The Rev. Todd Bell preaching Monday at the Temple Baptist Church outside Knoxville, Tenn. Image from livestream of sermon.

SANFORD — The wedding he presided over Aug. 7 triggered a cascading series of COVID-19 outbreaks that sickened at least 178 Mainers and killed at least eight, shut public schools, locked down a jail and helped push an entire county into an elevated state of alert. Nine of his own congregants got sick too, including his 78-year-old father and a child attending his vacation Bible school.

But on the evening of Oct. 7, the Rev. Todd Bell stood at the pulpit of the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, preaching without a mask with a group of young children from his Bible school seated shoulder to shoulder below him, almost all of them also maskless. When he finished, a barefaced assistant took his place and began singing, exhaling an invisible plume of droplets from his lungs to be broadcast around the room.

That’s when someone realized an internet livestream had been left open to the public and cut off the feed, drawing the curtains against the outside world.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram examined Bell and the movement he belongs to in order to understand why he has so steadfastly opposed public health measures – even after contributing to multiple deaths and disruptions – and to probe who, if anyone, could influence him to comply. The newspaper’s effort reveals a man born and raised in a religious culture skeptical of science and the government, operating with nearly complete autonomy, supported by his followers and a network of allied institutions and individuals in the Appalachians, able to flout public health advice without formal repercussions.

Despite the fatalities and the pleas of town and state officials, Bell has continued to defy public health guidelines and a city ordinance meant to contain the spread of COVID-19. In late August, as the scale of the wedding-associated outbreak became clear and the first death had been reported, he told his congregation that “the world” wanted “us to shut down, go home, and let people get used to that just long enough until we can finally stop the advancing of the Gospel.” He touted the “liberty” to not wear a mask, falsely suggesting they were about as effective as trying to keep a mosquito at bay with a chain link fence. He later advised his followers that abstaining from singing in the choir was “acting foolishly” and that they were “invincible until God’s finished with us.”

In response to an interview request for this story, Bell said he would consult his attorney. Seventeen days later, he declined to answer questions because he said his attorney hadn’t responded.

The church did not fully cooperate with contact tracers from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which was unable to formally connect the outbreak to the wedding reception, even though Bell himself has said six families from the congregation attended it. “That made the epidemiological investigation more challenging,” the agency’s spokesman, Robert Long, said via email.

City and state officials appear unable to do anything to intervene. The Maine CDC can’t take enforcement actions, because churches are not subject to health inspections and licensing. Long said that in mid-September the Maine CDC “provided a summary of our interactions with Pastor Bell to the attorney general’s office to help that office make decisions on enforcement or legal actions.” But the attorney general’s office declined to comment when asked whether it is considering legal action and, if not, if it believes there are any avenues to enforce public health measures against a non-licensed entity.

“I really wish the state would do something,” says Sanford City Councilor Maura Herlihy, who has known Bell since he arrived in town and describes him as slick, self-assured and “over-the-top” charismatic. “Pushing this on municipalities isn’t going to work, because they’re in a far more difficult situation for managing this level of defiance.”

Sanford City Councilor Maura Herlihy is upset by the Rev. Todd Bell’s flouting of COVID-19 guidelines. “I really wish the state would do something,” she says. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, who represents Sanford in the Legislature and is running for mayor, says she is outraged at Bell’s behavior. “This community opened its arms to him, and the first time we literally ask anything of him – that you wear masks and not sing in church – he just wasn’t going to comply,” she says. “He has never admitted any culpability. He has never said he was sorry. He’s shown his true colors, and what I see is no minister – he’s someone who cares only for himself.”

Julie Ingersoll, a Bath native and professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida, says many pastors share Bell’s thinking. “He’s definitely not some kind of one-off,” she says. “These are widely held views in conservative American Protestantism across the country.”

ROOTS OF THE MOVEMENT

Bell and the institutions that support him belong to the independent fundamentalist Baptist movement, a collection of loosely overlapping networks of allied pastors and the congregations, schools, missionary boards and pastor training institutes they each oversee. Each church is a freestanding institution formally answerable to nobody except the pastor who heads it but dependent on contributions of money and labor from its congregants and, often, the “sending church” that sponsored its creation.

“It’s the kind of environment where it’s relatively easy to set something up, so long as you can convince enough people to put money in the offering plate,” says Boston University sociologist Nancy Ammerman, who studies the movement. “It’s entrepreneurial and kind of fits the libertarian American up-by-your-bootstraps kind of culture. But it’s also very difficult to rein in anybody who seems to be abusing power, except if individual members of the congregation simply say ‘enough’ and leave.”

An independent fundamentalist Baptist – or IFB – church might be founded by its pastor spontaneously but more often it is “planted” by a missionary sent from an existing congregation. Typically the missionary pastor is directed by his congregation to spend months or years going to other churches to raise money from their parishioners, a process called deputation.

“You go from church to church, complete with a slideshow of all the evil that exists in the place where you are going and all the souls there that need to be saved and won’t be unless you go there,” says Bruce Gerencser, who was an IFB pastor for 25 years in Ohio, Michigan and Texas, and founded four churches before breaking with the movement in 2005. “Once you have enough money to do what you want to do, you head out into the field. But the relationship between the mother church and the new one is symbiotic, more advice and consent than ‘we are in charge of you.’”

IFB pastors say every word in the Bible is literally true and that the English translation commissioned by King James I of England in 1604 is the only acceptable version of the book. They regard homosexuality as a sin and a wide range of other Christian denominations – Roman Catholicism, Seventh-day Adventists, the Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals among them – as cults. Tobacco, alcohol, drugs, secular movies and television are generally shunned, and the Earth and the universe are held to be about 6,000 years old, a position that requires the rejection of a wide swath of scientific evidence.

“They have an alternative epistemology” – a theory of knowledge – “presuppositionalism, which says all knowledge comes from presupposing either God’s revelation or the autonomy of human reason. In this view, presupposing the autonomy of human reason is original sin,” says the University of North Florida’s Ingersoll. “So this undermines science seriously and leads to all kinds of magical thinking.”

Other denominations are suspect. Gerry Locklear, a North Carolina missionary who with Bell’s help has tried to win converts on Maine’s tribal reservations, first visited the Pleasant Point reservation in June 2013 and asked several Passamaquoddy elders if they had been saved. “Most of them would reply, ‘Yes, I got baptized in the Catholic church years ago,’” he recalled on his blog. “God, please help us break through to these souls.”

Todd Bell in 2017 Tammy Wells photo

Bell himself was recently invited by an imam to visit the new Sanford Islamic Center. “He wanted me to come out to the mosque, and I was preaching to him about Christ, and he did not accept what I had to say,” Bell said in an Oct. 9 radio sermon. “I was a little bit flabbergasted when I realized that our city has a mosque in it and we have people who are going after our young people trying to get them into Muslim worship. And, oh my, we have our work cut out for us!”

Pastors fear their own flocks will drift away from doctrine without their constant guidance. Matthew Jones, IFB pastor of the Bryant Pond Baptist Church, was appalled in 2014 when he learned the Damariscotta Baptist Church had chosen a female pastor. “The news hit me right in the gut,” Jones wrote on his blog. “I knew that the DBC has been sliding in a liberal direction for many years, as they long-ago dumped the KJB (King James Bible) and yoked up with the liberal American Baptist Churches of America organization.” It was a cautionary tale, Jones wrote, for what happens when a pastor “fails to instill absolute confidence in the KJB as the very Word of God, infallible and inerrant.”

“If a pastor is not feeding the sheep, the sheep will starve, and when the pastor leaves, the sheep may just bring in the wrong man [or woman] to replace him. The wrong pastor, with a congregation that has been Biblically starved, is free to drift further and further from true Bible doctrine,” he added. “I am truly convicted that I must do my very best to feed the sheep with solid Bible preaching and teaching.”

Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Pastors have virtually unchecked authority, but they are not cult leaders, says Ammerman. “It’s really important to get across to people outside the movement that these are not people who have been brainwashed and are living in a compound or on an island somewhere,” she says. “There’s an impulse to be separate from the world, but for ordinary church members that rarely means they are going to shun members of their family who are not members or are not going to talk to their co-workers. But because these churches set up comprehensive networks of associations and schools and services four or five times a week, people can get pretty totally absorbed by their participation.”

IFB churches tend to take oppositional stances toward government authority, particularly when it intrudes on church business, Gerencser says. “There’s a sense of paranoia that government is trying to shut them down, and unfortunately COVID-19 plays right into their hands as far as those things are concerned,” he says. “They see themselves as patriots standing up against the evil, nefarious government. The guy in Maine, he’s not so special except for the effectiveness of what he’s done. I think he gets the prize for bad outcomes.”

Not everyone in the movement shares Bell’s point of view. David Chicoine, the IFB pastor who presided over East Millinocket’s Tri Town Baptist for several years after Bell moved to Sanford, has repeatedly advised his current congregation in Cottageville, West Virginia, to adhere to public health advice. “This PANDEMIC unlike an actual PERSECUTION is not an infringement on our religious liberties, nor does it cause the church to cease functioning,” he wrote on Facebook April 1 to explain why in-person services would not be held. “On the contrary, this is a wonderful opportunity to be drawn closer together as the Family of God than we have ever been, as well as to reach OUT in love to our community ‘not in word only, but in deed and truth.’” (Chicoine did not respond to interview requests.)

Bell has taken a different view. Born into the movement and raised in its heartland, he has considered it his God-given mission to expand its reach across Maine. A global pandemic was not going to get in his way.

MISSION TO MAINE

Clayton Todd Bell was born in the fall of 1969 in Lakeland, Florida, the son of fundamentalist Baptists who attended Calvary Baptist, a church pastored by one Junious Bryson Buffington, a B-17 pilot who’d survived 17 missions during World War II and had grown the congregation to more than 800 members in just a few years. Buffington, a fervent supporter of fundamentalist missionary efforts in the United States and abroad, was raising $100,000 a year from the congregation for that purpose alone, according to the church’s website. Under Buffington’s teaching, Bell has said, he was saved at the age of 6.

While Bell was still in elementary school, his parents moved to Canton, a town built around the massive Champion paper mill in the mountains of North Carolina, 20 miles west of Asheville. His family attended the Maple Grove Baptist Church, where his future wife, Amy Clark, and her family were also congregants. After graduating from the local high school in 1987 he trained as a machinist at the local community college and secured a job at a sprawling Asheville plant making submarine parts for the naval shipyard in Newport News, Virginia.

But sometime in the following four years, Bell has said, God called him and his family to Maine “to plant Independent Fundamental Baptist Churches.”

New England, the least churched region in the country, has long been seen as a promising mission field by independent Baptists. Gerencser, who attended Midwestern Baptist College in the late 1970s, recalls pressure for young pastors to go start IFB churches in the region. “The Unitarians and the Congregationalists and the liberals had turned the whole eastern seaboard into this large block of land dominated by unbelievers!” Gerencscer recalls. “The whole eastern seaboard of the U.S. was barren of Bible teaching.”

Maine, according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, was tied with Vermont for being the second least religious state in the country, with just 34 percent of respondents reporting being “highly religious.” Massachusetts and New Hampshire tied for 50th at 33 percent, and Connecticut was just ahead of Maine at 43 percent. (The figure for top-ranked Alabama was 77 percent.) If a missionary wanted to go to fallow land, this was it.

SPREADING HIS WINGS

The Canton area and the Katahdin region had a lot in common – paper mills, mountains and streams, and nearby forest-covered parkland – which may have drawn the Bells from one to the other. In 1993, according to Chicoine’s history of the Tri Town church, they made an exploratory trip. “After a short visit in East Millinocket, they both felt God’s call on their lives to move their family and start an Independent Baptist Church that preached the gospel and showed those in the community the one and only way to heaven through salvation in Jesus Christ according to God’s Word,” Chicoine wrote.

Canton’s Maple Grove Baptist sponsored the Bells’ effort, sending him on “deputation” to raise money from other congregations over the next two years, during which Bell also earned an undergraduate degree in theology from a Bible institute in Asheville. In January 1996, the couple moved to East Millinocket and, within a month, were hosting services for a dozen people in a rented former NAPA auto parts store on Main Street. Fifteen months later, when the Tri Town Baptist Church was officially chartered, it still had just 14 members. Among them was the family of David Blaisdell, who is now Tri Town’s pastor and whose daughter Mariah would be married at the church 24 years later by Bell, with tragic consequences.

By his account, Bell decided to extend the range of his ministry while taking “a prayer walk” around East Millinocket in 1998. “The God of Heaven placed within my heart a burden for the ‘next towns,’” Bell later wrote on one of his websites, referencing Mark 1:38, in which Jesus asks his followers to spread his word to other communities. “What about the other towns of Maine?” he asked himself, even as Tri Town continued to operate out of a rented storefront. “I ask the Lord if He would allow me to get my pilots [sic] license and begin to reach out into other towns with the life changing message of the gospel.” After several months of prayer, Bell felt God had given his assent, and he turned to his “home church” – presumably Maple Grove back in Canton– to pay for his pilot’s license.

The Rev. Todd Bell, right, speaks with Maine State Trooper Eric Verhille after setting his plane down in a hayfield in Farmingdale in 2010 because of engine problems. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

This innovation allowed Bell to pastor multiple, far-flung congregations at the same time, giving a sermon at one church Sunday morning and another in the afternoon, hundreds of miles away. In August 2001 he purchased his first aircraft, a 39-year-old Piper Cherokee, from a man in his hometown of Canton. “What a joy it was to begin to reach out to other communities while still being able to pastor the church in the town where I was living,” Bell recalled. “I felt like a circuit rider preacher but on a modern ‘horse’!”

By then, Tri Town was ready to stand on its own. In May 1999, the church had purchased 3 acres behind the town’s public safety building from Great Northern paper and, following a dispute with the town over who would pay for road, sewer and water lines, built a new church there in one week in what Pastor Chicoine later described as “an old fashioned ‘church raising’” with help from volunteers from North Carolina.

“Many people sacrificially gave of their time and finances to see this church become a reality,” he added, “and all the honor and praise is given to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for allowing us to own this property and building debt-free from the very beginning.” Bell had even found the time to plant Church Hill Baptist in Augusta in August 2000. A year later, he left Tri Town in Chicoine’s care and moved his family 225 miles south to Sanford, a former textile mill town with an excellent airport.

SETTLING IN SANFORD

Bell has said he discovered many people had tried to plant a church in Sanford but none had succeeded. “Pastor Bell surveyed the area and found it to be a very oppressed area spiritually but that did not deter him from the task that God called him to do,” his church’s website explains. He and his family knocked on a hundred doors a day, asking people to come to hear the word. “Though the people were some what welcoming, no one visited for three months.” He eventually held services in the conference room of the hangar he rented to store his plane. Forty-six attended.

“What I remember is that he just came to town and suddenly he was everywhere,” says Rep. Mastraccio, who served on the city council at the time. “He would always have big plans, and I think we welcomed him as someone who we thought had the whole community at heart.”

State Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, who is running for mayor of Sanford, is dismayed by the flouting of coronavirus guidelines by the Rev. Todd Bell’s Calvary Baptist Church. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Bell served on the airport advisory committee and on the three-person board of visitors for the York County Jail. He bought a hangar valued at $135,000 at the airport, while his church purchased and renovated a vacant building on High Street.

He traded up to larger and faster aircraft – a Piper Cherokee 6 in 2005, a Cessna 310 in 2006, a Needham Sportsman in 2007 and a Cessna 402 in 2008, which he reregistered as N128MK in homage to Mark 1:28. In 2009, he repurchased his first plane for reasons unknown, and later bought a newer Cherokee 6 and a Cessna 310. Some of these aircraft were registered with the Federal Aviation Administration under his own name, another under the church’s, and the rest with Wings with the Word, a nonprofit based in his house. At one point in 2009, according to FAA registries, he controlled four planes at once. Expenses at Wings with the Word alone sometimes exceeded $100,000 a year, according to its publicly available tax forms. The nonprofit at one time or another owned a front-end loader, a Winnebago camper, an excavator, a fuel truck and the airport hangar. In 2010 it had to pay for repairs after Bell had engine trouble and landed the Cherokee 6 in a Farmingdale hayfield.

The planes saved so much time, Bell has said, he was able to work the equivalent of 13 months a year. He used them to plant new IFB churches: Island Baptist on Islesboro in 2008, First Baptist in Jackman in 2011, Providence Baptist in Fort Kent in 2014, and New Vineyard’s Gospel Light Baptist in 2015. He mentored a fellow North Carolinian pastor at the Cornerstone Independent Baptist Church in Houlton, helped Hope Baptist in Whiting get its start, and recruited another North Carolinian evangelist to revive Boothbay’s Barter’s Island Baptist, which had been withering.

“Without him our outreach would be very limited,” Gerry Locklear, whose Native American Missionary Fund relied on Bell to proselytize among Maine’s tribes, said via email. “Without Pastor Bell many of the people of the state of Maine would still be hopelessly and fearfully lost.”

Meanwhile, the Sanford church was also expanding. He founded the Christian Academy in 2005 – which now has some 60 students – and bought and sold several buildings. In December 2016 the church purchased the former Knights of Columbus Hall, an abandoned structure across High Street from the church where a local caterer had been operating a monthly swinger’s sex club. “The planning board made a lot of accommodations for them so they could continue with their mission,” Mastraccio recalls. “We saw it as positive for the neighborhood, which was having a lot of issues with crime.” The church now has an auditorium there that seats 200, with classrooms in mobile homes behind it.

Churches do not have to disclose their finances, but Bell has referenced receiving support from his congregants, donations from unnamed friends in North Carolina, and in-kind support from Anchor Baptist Missions, an arm of an IFB church in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, just 38 miles south of Canton, and Crown College in Powell, Tennessee, where one of his daughters went to college and which awarded him an honorary doctorate in theology in 2015. (Like most of Bell’s allies, the pastors of these institutions did not respond to interview requests.)

One Sanford congregant, 63-year-old Eleanor Williams, has been particularly generous, loaning Wings with the Word $104,000 in 2006 to purchase a Cessna 310 and, in 2005, gifting the Bells a house and 95 acres of property she inherited from her parents, who founded a Baptist church on the same road in the 1970s. Town records show Bell sold the house and 2 acres in January of this year for $325,000 and is now building a new residence on the remaining land. (Williams could not be located for an interview.)

Bell may have used the property to help pay ministry expenses. In 2010, Wings with the Word’s tax forms show it was the beneficiary of a $95,000 home equity loan to purchase a Cessna 410. The Bells also transferred another 2-acre parcel to the church, which has built a trade school there for the congregation.

“The intermingling of personal finances and those of the church is easy to do, because very often in these very small churches the pastors are intimately involved in the church finances,” Gerenscer says. “It’s very easy to justify moving money around, and it’s not necessarily nefarious, but it can sometimes get that way.”

Calvary Baptist owns this building in Sanford, which housed the church until it expanded to a property across the street purchased at the end of 2016. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

‘LET’S TRUST IN HIM’

When the pandemic struck Maine early this year, Bell reacted with derision. On April 3, while schools and businesses were in lockdown and supermarket shelves grew bare, he predicted in his daily radio sermon that some would “think that life is just wonderful” because they got to “stay at home and receive a paycheck from the government” and would come to think “it’s just a handout all the time.” As for public health advice, he complained, “We are trusting in government more than we are trusting in God.” He added, “Instead of trusting in a government let’s trust in Him.”

On May 14, two weeks before Gov. Janet Mills allowed churches to resume indoor services, he expressed fears that “a great backsliding has taken place” because “people have got used to not going to church and not assembling.” He advised listeners to put on their Sunday best, drive to their churches, and stand on the front porch to watch online services there, rather than “sit at home in my PJs and act lazy and talk about things while the preacher is preaching.”

Bell had just flown back from Knoxville, Tennessee, where he’d attended his daughter’s in-person graduation from Crown College. But he held services at the church that week, ignoring the 14-day quarantine rules. Only 10 congregants showed up.

On Aug. 4 he traveled to Rhode Island – where the COVID-19 per capita new case rate was more than six times that of Maine – to speak at a meeting of fellow pastors convened by the New England Baptist Fellowship. He did not quarantine on his return home.

Instead, at 10:30 in the morning of Aug. 6, Bell and his wife lifted off from Sanford airport for the 59-minute flight to Millinocket. At 3 p.m. the next day he stood in the East Millinocket church he founded to preside over the wedding of the daughter of his protégé David Blaisdell. At 4 p.m. he joined more than 100 people inside the Big Moose Inn for the reception that would spread tragedy across the state.

Bell spent much of last week at a large IFB conference in Powell, Tennessee – convened by Crown College’s founder, the Rev. Clarence Sexton – where he and other participants wore no masks, including a youth choir of 60 who performed so tightly packed they were almost touching. In a fiery sermon at the conference Monday evening, Bell related how when a law enforcement official in Maine had threatened to arrest him, Bell had said he couldn’t because they were friends, because he served on the visitors’ board of the county jail, and because “we have the right before almighty God to assemble and to worship.”

Knox County, where both Powell and Knoxville are located, had a new COVID-19 case rate as of Tuesday that was more than six times that of York County, according to case data collected by The New York Times.

On Wednesday, according to Bell’s radio address on Anchor Mission’s WGCR, he and his wife flew back to the Portland International Jetport to return to their ministry.

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