Tom Bell: The Horse Thief and the Preacher

Trial of a Horse Thief, 1877, Clay, Cosack & Co., lithographer. Library of Congress

We do not recall previously writing about Presbyterian preachers arrested for horse thieving, but we presume the incidence is rare enough to warrant notice. What follows is an excerpt from the annals of the old Log College, from which a generation of preachers went forth to preach the Gospel. The subject is young Mr. John Rowland, who first arrived at the school in 1738, and whose short ministry before his untimely death at the age of thirty was marked by revival wherever he preached (among those converted under his ministry was the grandfather of A.A. Archibald).

It seems that immediately after Mr. Rowland was located in Maidenhead and Hopewell there was prowling around the country a certain noted villain called Tom Bell. He appears to have been an artful thief, counterfeiter, gambler, and especially a horse-thief. At one time, while lurking in Princeton and watching for victims, he accidentally discovered that there was a remarkable resemblance between himself and Mr. Rowland, then becoming known as a great evangelist. This fact the scoundrel was adroit enough to determine to turn to his advantage. Accordingly, he hastened at once to a distant part of the State, and under the name of Rowland ingratiated himself with a certain farmer whom he knew to be an elder in a neighboring Presbyterian church, then without a pastor. He engaged with the elder to preach for this church on the next Sabbath; and then he managed, while on the way to church, to return to the house, pretending to have forgotten his manuscript, and then robbed the house of such valuables as he could find and escaped with the farmer’s horse, on which he rode.

Mr. Rowland, whom the wretch personated so well, was, of course, generally believed to have been the horse-thief, and so in due time he was arrested, imprisoned and tried. Upon the testimony, however, of the Rev. William Tennent of Freehold and two other friends, who swore that they knew him to be elsewhere on that day, an alibi was proved and Mr. Rowland was acquitted.

William Tennent

But the enemies of religion, one of whom was the judge of the court where the trial occurred, were not satisfied that Mr. Rowland and his friends should thus escape. They wanted to wound the cause of Christ through them. They managed to bring a charge of perjury against Mr. Tennent and the two friends for false swearing on the trial, had them arrested, the friends tried, and one of them convicted and subjected to the shameful punishment of the pillory. The trial of Mr. Tennent was yet to come on. The day came, and when on his way to the court-house, refusing all legal aid, as he maintained that God, who knew of his perfect innocence, would be his defender, he was met by an aged man and wife, who asserted that they had both had the same dream in one night, and were so impressed by it that they had come all the way from Maryland to assist him in some way. According to their dreams, Mr. Tennent was in some great trouble in Trenton, and they alone could help him out of it. Here they were for that purpose, whatever it might be. A legal friend interrogated them, and found that the couple could both testify that at the time of the stealing of the horse Mr. Rowland was certainly at their home in the State of Maryland, and so could not possibly have been connected with the theft. The alibi to which Mr. Tennent had sworn was thus established, and he was thereby acquitted and saved from the shame and suffering of conviction.

Reprinted from The Presbytery of the Log College: On The Cradle of the Presbyterian Church in America by Thomas Murphy, D.D., Pastor of the Frankford Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia; Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1854 Chestnut Street. Copyright 1880.