Devotion for Week of August 9th, 2010 – Robert Sheffey pt#2
Matthew 17:20. “And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.”
Robert Sayers Sheffey (July 4, 1820 – August 30, 1902) was a Methodist evangelist and circuit-riding preacher, renowned for his eccentricities and power in prayer, who ministered to, and became part of the folklore of, the Appalachian region of southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia and eastern Tennessee.
"St. Francis of the Wilderness"
Continued from August 2nd devotion
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. Sheffey had a sweet tooth and would often fill his mouth with sugar, honey, or maple syrup. He regularly prayed, “Lord, bless the little honeybees for they make sweet honey. Like sweet Jesus.”
He was as solicitous of the welfare of men as of animals. On a number of occasions he gave away woolen socks to those who were in need, sometimes giving away a new knitted pair, sometimes taking the socks off his own feet. Once on a cold day riding the trail, he met a stranger with no coat and gave away his own. He even once gave away his horse to replace an animal that had died pulling a heavily loaded covered wagon.
After being beaten by some young toughs after a meeting, Sheffey tried hard not to testify against them in court, and when they were convicted, with tears he pleaded with the judge to allow them to go unpunished because he had forgiven them.
Sheffey enjoyed singing and shouting and would often draw pictures of birds and fish or write snatches of hymns on the walls of his hosts’ homes or on rock outcroppings. One story claims that after having written “What shall I do to be saved?” on a large rock, he discovered that a patent medicine salesman had written underneath, “Use Hite’s Pain Cure.” Sheffey then added, “And prepare to meet thy God.”
Sheffey’s peculiar sense of humor is also evident in a story about a child bitten by a rattlesnake. Called in to pray for the child, 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.”
Even stranger to mountain folk was Sheffey’s insistence on cleanliness. If his towels or bedding were dirty, he would let his host know. He would pour a small amount of coffee into his saucer, wash the edges where the fingers of his hostess had touched it, and then throw the liquid out the door or into the fire. He assured his son that “plenty of water inside and out” was the “best thing for anybody.”
Power in prayer
Many stories about Sheffey related to his power in prayer. 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.
The story is told that he loved putting honey on all of his food. One lady when she knew he was in the area would always bring him a supply of honey. One time her hives had stopped producing. She had to come and apologize to Brother Sheffey that she had no honey. He said, as he so often did, “let’s see what God says.” He began to pray and when he was done he told the lady to check her hives in a couple of days. When she did it was running over with honey!
Sheffey hated the liquor traffic, and his most remembered prayers were directed against stills and the people who ran them. (They were not moonshiners; at the time, distilling was perfectly legal.) One minister recalled that there had been three distilleries on a creek near where he and Sheffey had been preaching. Sheffey prayed earnestly for their destruction. The proprietor of the first still, in robust health, died suddenly. At the second (where the owner threatened to whip them), Sheffey prayed that a tree would fall on the still house. Although there were no trees nearby, a “great storm came and actually landed a tree on the still.” Fire destroyed the third one three days after Sheffey had spent a night in prayer against it. Men left the area rather than become the object of Sheffey’s prayers.
Sheffey’s contemporaries agreed that although “he was the most powerful man in prayer…he couldn’t preach a lick.” He would take a text and never return to it, and his preaching consisted largely of relating personal experiences. Nevertheless, as the Methodist preacher George C. Rankin recalled in his memoirs, although Sheffey “acted more like a crazy man than otherwise,” he “was wonderful in a meeting. He would stir the people, crowd the mourner’s bench with crying penitents and have genuine conversions by the score.”
Eliza Sheffey died in October 1896. Brother Sheffey continued his ministry as he was physically able, but he eventually suffered intensely from rheumatism. Invited by his son to join him in Lynchburg, Sheffey preferred to stay away from cities and remain in rural Giles County. He died at the home of a friend, Aurelius Vest, a farmer, coffin builder, and country undertaker, near White Gate on August 30, 1902. He is buried in Wesley Chapel Cemetery (off Sheffey Memorial Road) in Trigg. On his monument are the words, "The poor were sorry when he died."
The Sheffey Legend
After Sheffey’s death Edward Sheffey expressed an interest in writing (or in having written) a biography of his father; but he died with nothing accomplished. In 1935, Willard Sanders Barbery, a Methodist minister in Bluefield, Virginia compiled a book of stories he had collected about Sheffey. In 1974, Jess Carr (1930-1990), published a “biographical novel," a project, he said, that had partially been inspired by seeing what he assumed was a funeral being conducted in the Wesley Chapel Cemetery but which a local storekeeper assured him was regular visitation to Sheffey’s grave, “all the time, year-round.” In 1977, Unusual Films, the cinema division of Bob Jones University, released a feature-length film, Sheffey, with a script based on Carr’s novel.