Religion and Appalachia go together like bacon and eggs — to put it simply, the two are absolutely inseparable. Whether one is of the household of faith or not, it is impossible to properly understand the history and rich heritage we enjoy here in the mountains without exploring in great detail the influence the Word of God and men of God have played through the ages.
Our region enjoys a long line of colorful preachers, but it’s hard to imagine any as unique as an 1800’s circuit-riding evangelist from Southwest Virginia.
Born in Wythe County, Virginia, Robert Sheffey became orphaned at the age of two and was forced to move to nearby Abingdon, Virginia, to be raised by his aunt.
Sheffey would later say that he was “born of the flesh on July 4, 1820, in Ivanhoe, Wythe County, Virginia, and that he was born of the Spirit on January 9, 1839, over Greenway’s store, at Abingdon, Virginia.”
It was on this blustering January day that Sheffey heeded Jesus’ call of “Ye must be born again…”
Asking Christ to be his personal saviour, Sheffey soon surrendered his life to full-time ministry and the same autumn, he enrolled into Emory & Henry College.
Unfortunately Sheffey’s “early dislike for books and an aversion for profound study,” made him a terrible student and the new believer soon dropped out of seminary.
With no degree, but convinced of a heavenly calling on his life, Sheffey attempted to become ordained by the Methodist Church; however, his ordination was shot down due to his lack of education.
With no official ordination or formal degree, Sheffey set out into the hills and hollers of Appalachia as an itinerant preacher, circuit riding on horseback — roaming from town to town holding tent meetings and preaching a message of repentance.
His lack of education did in no wise affect his ability to faithfully minister.
Many stories about Sheffey related to his power in prayer abound. Some of his prayers concerned critical needs of agricultural communities, such as the need for rain in time of drought or the prevention of rain during harvest. Other of his prayers centered upon his disdain for alcohol.
According to an expert in the folklore of itinerant Methodist preachers, there are “at least twenty-five accounts of how Sheffey’s prayers led to the immediate destruction of whiskey stills and distilleries.”
According to one minister, Sheffey prayed for the destruction of three distilleries on a creek near where they had been preaching. The minister claimed the proprietor of one still, in robust health, died suddenly; at a second, Sheffey prayed that a tree would fall on the still house though there were no trees nearby, and a “great storm came and actually landed a tree on the still”; and a third still was destroyed by fire after Sheffey had spent a night in prayer against it. Men were said to have left the area rather than become the object of Sheffey’s prayers.
As incredible as these stories may be, the thing that makes the “Saint of the Wilderness” so unique among the men of his day may very well have been his love for animals.
He once dismounted to collect tadpoles in his handkerchief so that he could transfer them to a stream from a small pool where they were certain to die. Others he tried to save by bringing water to their mud hole. Sheffey regularly stopped to right beetles and dropped out of funeral processions to lift insects out of the way of wagon wheels. He gave his lunch to hungry dogs and tried (unsuccessfully) to “relieve” flies caught on sticky paper. Once when his brother-in-law cut a wasp in two with a pair of scissors, Sheffey went out to the yard and started praying. When the brother-in-law asked why, he replied, “I am praying for the Lord to make another wasp to take the place of the one you killed.” Sheffey was especially solicitous of his horse. He specifically instructed hosts how to water and feed his horse, and he often dismounted rather than make the horse carry him up a steep grade.
In addition to his affinity for animals, Sheffey was also known for his peculiar sense of humor. He was once called to pray for a child that had been bitten by a rattlesnake. While praying, Sheffey is said to have petitioned, “O Lord, we do thank Thee for rattlesnakes. If it had not been for a rattlesnake they would never have called upon You. Send a rattlesnake to bite Bill, and one to bite John, and send a great big one to bite the old man.”
Robert Sheffey died on August 30, 1902, after having preached throughout Southwest Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.
His tombstone simply reads, “The poor were sorry when he died.”
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