The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Early Influence of Religion in the Blue Ridge, Part 3

By William P. Swartz, Jr. © 1987

Issue: March, 1987

Another God-fearing preacher of gigantic faith and preaching influence named Robert S. Sheffey, born July 4, 1820 near Ivanhoe, Virginia, Wythe County. After losing his mother at age four and his father at age eight, he and his brother Laurence were then reared by their Uncle James and Aunt Elizabeth White in Abingdon, Virginia. Colonel White, commissioned in the war of 1812, was a wealthy plantation and slave owner with numerous other substantial business interest in four states. He offered to sponsor Bob Sheffey's college education at Emory and Henry College. To Colonel White's consternation Bob refused, stating that he did not feel the need of and he was not led to obtain a college degree. This caused somewhat of a riff between the 18 year old youth and his uncle. Soon thereafter Col. White died of a heart attack and Bob Sheffy did attend Emory and Henry College for a period of time, until he decided that college was definitely not for him.

In the meantime he had a conversion experience at a revival to which he had gone to scoff and remained to pray. His life changed. He began to be a part of revivals and camp meetings. He traveled to these meetings for miles around and became a counselor, prayer warrior and evangelistic assistant. Thus he came to be a soul winner.

Bob had an older married brother, James, who was a practicing attorney and with whom he resided part time in Marion, Virginia, where he worked as a store clerk.

My good friend, Jess Carr in his excellent and well written book, "The Saint Of The Wilderness," tells most vividly of Robert Sheffy meeting in early 1842. Mr. Cass Wilkerson with his partner, a Mr. Gleaves, operated an iron furnace on Cripple Creek at Raven Cliff in Wythe County not too far from Speedwell, Virginia. Mr. Wilkerson offered and Robert Sheffy accepted a contract to go there and teach a one room school October 1, 1842 to March 31, 1843. He enjoyed a good degree of success in this experience and he advanced still further in his witnessing and counseling ministry during that time. He seemed to develop a sense of closer fellowship with the Methodist preachers and their churches than other denominations although he was devoting his own ministry to all churches without regard to denomination.

July 26, 1843 he married Elizabeth Swecker. In the following five years they had two children, had built and moved into a four room cabin on the Ivanhoe homeplace. Bob Sheffy continued teaching school and in all of his spare time, he traveled far and wide witnessing, exhorting and bringing about conversion in people's lives, but always as a lay-worker, not as a minister or preacher. By the end of 1851, during which time he had continued to teach school, the Sheffy family included five children and Robert Sheffy had begun to  preach in revivals over a wide area. He had also decided to become a Methodist, but still as a lay preacher and not as an ordained Methodist minister.

His Aunt Elizabeth White had died. She had prepared an excellent sheepskin and willed it to him with a note saying that he was to remember that the sheep was the most humble and meek of animals. Hence forth he was to ride upon it in his saddle, kneel upon it to pray and sleep under it when he needed to do so. From then until the day of his death he was never without a sheepskin to use as he had been directed.

Prayer had become a major part of his life. He had always spent much time in prayer out in the open spaces. At times when he did not feel that he had a sermon to preach, he would call the congregation to prayer. When he finished his conversation with the Lord and rose to his feet, the pews would be empty. Everyone would be on their knees, hardened hearts would be softened and lost souls would be claiming salvation.

In 1854 two events occurred; Elizabeth died soon after giving birth to their sixth child; he applied to the Methodist Presiding Elder of the Wytheville District for a license to preach. He was refused because of his unusual prayer, preaching and ministering methods and practices. This hurt him but he continued traveling and exhorting. Elizabeth's sisters, Leah and Sarah helped him in caring for the family while he was teaching school and when he was away exhorting and counseling in evangelistic meetings.

The following year the Methodist Presiding Elder, after hearing good reports of Robert's lay work in the whiskey making areas, granted him his license to preach. He left the school teaching profession to become a full time Methodist licensed evangelist and much like John Wesley, the world was hence forth to be his parish.  In the ensuing nine years, Brother Sheffy, as he had come to be known, spent almost full time ministering to people and places that knew no minister, from Lee County to Monroe County. During this time he came to know a maiden lady about his age, Eliza Stafford of Giles County. They were married January 26, 1864.

His children continued under the care of his two sisters-in-law and the Swecker family in Wythe County where he visited them periodically.

By 1870, he had established somewhat of a circuit of church or fellowship groups meeting in school houses and homes. In his absence they met as prayer and Bible study groups, thus holding together until his next visit to preach, pray and counsel with them. His circuit spread out over approximately a one hundred mile radius from what is present day Staffordsville and Eggleston in Giles County. He traveled horseback across Virginia, present day West Virginia and border areas of Kentucky and North Carolina. Invitations to come preach and evangelize in established churches began to arrive in his mail along with prayer requests from persons who had either heard him or been told about this great man of prayer and faith. After reading the invitations, requests and prayer burdens, he would take his sheepskin to some remote spot, kneel upon it and pray for guidance, strength and intercession, sometimes for hours at a time.

Brother Jess Carr relates in his classic book on brother Sheffy that he received a request from a woman in a remote West Virginia mountain location requesting him to "Come and talk to my man. If I am departed give my children to my sister. Here is a map of how to get here." Sensing need and urgency, he prepared an itinerary that would bring him to the locality and set out. When he found the remote small cabin, he found a small, bruised and battered woman who looked old at eighteen and who said, "Mamma said before she died if I ever needed help to write you and you would come."

She went on to say that her husband was not a bad man if and when he was sober, but that he stayed drunk most of the time and during that time he was savage, brutal and demonic in his treatment of his family. Brother Sheffy took his sheepskin and climbed to a secluded spot on the mountain back of the cabin where he sought the Lord's help and counsel in prayer. Soon after he returned to the cabin the woman's husband arrived on his horse. He was too drunken to dismount without his wife's aid. Stumbling and cursing, he fell into a drunken stupor. His wife said he would be like that until late in the night.

Brother Sheffy said to the wife, "Here is some money. Go to several stores and buy demijohns of liquor and brandy at each store so as to not cause comment. Spend it all. Show me where your wash tub is." All of which the woman did. When she returned he said, "Now, spoon feed some of the liquor into him every now and then. This is one time when he will have all he wants and more beside." Then he proceeded with the help of his horse to move the wash tub to a cleared spot above the cabin. He placed a number of piles of pine knots and small limbs in a circle around the tub. Then he brought all of the demijohns of liquor and brandy and placed them near the tub.

By the time he returned to the cabin all three children were asleep. With the help of the wife the husband was carried out, laid across brother Sheffy's horse and carried to the site of the wash tub. He sent the wife to gather some green tree branches. While she was gone, he stripped the man of his clothes, placed him in the tub and emptied all of the demijohns of liquor over him.

When she returned, she protested that the liquor would burn him. Brother Sheffy agreed but said to trust him and in time her husband would recover from the skin burns. Then they waited for the man to recover consciousness. As he began to show signs of wakening, they lit the fires. Once they were burning they threw on the green branches. Soon the fires were burning brightly with clouds of smoke issuing forth and filling the clearing, making it impossible to even see the trees.

The husband opened his eyes. He felt the liquor burning his skin. He saw the flames and smelled the smoke. His eyeballs bulged in terror and he tried to rise out of the tub but could not, at first. After a supreme effort, he came out of that tub and into the ring of fires which began singeing him. He could not see where he was and what he was doing for the smoke. He ran around the tub, leaped through the ring of fires and ran wildly into the trees and into one which knocked him unconscious.

Brother Sheffy and his wife came out from behind the trees where they had been observing. He then poured some remaining liquor that he had saved into the unconscious husband, laid him across his horse and carried him back to his cabin and bed. Brother Sheffy turned to the wife and said, "After he comes to, you will never have to worry about him and liquor again." With that he started his return journey home.

On another occasion he was preaching in a revival at New Hope Church some several miles east of Snowville, Virginia. A mile from the church was a still house. Some persons who had used the still house's products came by the church and disturbed the meeting. The still house was located nearby a spring which flowed out from under a big oak tree. When Brother Sheffy was told about the situation, he said, "Let us pray about it." In his prayer he asked the Lord to let the tree fall across the still house and demolish it and patrons, let operators and owners be saved unto good deeds. Not to long afterward a summer storm occurred. Lightening struck the big oak tree and the force of the wind blew it over. It fell across the still house and destroyed it. Here is what happened to the owners and operators. William Meredith became a Methodist minister. John Shelburne's two sons became active laymen in the Christian Church. Through their leadership the Chestnut Ridge Christian Church was built and established. James Thompson had four sons who became fine citizens and community leaders. One of these was Barney Thompson. He became a Methodist minister, later a presiding elder and later still President of Martha Washington College at Abingdon, Virginia.

Brother Sheffy continued as an itinerant evangelist the rest of his life. He was known all over southwestern Virginia as a great Camp Meeting leader. At one time the Wabash Camp Meeting at Wabash, some three miles from Staffordsville in Giles County, drew five thousand attendants. His grave is in the Wesley Chapel Cemetery some few miles away on state route 100. He died August 30, 1902. His funeral witnessed the largest attendance of any ever held in that section of Virginia. People came from miles and counties around. His grave is still visited today by tourists and travelers. Surely he was a saintly Methodist circuit rider and probably the last one.