I imagine the best way to appreciate this story of Bellville would be to actually go there, because only then can you get the true sense of how the village is set down amid a series of tall surrounding hills, carved out of the earth by the Clear Fork River: and the hilltops are watching down over the chimneys of town like guardians of sandstone.
Actually, in order to gain the truest sense of this tale, you will need to be in Bellville late at night when the village has bedded down, and the noises of civilization are stripped away; when the earth becomes so still you can hear the quiet murmur of the river as it passes; and listen to the slow turning of the planet in its nightly trip through the dark.
It is a quiet, peaceful place; where you can hear Heaven and Nature sing. Or at least hum softly.
When it is late enough, and quiet enough, and dark enough, it is easy to slip the bonds of our century, and open your eyes to a different time long gone. This tale took place in 1857. It was even quieter then.
One night the people of Bellville were awakened around midnight by a very strange phenomenon.
Sometimes the wind will rattle your windows in a way that lifts you from slumber; maybe a dog starts barking at the deer and startles you awake. Or thunder could rouse you, or even gunshots. In 19th century Bellville, it could be horses shrieking, or owls crying.
But this was very much weirder, uncanny and surreal. In the middle of the night there was a voice coming down from the sky. A sonorous, rolling intonement: crying in the wilderness. People could hear this haunting plea echoing down over the streets of the village. When they opened their doors, they could make out the words quite clearly, “Repent! Sinners Repent!”
It was somewhat unnerving at first, the kind of thing that makes your spine tingle; and more so because, as the hours ticked by through the dark night, the voice continued without any lessening of urgency. If anything, it got louder, “Repent!”
After that bizarre night, everybody was talking about it. Some folks laughed—it seemed like an odd practical joke. Some folks were angry over lost sleep, and labeled it blasphemy; and a few of them called on their Pastor to make sure everything was still all right with Heaven.
Then it happened again the next night. The second time didn’t seem like a joke, it was borderline insulting; and when it happened again the following night: perhaps even criminal. It went on night after night.
It was creepy, that unearthly disembodied voice from on high: “Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand!” It was hard to know how to react because it seemed kinda sacred in a way, and kinda lunatic. How, exactly, do you take issue with righteousness if it is earnest?
And don’t forget, this was 1857, which meant you couldn’t just turn on the radio to block it out, or switch on the fan for a little white noise. That eerie voice seeped into every corner of the village, in the eaves, echoing off the front porch. How do you sleep through something like that—the more you try to not hear it, the more disturbing it becomes.
That hair-raising voice—was it loving and pleading; or angry and vengeful? It twisted the conscience of people who were quite conscientious.
After a week of it, they’d had enough. A committee was assembled to deal with the problem. Each man of this specially ordained commission had been out at night peering into the darkness enough to know that the Prophet’s voice was coming down off the heights of Durbin Hill. So they made a plan; met at the church; and waited till almost midnight when the hollering usually started. They wanted to catch him in the act.
Durbin Hill rises up right out of the south edge of town, yet the approach that ascends to the top goes up the back of the hill where it is not so steep; so it took a while for the posse to make their stealthy approach.
When they reached the top of the little mountain overlooking the south of Bellville, they heard the Prophetic rant carrying out over the town, “Repent ye, for the Day of Judgement is at hand!” The voice came from Moody’s Hill, north of town.
You can imagine: if the committee was determined the first night, they were utterly humorless the second go-round, and adamant about catching this crazy hooligan.
Having been fooled the first time, they weren’t about to be tricked again into climbing Moody’s Hill only to hear the voice coming from Durbin Hill. So they split up: half went north, half went south to stalk their prey.
As soon as the two groups were underway, almost on cue, the voice boomed down from the north, “Get RRReady!”; and as soon as the echo of it died away, another separate voice cried out from the south, “The End is Near!”
There were two Prophets now! And they cried out eerie antiphonal admonitions to one another as the regulators honed in on their respective hilltops; and then the voices ramped up in volume as each posse ascended the hills.
Just as the Bellville committeemen were closing in on the hilltop prophets, the night fell silent. It was dead quiet as both search parties on the north and the south found the hilltops vacant of all Old Testament personnel. The night air was so still it was easy to hear the spectral proclamation that issued forth over the rooftops: “Repent!” It was coming from the west. It was Snake Hill, where the graveyard is, and the voice exhorted the village, “As one risen from the dead, I beseech you to Repent!”
Those were the last words of the mysterious midnight voice.
For the Record
As this story came down through the years, historians referred to the Prophet as the “Wild Irishman” of Bellville. In the language of the day, “Wild Irishman” was another way of saying, ‘some guy playing pranks because he had way too much to drink.’
In point of fact, it turned out some years later that a writer from Bellville actually did meet the crazy Prophet: it was in the South during the war; and the prankster was, indeed, Irish.
The Bellville Prophet was one of two brothers, and they both apparently came by their pranks honestly; preordained to the task by having been named after Old Testament prophets: Samuel and Joshua.