The following true story is offensive to me; there’s no other way to state it. However, it is real; it’s history; it’s something that happened. Because the book mentioned at the bottom of this post is out of print, it was important to me to make this information available to anyone who might wish to further research the topic.
Since the beginning of time, there have been individuals among us who have influenced others with bizarre doctrines and demented religious teachings. And there always have been those who came under their spell.
At the turn of the 20th century, when brush arbor gospel meetings were common, a man by the name of John Barker (1861-1934) appeared on the scene in western Limestone and eastern Lauderdale Counties, Alabama.
A tall grey-haired man said to be an excellent orator, he left the organized church and preached in the homes of his followers. He was well-read in the Scriptures and would speak and hold crowds spellbound for hours.
Barker claimed to be a messenger sent by God, claiming he was truly the “Bride of Christ.” He professed his femininity, stating that he had “monthly periods” like women. This claim quickly became a source of humor when a youthful follower suggested that Barker was merely suffering from “bloody piles.”
Others remember him saying he was the “Second Christ.”
It was reported that during one of his sermons he promised to prove his superior powers by walking on water in the Anderson Creek the next day. After the sermon, he walked to the creek where he carefully placed rocks and planks just below the surface of the water. But unknown to him, a group of youngsters followed him to the creek and after he left they removed the rocks and planks.
The next day, as a crowd gathered on the creek bank to watch, Barker stepped onto the water and promptly dropped from sight into the muddy waters – much to his anger and the amusement of the audience.
As a rule, however, his followers were too much in awe of him to tolerate such tricks.
Many of his actions and teachings related to sex and were directed toward women. On one occasion two teenage girls who resented being required to listen to Barker for hours ran out into the orchard and hid in a tree. Barker was so outraged that he preached his entire sermon on the evils of women, calling them “Jezebels.” Despite his treatment of women, many remained loyal followers.
Another story, unauthenticated, is that Barker always insisted on his female followers being baptized in the nude. This practice was not followed, although some respondents did admit that he was very persuasive with women.
Another story was told that while he was preaching he always had one young lady fanning him while another was sitting by with a drink from his “jug.” He also was a pill-popper and habitually drank white liniment before beginning his sermons.
Although Barker preached that he could not be killed, he took precautions as his popularity increased. Several individuals felt he was a corrupt and disturbing influence and advised him to take precautions. Often when he preached in homes, the men brought weapons and stacked them by the door in case of an attack. On other occasions he was surrounded by armed guards. Many people recall having seen him pass through the town of Rogersville in a buggy and later in a car surrounded by men with shotguns. An attack never came.
Oddly enough, his shallow tricks did not lessen the enthusiasm of his followers, but the harsh sacrificial nature of his teaching gradually reduced his popularity.
He preached the doctrine of sacrifice of the seventh child so fervently that some of his followers were tempted to kill their children. One old man even attempted this act by locking his young son in a barn for the purpose of beating him to death but was talked out of it by friends and neighbors. After realizing the significance of his planned actions, the old man went mad and was committed to a mental hospital where he later died.
Barker was said to have been furious because his instructions were not carried out; he accused the old man of being “possessed by the devil.” He forbade his follows to speak to the widow, who had also been one of his faithful followers. He told the people that the devil swept the grave of the old man nightly, a sure omen that all his relatives were to be ostracized.
It was reported that another man actually performed the act. According to one source, the man and his family left the area for a short time, killed the child who was about 5-7 years of age and brought the child’s body back in a suitcase to bury under their house. After the police became suspicious, the family left for Oklahoma and never returned.
John Barker died in the 1930s, an old man of about eighty. Most of his followers had deserted him by then, although a few remained faithful until his death. Because he had preached that he could not die, and if he was buried that he would rise again on the third day, his grave was carefully guarded day and night.
There is no record of his reappearance.
Note: Material for this story was found in an article by Willa Jean Cagle in the Tennessee Valley Historical Society’s publication, “Muscle Shoals History and Folklore,” 1977. Ms. Cagle interviewed several people in the community who told her the stories she reported in her article.
Note: John Barker was such a despicable person that I do not wish to place pictures of him on my blog. If you are interested in seeing photos of Barker, his house and grave stone, they can be found here