Robert Sayers Sheffey
Robert Sayers Sheffey, c. 1880
|Died||August 30, 1902 (aged 82)|
|Spouse(s)||Elizabeth Zwecker; Elizabeth “Eliza” Stafford|
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.
Youth and conversion
Sheffey was born near the hamlet of Ivanhoe, Wythe County, Virginia, of a locally prominent family, the youngest of five brothers. His mother died when he was two, and he was reared by an aunt in Abingdon, Virginia. Sheffey attended Emory and Henry College in 1839–40, but “his early dislike for books and an aversion for profound study” did not augur well for higher education.
Sheffey was eighteen when he was converted at a revival in Abingdon. Although his relatives wished him to continue in the Presbyterian church, he became a Methodist and, shortly thereafter, an itinerant preacher.
Marriages and family
In 1843, Sheffey married Elizabeth Zwecker, and they had six children. Sheffey farmed, taught school, served as a clerk, and kept a store. After the death of his first wife in 1854, he became completely committed to his ministry, and legends began to grow about his “peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, his pet hobbies, and his odd whimsical notions.” For several years he attempted to obtain a license to preach but because of his oddities did not succeed until 1855. Yet eventually his circuit of Methodist churches spanned fourteen mountain counties in Virginia and West Virginia and included regular appearances at the popular Wabash Camp Meetings near Staffordsville, Giles County, Virginia.
In January 1864 Sheffey married Elizabeth “Eliza” Stafford, although her parents did not favor the marriage because of Sheffey's constant circuit riding. Nevertheless, the marriage was a success. Eliza understood her husband and did not complain about his frequent absences. The couple had one son, Edward Fleming Sheffey, (1865–1933), who became a successful Lynchburg businessman. He remembered as a boy telling his father, “Uncle Johnny thinks that you ought to spend more time with your family,” to which Sheffey replied, “Son, Uncle Johnny doesn’t know which way the rats run. The Lord will take care of you.” Eventually even the Staffords were reconciled to the marriage.
"St. Francis of the wilderness"
Called a “St. Francis of the wilderness,”  Sheffey was renowned for his concern about the welfare of 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 starting 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. 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, sometimes in artistic lettering. 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 might even ask his hostess for a white counterpane. 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. Because Sheffey hated the liquor traffic, his most remembered prayers were directed against stills and the people who ran them. 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," many apparently versions of the same episode. (The owners were not moonshiners; at the time, distilling was perfectly legal.) 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.
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 September 1896. 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, his son, Edward, expressed an interest in writing (or in having written) a biography of his father. However, Edward died before any work was done. In 1935, Willard Sanders Barbery, a Methodist minister in Bluefield, Virginia compiled a book of stories he had collected about Sheffey, which a scholar of religion has called an unusual work "published in orthodoxy's hinterlands which gives full play to the tenets of folk religion," a pseudo-biography based on oral sources that indicate "the tenacity of the folk memory as well as its appropriation of what orthodoxy would regard as unedifying if not heretical."
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.” A Virginia state historical marker has been placed near the grave, and in 1979 a Sheffey Memorial Camp Meeting was organized that met annually in Trigg into the 21st century. 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.
- Willard Sanders Barbery, Story of the Life of Robert Sayers Sheffey: A Courier of the Long Trail, God’s Gentleman, A Man of Prayer and Unshaken Faith (privately printed, c. 1935), 26.
- Barbery, 29–33. The second oldest, James White Sheffey, became a lawyer, a state legislator, and perhaps the largest landowner in southwest Virginia. Another brother, Hugh Sheffey attended Yale and represented Augusta County in the legislature. A third, Lawrence, became a physician. Robert Sheffey "made it a custom to eat his birthday dinner every Fourth of July in the house of his birth." Richmond Times, September 9, 1902, 2.
- Barbery, 37. Jess Carr, who wrote a fictionalized biography of Sheffey, said in a published diary about his writing process that although Sheffey was not stupid, "he just never got himself in intellectual gear." Jess Carr, Birth of a Book: A Diary of the Day-to-Day Writing of The Saint in the Wilderness (Radford, Virginia: Commonwealth Press, 1974), 36.
- Sheffey said 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.” Quoted in Barbery, 57.
- Barbery, 38–39. Sheffey wrote that he left his relatives “and never went back there any more for 14 years, and when I did go back they were dead. I can’t say that they died in consideration of me, but they are gone.”
- Barbery, 36; FamilySearch.org. Carr believed Zwecker was a "withdrawn, complicated, and perhaps deeply unhappy person" but that Sheffey loved her "very deeply." Carr, Birth, 41.
- Barbery, 45. Sheffey wrote that he was also capable of cooking, milking, churning, washing, ironing, making clothing, making up beds, and sweeping but that he could not "starch as well as the splendid starchers in the North or East." (45–46)
- Barbery, 39. A nephew called him "one of the most singularly eccentric men I have ever known....He does not belong to the conference but goes about preaching on his own hook and is never satisfied until he gets up a tremendous shout." James I. Robertson, ed., Soldier of Southwestern Virginia: The Civil War Letters of Captain John Preston Sheffey (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004), 191.
- Barbery, 83.
- "Discover History and Heritage, 1875 to 1900," Roanoke Times, August 2015, 52; Barbery, 63, 88.
- Shortly after the marriage, his nephew wrote that Sheffey had told him "with much gusto of his marriage...and of his perfect happiness." Robertson, 191.
- FamilySearch.org; Barbery, 47–48. “Sometimes he would ride up to his house and without dismounting call his wife out and talk with her like two children who are infatuated with each other. His greetings were quite brief, and then he would say to his wife, ‘Eliza, I have to hurry; I must be at my next appointment.’” (51).
- Barbery, 48.
- Jess Carr, The Saint of the Wilderness: A Biographical Novel Depicting the Life and Works of Robert Sayers Sheffey (Radford, VA: Commonwealth Press, Inc., 1974), xiii.
- Barbery, 67, 74, 68, 132, 72.
- Barbery, 134.
- Barbery, 61, 89, 94, 97, 110. On one occasion “he took two tablespoons of sugar in his hands and filled his mouth with it as he went into the yard. He sat down among the people and his first audible words were ‘sweet Jesus.’ Then he began to talk with them about the deep things of life, and before the throng had dispersed they were seen to be weeping on every side.” (61). Methodist preacher Bob Shuler, who knew Sheffey in his youth, claimed Sheffey had hugged sugar maple trees while praising God for honey. Robert Shuler III, Fighting Bob Shuler of Los Angeles (Indianapolis: Dog Ear Publishing, 2012), 21.
- Barbery, 65–66, 86, 122.
- Barbery, 100.
- Barbery, 117.
- Barbery, 82–83.
- Barbery, 65, 110, 125; Jess Carr, Birth of a Book: A Diary of the Day-to-Day Writing of The Saint in the Wilderness (Radford, Virginia: Commonwealth Press, 1974), 12. "In the various homes he stayed in during his journeys, he would often draw on the bedpost of his bed; or if he saw a knothole in a board in the wall or ceiling, he would add some unique sketches to make more artistic the hole."
- Barbery, 91.
- Barbery, 68.
- Barbery, 41, 88, 93; Carr, Birth, 45.
- In an obituary notice, a Richmond newspaper noted that in his section of the state, large numbers of people believed "implicitly that he had the power to bring direct and literal answers to prayers." Richmond Times, September 9, 1902, 2. Terri L. Fisher, Pearisburg and Giles County (Arcadia Publishing, 2008), 49: "The power of Sheffey's prayers became legend with stories of healing and other miracles."
- Barbery, 72, 99–100, 108–09.
- Charles Chilton Pearson and James Edwin Hendrichs, Liquor and Anti-Liquor in Virginia, 1619–1919 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1967), 169.
- Donald E. Byrne, Jr., No Foot of Land: Folklore of American Methodist Itinerants (Metuchen,NJ: Scarecrow Press & American Theological Library Association, 1975), 17.
- Barbery, 83–84; see also, 85, 91, 94, 107, 114. A county historian repeated one of these stories, noting that Sheffey had "asked the Lord to destroy Harmon's [still] by letting a tree fall on it," and a dead tree struck by lightning fell on it, setting it afire. Goodrich Wilson, Smyth County History and Traditions (Kingsport Press, 1932), 359–60. Wilson said that Sheffey had suggested to God that a still on White Oak Branch might be destroyed by a flood; and during a storm, the stream rose to unprecedented heights and wiped it out.
- Barbery, 107, 118–19. Benjamin Floyd Nuckolls, Pioneer Settlers of Grayson County, Virginia (Bristol, TN: King Printing Company, 1914), 71: "The wicked trembled when he prayed for justice to be meted out to wrongdoers." See also Roger V. Morrison, "Review of Mary Ann Hinsdale, et. al., It Comes from the People (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995)," Appalachian Journal 23 (Winter 1996), 202.
- Barbery, 58, 89.
- George C. Rankin, The Story of My Life (Nashville: Smith, 1912), 241–42. Rankin said Sheffey was "recognized all over Southwest Virginia as the most eccentric preacher of that country. He was a local preacher; crude, illiterate, queer and the oddest specimen known among preachers. But he was saintly in his life, devout in his experience and a man of unbounded faith. He wandered hither and thither over that section attending meetings, holding revivals and living among the people. He was great in prayer, and Cripple Creek campground was not complete without "Bob" Sheffy. They wanted him there to pray and work in the altar. He was wonderful with penitents. And he was great in following up the sermon with his exhortations and appeals. He would sometimes spend nearly the whole night in the straw with mourners; and now and then if the meeting lagged he would go out on the mountain and spend the entire night in prayer, and the next morning he would come rushing into the service with his face all aglow shouting at the top of his voice. And then the meeting always broke loose with a floodtide. He could say the oddest things, hold the most unique interviews with God, break forth in the most unexpected spasms of praise, use the homeliest illustrations, do the funniest things and go through with the most grotesque performances of any man born of woman. It was just 'Bob' Sheffy, and nobody thought anything of what he did and said, except to let him have his own way and do exactly as he pleased. In anybody else it would not have been tolerated for a moment. In fact, he acted more like a crazy man than otherwise, but 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. I doubt if any man in all that conference has as many souls to his credit in the Lamb's Book of Life as old 'Bob' Sheffy."
- Barbery, 48, 136; Carr, Birth, 103.
- Barbery, 8.
- Barbery’s book does not seem to have been copyrighted, and it is not cataloged by the Library of Congress.
- Donald E. Byrne, Jr., No Foot of Land: Folklore of American Methodist Itinerants (Metuchen,NJ: Scarecrow Press & American Theological Library Association, 1975), 14–16.
- Carr, ix–x. Jess Carr, Birth of a Book: A Diary of the Day-to-Day Writing of The Saint in the Wilderness (Radford, Virginia: Commonwealth Press, 1974).
- Virginia Department of Historic Resources website: "Mountain Evangelist KG-15 The Reverend Robert Sayers Sheffey (1820–1902), although one of a kind as to style and personality, was a Methodist Circuit Rider in the classic frontier tradition. Celebrated for the intensity of his faith and prayer, as well as for his eccentricities, Sheffey's authority was recognized throughout this region. He is buried nearby, in Wesley Chapel Cemetery, beside his second wife, Elizabeth Stafford Sheffey."
- Fisher, 49; New River Valley News
- Unusual Films souvenir book, 1978, BJU Archives. Katherine Stenholm directed a crew of 76 and a cast of about 800, and the film includes a musical score by Dwight Gustafson. A large camp meeting scene was filmed at the nineteenth-century Epworth Camp Meeting in Greenwood, South Carolina, and other scenes were shot at Cades Cove and the Pioneer Farmstead in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Zebulon Vance birthplace, the "Cradle of Forestry," Pleasant Hill, Kentucky (Shakertown), Walnut Grove Plantation, and on location at other sites in Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.