In an age of fancy-pants televangelists, soft-spoken ministers and almost cartoonish local clergy, it might be difficult for the average American to understand that not too long ago, there was a sect of preachers who feared neither man nor beast, but were intimidating to even the most brazen of moonshiners.
Standing head and shoulders above most, these fearless men of God braved terrifying storms, endured hunger and battled deadly gangs at nearly every turn, simply in order to fulfill their calling to “faithfully execute the Scriptures.”
These men were known as circuit riding preachers and the mark they have left upon the Appalachian mountains — and far beyond — will endure for an eternity.
Recalling his childhood memories of seeing these men firsthand, Edward Eggleston wrote, “More than anyone else, the early circuit preachers brought order out of this chaos. In no other class was the real heroic element so finely displayed. Oh how I remember the forms and weather-beaten visages of the old preachers, whose constitutions had conquered starvation and exposure — who had survived swamps, alligators, Indians, highway robbers and bilious fevers! How was my boyish soul tickled with their anecdotes of rude experience – how was my imagination wrought upon by the recital of their hair-breadth escapes! How was my heart set afire by their contagious religious enthusiasm…”
Back in an era when “The Wild West” was Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio, frontier life was lonely. Cabins were often separated by miles and sparse population densities meant that churches, once a pillar of American society, were few and far between.
Seeking to meet the religious needs of the nation’s frontier settlers, hundreds of brave preachers answered a call to roam from town to town throughout the “West” preaching the Gospel of a coming Christ.
Known as “saddlebag preachers” these frontier traveling clergymen set out on horseback, roaming through the wilderness, preaching each day in tiny villages, rural court houses, fields, meeting houses and even in the homes of settlers.
Many circuits were so large that it would take 5 to 6 weeks for the preacher to make a single lap, ministering to dozens of tiny congregations along the way.
The work of these traveling preachers is in part credited for the Bible Belt’s very existence and as the country grew, so did the influence of these Daniel Boone-style preachers.
Seeking neither fame nor money, these zealous wilderness pastors soon grew into a mighty army for the Lord of heaven. In 1784, there were 83 traveling preachers. By 1839, their rank had swelled to 3,557.
In addition to being an immensely lonely profession, the work of an 18th century wilderness preacher was among the most perilous of professions a man could pursue.
Samuel Wakefield wrote a hymn about the perils circuit riders faced. It describes the circuit rider’s family anxiously waiting for his return, only to learn that he had died in a far-away wilderness. The final stanza says:
Yet still they look with glistening eye,
Till lo! a herald hastens nigh;
He comes the tale of woe to tell,
How he, their prop and glory fell;
How died he in a stranger’s room,
How strangers laid him in the tomb,
How spoke he with his latest breath,
And loved and blessed them all in death.
Fiercely independent, rugged and filled with conviction, circuit riding preachers of the 1800’s attained a great reputation for being strong and unyielding men.
Staunchly opposed to liquor, stories abound of traveling ministers leading powerful prayers for the immediate destruction of whiskey stills and distilleries.
Some men involved in the whiskey distilling business are said to have gone so far as to flee an area rather than become the object of the prayers of circuit riding preachers.
Of the tens of thousands of circuit riders to traverse the wilderness countryside over the years, there is one name in Appalachia that is remembered above all the others: Robert Sheffey.
Born in the Ivanhoe community of Wythe County, Virginia, Robert Sheffey became orphaned at a very young age 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 Savior, 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 altogether.
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 and in fact one could conclude that it was this very trait that endeared him to the common man.
Many stories about Sheffey relating 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.
Interestingly, there was one community that despite all of Sheffey’s prayers and preaching would not repent and that was the very village in which he was born, Ivanhoe, Virginia.
But Jesus, said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. – Mark 6.4
One local resident stated, “after weeks of unsuccessful preaching and praying, Sheffey concluded that the people of Ivanhoe did not have any desire to come to the Lord and that the town which was filled with whore-houses, drunkenness and fight’n had made its choice.”
Fulfilling what was his interpretation of the Scriptures regarding a community that rejects the Gospel, Sheffey is said to have turned his back on the people on his ride out of town and dusted his shoes:
And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.
– Mark 6.11
A Wythe County historian writes, “Sheffey then cursed the community on his way out of town and said, ‘Ivanhoe will never amount to a damn.’ The preacher vowed to never step foot in Ivanhoe again and condemned the place to sink into the earth and be consumed by the pits of hell.”
In the century that followed, Ivanhoe, Virginia’s population would decline sharply and what was once a thriving community would experience heartache and pain on a tragic level as poverty would inflict the people as mines would close and an industrial park would never get off the ground.
Locals refer to the century of misfortune as Sheffey’s curse – a belief that has gained traction in recent years as sinkholes have become a major problem in the area.
Despite blaming his curse for their problems, locals in Ivanhoe speak his name in a reverence that is reserved for none other. The local elementary school is named Sheffey Elementary School and his tombstone simply reads, “The poor were sorry when he died.”
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