queen Victoria’s interest in the topic after Prince Albert’s death really put it on the front pages, as it were.

    As to who’s setting up for the seances and taking coats and hats, well, “the help,” of course. Who are now getting paid (supposedly) to do what they and their parents and grandparents were forced to do under slavery. If Miss Hoity and her daughter, Miss Toity, have always practiced spiritualism, even if you’re a churchgoing black woman who has little truck with “that foolishness,” you’re going to fix the tea and cakes and put out the good china for their company because that’s what they told you to do. And I guess you, as a churchgoing black woman who works for Miss Hoity and Miss Toity, go back in the kitchen and pray for them and put your feet up for a few minutes.

    Segregation allowed people to occupy the same house for much/all of the time by making it clear they did NOT occupy the same social realm. One of them was the boss and one was the employee; one could exist in a separate social realm because of the other one. I hate to refer you to a novelized film, truly, but “The Help” captures this power-intimacy conundrum of Jim Crow, painfully.

    In a strange note, you will never believe what is playing on the radio as I type this: Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown and White.”

Comments are closed.