I thought long and hard before posting this bizarre, even horrifying story about one of the strangest figures to inhabit the internet, the crazed evangelical preacher Jonathan Bell. I discovered JB maybe 3 or 4 years ago, stumbled on him while researching corrupt televangelists. You know the kind. But this. The more I found out about him, the more unbelievable it got.
I don't know if you want to read all of this or not, but it gave me a chance to trot out some of my favorite Pentecostal gifs, featuring some of the strangest human behaviour on record. These are Holy Ghosters of the most extreme degree, experiencing something called the Toronto Blessing (involving a lot of flailing around and guffawing). There are many more Bell videos on YouTube, though he really only did two official broadcasts: the "casual" one (excerpted above) and another, longer one he did dressed in (inexplicably) a tuxedo.
I suddenly realized that this guy, a former hairdresser, has hair so much like Donald Trump's that it's downright eerie.
(Excerpted from Snake Oil, 2009)
Upstart TV preachers flock to Dallas like young starlets drawn to Hollywood. So began the story of Jonathan Bell who arrived in Dallas from Kingston, Ontario in early 1992 with a vision from God to start a television ministry.
Accompanying Jonathan were Carrie Hart, a 71-year-old invalid, and her 35-year-old retarded son. With the $1400 per month that the Harts received in government checks, the three got set up in a one bedroom apartment in the predominately gay Oak Lawn section of Dallas, and Jonathan Bell Ministries was on its way.
That first Texas summer, however, took its toll on the trio of transplanted Canadians. Their living arrangement had deteriorated to the point that on the night of July 28th, police were called to the scene of a domestic disturbance at the ministry apartment, whereupon Jonathan was hauled in on aggravated assault of an invalid.
The police incident report reveals a sorry state of affairs: Jonathan typically sent the Harts out early each morning on ministry errands, and they were expected back promptly at 9 PM. Being late, or not following instructions exactly resulted in a beating. Neighbors told police that they had seen the Harts with bruises and black eyes. The Harts were given just a few dollars a month, and Jonathan got the only bed while they slept on the floor with no bedding.
In what may have been a water baptism gone horribly awry, Harry Hart, the son, claimed that earlier in the summer Jonathan had tried to drown him at an area lake by holding him underwater by his hair.
Within a few days of Jonathan's arrest, the Harts returned to Canada, and all charges were dropped.
This sordid little tale would not be worth telling if shortly thereafter Jonathan had not gone on to produce two of the most psychotic, disturbing religious programs ever made.
Flanked by a potted plant, Screaming Boy was born in the studios of Dallas Cable Access. Religious fury in a rented tux. The petulant, porcine pentecostal launched into a hellfire and brimstone sermon at max volume which didn't subside for a solid hour.
But much more than the message itself was the delivery, complete with nervous tics, bulging veins, and a childish, bullying demeanor. An implicit "n'yah-n'yah n'yah n'yah-n'yah" was almost audible at the end of every sentence. His main message concerned those smug, self-satisfied, so-called Christians in "their fancy churches" who "weren't gonna make it in."
"I've been looking for a church here in Dallas where they don't just preach the Word on Sunday and live like the DEVIL the rest of the week! Last Friday I went to a singles get together at the Church of Christ, and they were going to show Terminator 2...to people who weren't even saved! I mean, COME ON!" [note that the singles group was going to show Terminator 2. I guess Jonathan took care of THAT!] "If you don't realize you're a filthy, rotten sinner, you're going to hell, Buck-o."
So don't you blame Screaming Boy when, on Judgement Day, you're on the wrong side of the gate. And, hey, you might be in a car crash tonight. You'll see. Jonathan's making it in, and you're not. N'yah-n'yah n'yah n'yah-n'yah.
"I"M NOT AN EXTREMIST!!!"
Speweth Jonathan: "I study the Bible five to eight hours a day!! And because I have faith as a child, Jesus Christ shows me visions all the time. He talks with me all the time, whether YOU believe it or not!" [So THERE!]
"Two years ago God gave me a vision where I saw young people, men and women - no children there - no clothes on...They had their hands up in the air and they were screaming and yelling in Hell!"
Also perversely compelling were the little tidbits he threw in about his own life. Abandoned by his mother at age eleven, Jonathan was put in a foster home with a man who sexually abused him. He suffered from depression until age twenty-seven, but managed to build a successful career as a hairdresser making, he claimed, $100,000 a year. He led a singles group at a church in Kingston, Ontario, but then God told him to go to Dallas and start his own ministry, and to build a Christian Boy's Ranch for abused youngsters.
Hmmmmmm... Good thing that in that vision of Hell that God gave Jonathan, none of the naked people were under eighteen.
My writing skills at conveying the viewing experience of watching Screaming Boy are woefully inadequate. If I said he was a cross between Porky Pig and Sam Kinison, would that help? If I noted that for no reason little subtitles would appear on the screen with slogans like "Satan Wants Your Mind and Soul," would you start to understand how mind-numbingly weird these shows were? Or that, in the finest cable access tradition, Jonathan spent half the time looking into the wrong camera?
Sadly, after producing just two one hour programs on Dallas Cable Access, Jonathan Bell vanished. Calls to Dallas Cable Access yeilded no information. Letters sent to his Dallas PO Box went unanswered.
While reviewing the two Screaming Boy episodes in preparation of this story, I decided to call the church in Kingston where Jonathan said he had led the singles group.
"We are in no way associated with Jonathan Bell. If you're writing something about him, please don't mention the name of this church. We don't know any more than what's been in the papers."
The papers?? Surely they weren't concerned about a little blurb in the Dallas paper almost three years ago about the assault on the Harts..
With much excitement and a healthy dose of foreboding, I dialed the number for the Kingston Whig-Standard. The worst was confirmed.
"A Kingston hairstylist and former host of a self-help cable TV show, who is facing a number of sexual charges involving children, will remain in jail until a bail hearing Monday.
"Jonathan Bell, the 35-year-old owner of the Jonathan Bell Salon at 477 Macdonnell St., appeared briefly at a bail hearing yesterday in provincial court on Wellington Street.
"He faces 11 sexual molestation charges, some of them stretching back almost two decades...
"Besides running his own salon, Bell was known to many people in the Kingston area through his short-lived Cablenet TV program, called Success In Life.
"Rob Heeney, program manager at Kingston Cablenet, said the show ran monthly from September 1993 to December 1993. 'It was a self-help show,' said Heeney. Part of the show involved Bell giving people make-overs."
--excerpted from The Kingston Whig-Standard, November 4, 1994.
Subsequent articles revealed that Jonathan pleaded not guilty, was denied bail, and that still more charges were filed.
It is interesting and somewhat telling that upon his return to Canada he choose to name his new television program so similarly to Robert Tilton's "Success N Life," even though he expressed nothing but sneering contempt for "so-called preachers here in Dallas who live in their big, fancy houses."
It occurs to me now that what was played out on Dallas Cable Access was more than a tormented individual ranting and raving about Jesus. What we had witnessed was no less than Jonathan Bell in an all out battle with his personal demons, the title match for his very soul.
Chalk this one up for the Devil.