What A Real Southern Ghost Story Can Tell Us About The Living


jessefergusonI’m just going to be honest. I believe in ghosts. If you ask me, I’ll probably tell you that I don’t, because I’m kind of embarrassed by my superstition. But if we’re alone in the house in the middle of the night and there’s a voice in the other room, I hope your first thought is, “We should call the cops,” because my first thought is going to be, “Oh my god, it’s the guy who built this house come back to haunt the den!!!!!”

I mention this up front because a lot of Tennessee’s ghostly history is kind of hilarious. Take for example, the Bell Witch, who supposedly first showed herself to John Bell in the form of a black dog with a rabbit’s head. Sure, I guess this could be a demon, but isn’t a dog with a rabbit’s head a pretty good description of a sheep? Believe me, I laugh, but, if I had been standing in John Bell’s shoes and I saw an animal I didn’t immediately recognize, I’d be all “Must be a demon,” myself.

That’s just a leap my mind likes to take.

But what most interests me about Tennessee ghost stories is not what they reveal (or fail to reveal) about what happens to you when you die, but what they tell us about the living.

Take for example, Reverend Jesse Babcock Ferguson. Ferguson was the preacher at the downtown Nashville Church of Christ back in the 1850s and, like many Americans, he was a Spiritualist. His wife, Lucinda, and his daughter were both trance mediums who channeled, among other spirits, William Ellery Channing, who was, in life, also a minister and, more importantly, an influential abolitionist.

For some reason, in death, Channing appeared to have lost all interest in the abolitionist cause. The dead Channing convinced Ferguson to break away from the Church of Christ and become a Universalist, but he didn’t bother to try to convince Ferguson of the wrongness of slavery. It’s enough to make a gal doubt that Ferguson was hearing from Channing at all.

I tease, but setting aside the question of whether it was really Channing, there’s a lot going on here that’s interesting. Women aren’t allowed leadership positions in the Church of Christ. Sure, only a fool would ignore the private counsel of his wife, but each church is run by a group of male elders and their preachers are men. There’s some variation from church to church, but in general, women’s direct theological opinions aren’t shared in church. You can imagine how much moreso this was true in the 1850s for Southern white women.

But Ferguson’s wife and daughter were the way Ferguson spoke with Channing. Any opinions Channing had came through Ferguson’s wife and daughter, in their voices. When Ferguson said, “Channing told me…” what was really happening is that a woman was telling him what Channing thought. It’s a convenient method for giving yourself a role as a theologian in a context in which you were never going to be allowed to be one on your own.

Ferguson, too, probably had his own reasons why he put so much faith in Channing being real. Ferguson was butting heads with Alexander Campbell, one of the leaders of the Restoration Movement, of which the Church of Christ Ferguson served was a part. Remember that the Church of Christ places a great deal of emphasis on the wisdom of elder men. Ferguson was a young guy, born in 1818. Campbell was born in 1788, so Ferguson should have acquiesced to Campbell’s leadership and wisdom. But Channing was born in 1780, so, of course, Ferguson put more weight on his guidance than Campbell’s. Convenient how that worked out for him.

And yet, it wasn’t a con. By all accounts, everyone — including Ferguson and his wife and daughter — believed something really was happening. Campbell, for instances, thought that Ferguson’s theology, which was built on his conversations with Channing, was dangerous and wrong-headed, but Campbell doesn’t seem to doubt that Ferguson is in communication with Channing. This seems strange to us nowadays, but they were not fighting over whether one could speak with the dead, but rather whether one should.

The fight, fittingly, continued after Ferguson’s death in 1870. Ferguson died a wealthy, gregarious man in the middle of planning a Spiritualist utopia in Tennessee, but David Lipscomb, a Church of Christ leader, made it sound like he died a weird, recluse –“Once no citizen of Nashville but felt it an honor to be recognized by him. In later years he was scarcely recognized by his former acquaintances even of the world when met on the streets. The contrast was too painful to be borne by one so ambitious of popular applause as he. So, although his family resided in the vicinity, of late years he was seldom upon the streets of Nashville.” But note, even Lipscomb doesn’t deny the legitimacy of Channing.

I can’t find any evidence that Ferguson kept up his theological work after death. That also seems to be a consistent theme among Tennessee Spiritualists. In their time, everyone would have known the name of Jesse Ferguson or Ben Allen or Raymond Harkins. But, unlike the spirits that communed with them, they’ve been quiet after death.

Whether that’s because they’ve forgotten about us or we’ve forgotten about them, I couldn’t say.