Claiborne Handly Bell

Cumberland Presbyterian Minister

Presbyterian Minister 1906-1909

1821 - 1909


Robert Bell, grandfather of the honored leader who many are just now mourning, was born in North Carolina in 1770. In 1782 his father's family became a part of the stream of immigration to the "Cumberland Country," settling at last near the present site of Nashville, Tenn. In the revival of 1800 Robert Bell was converted, and in 1802 the Presbytery of Transylvania licensed him as an exhorter and catechist. Before 1805 he was licensed as a probationer, being one among those mentioned in the famous document of that year in which the commission of the Synod of Kentucky forbade certain persons to exercise the powers conferred upon them by presbytery. His ordination was among the first acts of the new Cumberland Presbytery in 1810. From 1820 to 1830 he conducted a mission to the Chickasaw Indians, under the auspices of the church and with some assistance from the government, near the site of the present city of Aberdeen, Miss. Then, until his death in 1853, he was an earnest and faithful preacher of the gospel, in the interior of Mississippi. One of the last ministerial acts of his life, at the age of eighty-three, was to participate in the ordination of his grandson, thus linking together two lives which together span the entire career of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church with their active ministry.

John Bell, the only son of Robert Bell to reach maturity, served with distinction in the Civil War and survived it several years. Claiborne Handly Bell, the son of John Bell, was born in the month of December, 1821, lacking but little of completing eighty-eight years of life, and spending the last fifty-six of those years in the active ministry, "dying in the harness" at last, in fulfillment of the desire he had so often expressed. On December 1, 1858, he was united in marriage to Miss Lou Washington, of Mississippi, who survives him, after more than half a century of the purest wedded happiness.

Dr. Bell was one of those, who interpreted the call to preach as a call to prepare to preach; in 1851 he entered the literary department of Cumberland University, with such preparation that he was graduated in 1853, a member of the same class with Professor A. H. Buchanan. In Beard's "Biographical Sketches: Second Series," in the account of the life of Robert Bell, the following account of the ordination of C. H. Bell is given: "At a meeting of the presbytery to which he [Robert Bell] belonged, two or three weeks before his death, he seemed to be under the impression that it would be his last presbyterial meeting on earth. An order was passed for the ordination of his grandson. The young man hesitated, but his reluctance was overcome by the obvious anxiety of his grandfather that the ordination should be consummated, and his own apprehension that it would be the old man's last meeting with the presbytery. The ordination proceeded, and the aged patriarch participated. Never shall I forget his noble, venerable and benevolent countenance; how it beamed with joy. . . . Oh, that the grandson may be as good, as holy, and as devoted as his predecessor."

Dr. Bell's first pastoral charge was at Mississippi City, Miss. In 1865 he became president of Union Female College, Oxford, Miss., serving also as pastor of the local church. In 1873 he accepted a call to become the pastor of the mission in St. Louise, which had had a stormy career, but which was to develop, under his direction, into the Lucas Avenue Church, and become known throughout the denomination, not only as one among our very strongest churches, but also one of our best missionary churches. As president of the Board of Missions, he served also as superintendent of the work of that board from 1881 to 1892, a period of great progress in our mission work both home and foreign. He was elected moderator of the General Assembly in 1872, at Evansville, Ind., and was a member of the committee which prepared and revised the Confession of Faith of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, adopted in 1883.

The same consecration to the cause of missions which led Dr. Bell to the efforts which inspired his Lucas Avenue congregation--and later the whole church--to missionary zeal, led him also to offer his services, without hope of reward, as a lecturer on missions to the students of the Lebanon Seminary. In 1885 he was elected professor missions and apologetics in that institution--the theological department of Cumberland University; and on his retirement from the presidency of the Board of Missions, in 1892, he took up his residence, for a large part of the year, at Lebanon, and gave the ripest years of his long life to the duties of his chair. In this great work he served almost entirely at his own charges an example of self-sacrifice such as the church has often contemplated with too much satisfaction. With the assistance of Mrs. Bell, who was an ideal helper and companion, and who sometimes lectured to Dr. Bell's classes upon subjects which she herself had closely studied, he gathered together a collection of objects illustrating life in many missionary lands, which, for extent, variety, and actual usefulness to the student of missions, is surpassed by few such collections. This missionary museum found space at last in the classroom fitted up by friends of Dr. and Mrs. Bell, and named in recognition of their untiring labors the "Bell Mission Room."

The Mission Room is by no means the only monument to the work of Dr. Bell and Mrs. Bell among the students for the last twenty years. It was Mrs. Bell who procured the means of fitting up the "Bell Reception Room" at old Divinity Hall, where many a student has enjoyed pleasant hours. And it was undoubtedly due to Dr. Bell's heartfelt interest in missions, and to his generous gift of his services as lecturer through a period of years, that the theological department of Cumberland University had the honor of having established the first full professorship of Christian missions in this country. A new life, a new interest in missions in the seminary began with his work there.

The venerable teacher's friends were saddened by the sight of his slowly increasing physical feebleness during the last few years of his long life. They were consoled and cheered by the continued brilliance of his intellect, and by the steadiness of his faith. It is the testimony of many students that every one of his later years was marked by added power in his teaching. To his colleagues he was a trusted friend and a wise counselor; and his advice was seldom disregarded. To the last he maintained undiminished his keen interest in life, in men and things. As friend and citizen, as student and teacher, and as Christian gentleman, he displayed a character which was the result of imitating his Lord and Master. Those who knew him intimately know with what unaffected, what perfect modesty he would put aside, were he living, the praises which they now have for the first time an opportunity to utter without restraint.               F. K. F.
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, November 25, 1909, page 658]


On Monday, November 16, at the hour of 10 p.m., and in the hospitable residence of Dr. J. I. D. Hinds, Lebanon, Tenn., which had been his home for a number of years, occurred the death of the honored and venerable C. H. Bell, D.D., whose name is familiar everywhere in the former Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and is not unknown in wider circles. Dr. Bell had been confined to his bed for little more than a week. The chief symptom of his last illness was an annoying shortness of breath, which persisted for some days. After this passed away he fell gradually into a deeper and deeper slumber, to end at last, without pain or signs of physical conflict, in no earthly awakening. Beloved Mrs. Bell was constantly at his side, and friends were about them both when he passed away.

Class exercises were suspended in the Lebanon Seminary and in all departments of Cumberland University on Tuesday, November 17. At the funeral exercises, which were held at 3 p.m. in Caruthers Hall, Dr. Coile, pastor of the Lebanon church, presided and offered the opening prayer. President Bone read from the Scriptures, and Rev. Dr. R. G. Pearson offered prayer for the bereaved and for those upon whom the mantle of the departed must fall, the men in the seminary. Dr. Stephens, chairman of the seminary faculty, delivered the principal address, reviewing the life and work of the loved professor of missions and drawing from it appropriate lessons. Peculiarly appropriate and affecting, also, were the addresses by Judge Nathan Green and Professor A. H. Buchanan. It was with the family of Nathan Green, Sr., that C. H. Bell found a home when he came to Lebanon as a student in 1851; and thus the friendship of more than half a century was expressed when Judge Green bade his old comrade "farewell--for a little while." Professor Buchanan, Dr. Bell's classmate, is the sole survivor of a class of eight which was graduated in 1853; he spoke of the next roll call of the class, on the other shore, when every member should respond. Resolutions were read by A. B. Martin, on behalf of the trustees and faculty of Cumberland University; by Dr. R. V. Foster, on behalf of the faculty of Lebanon Seminary; and by Mr. W. H. Baker, of the senior class, on behalf of the seminary student body. Appropriate hymns were sung by a quartette, and beautiful flowers covered the casket and pulpit.

It was Dr. Bell's desire that his body should rest in the cemetery at Mississippi City, Miss., near the scene of his earliest labors. Mrs. Bell was accompanied on her journey thither by Dr. J. V. Stephens, representing the seminary, and by Mrs. D. E. Mitchell, of Lebanon, who made the journey in order to comfort and care for the beloved and bereaved wife. On Thursday, November 18, the interment took place, in the presence of many friends and relatives.

Thus passes away one of the "Old Guard," a man who was a living link between the earliest times of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the present day, and one who did much to bring this present out of that past.
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, November 25, 1909, pages 658-659]


The Rev. C. H. Bell, D.D., was the first Doctor of Divinity I ever saw. I did not get to meet him but came up a little too late, and saw him as he was going and expressed my regret of failure. Among other things I said to my pastor, I had never met a Doctor of Divinity and he said they looked like other men, with a smile at my expense. But long before this, even before I was born, my father heard him at Van Buren, Miss., near Tombigbee River. My father called him Clabe. Dr. Bell was about six years my father's senior. He was regarded at that time as a very smooth, spiritual and popular young preacher. In an early day Clabe Bell and George Stainback were very promising young preachers and Mississippians were very proud of them for they were their own boys. More than thirty years ago I visited the old home of Rev. Robert Bell--Dr. Bell's grandfather, in Pontotoc County, Miss. The house was old, but when built some thirty or forty years before it was a fine house. Mrs. Handly, Dr. Bell's aunt, lived there. She was eighty-two years of age. The old mother in Israel told me many things about the early history of the church. She showed me a large sassafras tree in the yard which had a crook in it which was made by a deer being hung up in the tree and let stay all night. The small sapling was so bent that it showed the crook many years after. I preached near the old home and felt that I was on holy ground. They showed me the spot where the church stood in which Dr. Bell was ordained. Mrs. Handly's family told me how earnestly the grandfather said, "To-day I take off my mantle and put it on my grandson," when Dr. Bell was ordained. I first began to know Dr. Bell intimately in Kentucky--at Russellville or Bowling Green--where I spent ten years of earnest pastoral work. He preached at Auburn on the text "And he saw the travail of his soul and was satisfied." His sermon that day began to break light to me on the sacrificial theory of the atonement--a subject which we discussed much later on. When I held a protracted meeting at Lebanon he was lecturing the theologues and talked freely to me about theological views and delivery of sermons. He was a great admirer of S. G. Burney, D.D. They had been together some years in Oxford, Miss. When the Burney controversy came up Dr. Bell took the Burney side. He considered Dr. Burney without any equal in his church as a theologian. At Meridian, Miss., where I was securing names to a petition to trustees of Seminary, asking them to establish a Burney chair and elect Rev. B. G. Mitchell to the chair I expressed doubt about what Brother Mitchell should teach. Dr. Bell replied, "History of Christian doctrine and the Confession of Faith." After thinking a few minutes saw clearly that the name suggested was the most suitable one. This great man felt deeply that great violence to progress and truth was done at Birmingham when the Assembly refused to confirm Mr. Mitchell. Indeed he said the church was put back fifty years by that Assembly. He spoke seriously of giving up his work in Seminary because of Assembly's failure to confirm Mr. Mitchell. But said he could not give up those boys and fail to give them his heart-felt views on missions. The last time I saw him was at Nashville Assembly. One day he took me with him to dinner. I read him my sermon on the atonement and he told me of a new book he was preparing for publication. He was then about eight-three years of age. I said, "Dr. Bell, you have as much sense as you ever had." He replied he had more. I would like to see that book and Dr. Burney's Christology in print and then I would be willing to quit new books. I have sometimes heard it said, "He was just about the best man I ever saw." This I have thought often about Dr. Bell.
        J. A. MCDONALD.
Sallisaw, Okla.
[Source: The Cumberland Presbyterian, January 6, 1910, page 28]

Ministerial Necrology

Name: Claiborne H. Bell, D.D.
Occupation: Tea.
Presbytery: Nashville
Place Of Death: Lebanon, Tenn.
Date: Nov. 15, 1909
Age: 88
[Source: Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., 1910, page 290]

Claiborne H. Bell, D.D., a native of Mississippi and a son [sic: grandson] of Rev. Robert Bell, a missionary to the Indians, was appointed Professor Missions and Comparative Religion in the Theological School in 1884, and served ably in this capacity of twenty-five years. His death occurred in Lebanon, November 15, 1909. He received the A.B. degree from Cumberland University in 1853. Later he received the A.M. and D.D. degrees. Immediately after the Civil War he became the President of the College for Young Women in Oxford, Mississippi. The college was in a flourishing condition when he resigned his position there in 1873.

For several years before taking up his work in Cumberland University, he was pastor in St. Louis, Missouri, and later the distinguished President of the Church's Board of Missions, which had its headquarters in that city.

This much revered teacher was a profound student of his subjects, Foreign Missions, Apologetics and Comparative Religion. He made those subjects live in the classroom. One would not soon forget his forceful, ringing words. It was a benediction to see and hear him.

Dr. Bell and his good wife were chiefly instrumental in fitting up a Mission Museum in the University. They had the generous assistance of Rev. J. M. Van Horn, an alumnus and his wife, missionaries in Japan; and also the assistance of Rev. John T. Molloy and his wife, both graduates of the Theological School, and missionaries in Yucatan, Mexico.
[Source: Bone, Winstead Paine. A History of Cumberland University, 1842-1935. Lebanon, Tennessee: Published by the Author,
1935, pages 234-235]

Bell Family Information

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Updated August 4, 2005