The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Early Influence of Religion in the Blue Ridge, Part 1

By William P. Swartz, Jr. © 1987

Issue: January, 1987

The church has played a great role in our nation's history since its founding. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Blue Ridge mountain region. Every faith has had some outstanding men who exhibited great faith and accomplished remarkable records. Among these men was James Waddell, a blind preacher of the Presbyterian faith. Little is known of his early history, but such information as has been handed down indicates that he received elementary and then higher degree education in an academy. His first ministry was in the Northern Neck of Virginia. From there he removed to Gordonsville about 1785, where he gained renown as "The Great Blind Expositor." William Wirt, a learned writer of his day, made it a point to travel to Gordonsville to hear James Waddell preach in 1803. He was so moved by his eloquence that he wrote a classic essay on the minister and his sermon.

An early historic church is the Falling Spring Presbyterian Church, seven miles south of Lexington, Virginia. Nearby US 11, it was organized about 1740. It was of sufficient importance that the Hanover Presbytery representing a wide area of Virginia met there in 1780.

During the Civil War the old structure was replaced. Built with slave made bricks, it was dedicated in 1864. The church records report a number of impressive meetings. When we consider that Presbyterianism is credited as having been founded in the United States about 1684 by Francis Makennie in a building in the Baltimore, Maryland area, then later moving to Accomac County, Virginia, and establishing Presbyterianism there near present day Temperanceville, we begin to understand how the church became established in pioneer days.

The Presbyterian Synod of Virginia was organized in 1746 by John Blair. The first pastor was John Brown, later succeeded by Samuel Brown. His wife Mary Moore, was captured as a youth by Indians. They carried her southwest to what is now Tazewell County, Virginia and held her captive. Afterward she was known and referred to as, "The Captive of Abb's Valley."

In Southwest Virginia, no Presbyterian minister knew more fame in his chosen area than Robert W. Childress, born in 1890 in Patrick County, near the Carroll County line and the North Carolina Border, in the midst of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Much has been written about him and his influence by Richard C. Davids, but all will never be told, can never be told. He changed people's lives beyond telling, count and number. Born in abject poverty where brandy and corn liquor was used from the cradle to the grave, literally, Bob Childress knew nothing but violence, profanity, murder, maiming and hatred without end. He openly stated that he was seldom sober, miserable in soul and twice placed a pistol to his head intending to commit suicide, but did not pull the trigger.

In the summer of 1910, he found himself near a small country Methodist Church. A revival was in progress. Hearing the singing he entered and sat down. He always stated that he never knew much of what happened but when the alter call was given, something moved him to go to the front of the church and kneel at the alter railing, which he did. He did not remember praying or saying anything, but a peace descended upon him and for the first time in his life, he was at peace within himself. On one of those nights he witnessed to a young boy and saw that boy make a profession of faith and Bob Childress had won his first soul for the Lord Jesus Christ.

The following year he returned to the eighth grade of school at age 21. But soon he married and left school to earn a living and establish a home. Within the next 11 years he lost his wife, married another, returned to and completed high school and determined that he would enter the ministry. Rev. Roy Smith, an ordained Presbyterian minister counseled and coached him and thereby influenced him to enter Davidson College at Davidson, North Carolina. Bob Childress moved his family there and by dent of hard work, faith and much studying completed one year of college work in 1921. On the recommendation of the faculty advisors, he went to Richmond and convinced the President of Union Theological Seminary to admit him as a special student. He moved his family there and again he made a marvelous record as a seminarian. Even more marvelous, this man commuted almost 225 miles from Richmond to his parish in Patrick County in a model T Ford roadster. He would leave Richmond after Saturday noon, arrive in his mountain parish of Mayberry at midnight, preach in three to five churches and return the 225 miles to Richmond by driving all of Sunday night to report to class Monday morning. Such was his schedule until his graduation from seminary in 1924. No minister ever walked taller, felt more grateful and thanked God more profusely than Robert W. Childress upon receiving his full ordination. He was offered and he accepted the Presbyterian pastorate of Buffalo Mountain parish in Floyd County, where he and his family arrived June 6, 1921, at the age of 36.

Buffalo Mountain is 15 miles southwest of Floyd, 10 miles east of Hillsville and right on the Carroll County line. Here he was to labor in the Presbyterian ministry, preaching, teaching, saving souls, building church buildings and loving people into the Kingdom of God for the next 30 years. When Bob Childress died in January 1956, he left a legacy of nine churches, three schools and unknown numbers of people living in fellowship.

The Disciples of Christ originated on the U.S. frontier in the early 1800's. The four Presbyterians responsible for the founding of this faith were Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, and Walter Scott. All four believed that doctrines and denominational practices were devious and Christians should unite in a simple faith in the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ based only on the New Testament. Rev. Stone and his followers came out of his Church at Cane Ridge, Kentucky and formed this new denomination which began to spread across Kentucky and the adjoining states, probably about 1805.

Rev. Thomas Campbell served a church in Ireland which had branched off and seceded from the Presbyterian Church. He migrated with some of his church members to western Pennsylvania in 1807, established a church there which advocated: a relationship with all Christians regardless of their denomination; use only of the Bible for creed and basis of faith; and administer open communion. He published this doctrine as, "Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington County, PA." This later became the basis and form for Chartering the Disciples of Christ (or the Christian Church.)

In the meantime, Thomas Campbell's son, Alexander Campbell, who had remained in the pastorate in Ireland, had come to Pennsylvania to assist in strengthening and building up the New Church his father had started, arriving in 1810. Rev. Alexander Campbell proceeded to formalize the theology his father had outlined and to promote the growth of the new denomination from his own church at Brush Run, Pennsylvania. During this time Rev. Barton Stone had started a church with a very similar theology and belief under the name of the Christian Church. All three men met together in 1832, and decided that their beliefs were compatible and merged their two churches under the name of The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

It was about this time that Rev. Walter Scott had been emphasizing "Restoration" by which he meant and emphasized restoration of the New Testament as the sole basis of doctrine for the church. He subsequently met with the three above men and he too joined his church with theirs. It was their joint decision to hold a state convention in each state starting in 1839. From then on the denomination grew rapidly even during the Civil War era. In 1849 the church held its first national convention presided over by Rev. Alexander Campbell and at which they launched their Missionary Movement and outreach under the name of the American Missionary Society. This convention did two other things. The Conservatives in the church withdrew and formed the Church of Christ disagreeing over, among other things, forming the Missionary Movement and music and musical instruments in the church.

Continued - Go to Part 2