Saturday, October 23, 2010

God Smashes a Moonshiner's Still


Among the most remarkable eccentric, itinerant, Methodist preachers that ever lived in the New River Valley, was Robert Sawyers Sheffey, who was born in the county of Wythe, Virginia, July 4, 1820, and died in Giles County, Virginia, in 1902. He was a son of Henry Sheffey, of Wythe, and came into the New River Valley some time in 1859, where he married for his second wife a Miss Stafford in what is commonly known as Irish settlement, in Giles County, where Mr. Sheffey located.  Mr. Sheffey declared war on the devil, sin and especially the moonshine trade, which was destroying lives, families and communities. 

For reasons of his own, Robert Sheffey never united with the  Methodist conference, but continued throughout his career as a Methodist circuit rider, going from place to place, and wheresoever his inclinations led him. He was eccentric beyond description. That he was a pious devout Christian and Godly man was never doubted. He was a man of wonderful faith in God, and was usually most eloquent in public prayer. When troubles and difficulties surrounded him his oft repeated statement was, "I'll go and talk to the Lord about it."

One thing about this good man which was most remarkable, that his prayers for specific things were not only not in vain, but what he asked the Lord for, he in some way or some how always seemed to receive it. So often were his prayers answered, and his highest hopes and aspirations gratified, that people who knew him well and were disposed to do evil things were frequently alarmed for fear he would call down vengeance from heaven upon their guilty heads, and many believed that if he should ask the Lord to smite them with pestilence or death it would be done. The eccentricities of this man led numbers of people to express doubts as to his sanity. Some of these expressions reached Mr. Sheffey, and he often publicly repeated what he had heard, and his only comment was, "Would to the Lord they were crazy on the same subject that I am."

Many and interesting are the stories and anecdotes told of this preacher and of his conduct; some of which will here be related, and from which it will appear that while his eccentricities often appear therein, yet the great and strong faith of the man is also exhibited. Many years ago, Mr. Sheffey had a regular preaching place on East River in Mercer County,  West Virginia, near the residence of Mr. Anderson Tiller, at whose house, he made his stopping place, and where he was always carefully looked after and entertained. It was known that Mr. Sheffey was exceedingly fond of sweet things, and especially of honey. On an occasion, when on a preaching tour, he went to fill his appointment on East River, and became as was usual the guest of his brother, Tiller. Being on a Sunday morning and late in the summer season and while at the breakfast table, Mr. Tiller remarked to Mr. Sheffey that he regretted that he had no honey for him, that his bees had done no good, had not swarmed and that he feared they had frozen out in the winter or that some insect had destroyed them, and that the season was too far spent to have any swarms. Mr. Sheffey arose from the table and went down upon his knees, and told the Lord that the brother's bees had not swarmed, and that there was no honey in the house, and he implored the Lord to have the bees swarm. Scarcely had his petition ceased when the swarms came with such rapidity that Mr. Tiller was unable to procure rapidly enough sufficient gums to save the swarms. The truth of the incident is vouched for by the best people in the neighborhood of where it occurred.

At a meeting being held by Mr. Sheffey at Jordan's Chapel, now in Summers County,  West Virginia, Dr. Bray, a physician in the neighborhood together with his wife, were present at Sunday morning service and had with them a nursing infant child, which was taken suddenly ill about the close of the service. The mother became alarmed and grief stricken about the condition of her child, and in her hysteria she cried out that her child was dying. A large number of people were present and gathered around the mother and child supposed to be dying, when Mr. Sheffey appeared and being informed of the cause of the trouble, said, "Brother give me the little child," and taking it in his arms he fell upon his knees, and in a most earnest prayer to God asked for the life to the little child and that it might be restored to its mother. Arising from his position on the ground, he handed the child to its father, remarking, "here brother is your little child well and all right;" and so it was!!

Mr. Sheffey had a right good vein of humor in his makeup, and he occasionally exercised that faculty to the discomfiture of people. Some thirty years ago, there lived on the upper waters of Brush Creek, a Christian gentleman by the name of Robert Karr, a member of the Methodist Church, at whose house Mr. Sheffey was entertained, when on his preaching tours in that neighborhood. He had a protracted service in the neighborhood of Mr. Karr, which had continued some weeks, and which Mr. Karr had not attended, and whose non-attendance Mr.Sheffey had observed, and taking his brother Karr to task about his want of interest in the meeting, inquired why he did not attend. Mr. Karr replied that he had a good reason, and being pressed by Mr. Sheffey to give his reason, he finally said, "Well, I don't just exactly like your way;" whereupon Mr. Sheffey with a ha! ha! said, "Neither does the Devil."

On the occasion last mentioned or a similar one, while Mr. Sheffey was holding a meeting at Mr. Karr's, early one Sunday morning, a young man rode up to the house and delivered to Mr. Sheffey a message from his wife that his little son, Eddy, was very sick, and that the doctors had said he could not live and for him to come home at once. Mr. Sheffey made no response to the message, but went off a distance to some high granite boulders on the top of the highest of which he went to the Lord in prayer, and continued to pray until the time had arrived for him to meet his congregation at the church. On reaching the pulpit, he related to his congregation the message he had received, and then said, "I have talked to the Lord about this, and Eddy is not going to die." Eddy Sheffey lived and became a bright, intelligent, useful and honored citizen.

Mr. Sheffey had wonderful faith in God's providences, his care for his people in providing for their wants, physical as well as spiritual. It is told of him that on one occasion he met a man in the road on a very cold day, and that the man had on no socks, and that Mr. Sheffey observing this took off his and gave them to the man. After riding some distance he stopped at a house to warm his feet, and that the lady of the house said to him that she had knit for him some nice pairs of socks which she wished to present him. Another thing may be mentioned of this man, and that was the tender care of his horse and of other animals. He could not bear to see them suffer, not even a bug if turned on its back, and he has been known to dismount from his horse and turn it over. If he found what appeared to him to be a hungry animal or dog, he would give it his lunch rather than eat it himself. The story is told of him and another preacher who were out in some wild mountain district, that on leaving the house where they had been entertained, the woman put a lunch in Mr. Sheffey's saddle-bags telling them that they were not likely to meet with their dinner that day, and that she had provided a lunch that they might not suffer from hunger. Off the preachers went on along the mountain pathway during the morning hours and until about noon, proposed to eat the lunch. Mr. Sheffey informed him that he had no lunch, that he had just met two very hungry looking dogs to which he had given the lunch. 

"Sheffey Wages War Against the Moonshiners"

If there was a man beyond any other that believed that the whiskey traffic was one of the Devil's strongholds it was Mr. Sheffey. He assailed this traffic when opportunity offered and often in public prayed for its overthrow and destruction. He was often appealed to by good people to pray the Lord to remove still-houses and liquor manufactures. On the upper waters of the Bluestone, many years ago, was a whiskey distillery operated by a man and his son. Mr. Sheffey stopped in the neighborhood at the home of a good Methodist family. The good woman of the house told him of this distillery, and that it was ruining and wrecking the lives of many of the young men in the neighborhood, and requested him to pray for its removal, which he promised to do. The lady inquired "how long will it be before we may expect our prayers to be answered;" "about twelve months," was his reply; and sure enough within the twelve months the distillery was closed up, and the owner and his son in jail on charge of defrauding the government.

On another occasion he was on Wolf Creek, near Rocky Gap, when he was informed by the mother of a family with whom he was stopping, of the existence of a distillery in the neighborhood that was proving a great evil and requested Mr. Sheffey to pray for its removal. Mr. Sheffey then and there went to the Lord in prayer, and asked Him to destroy the evil, and if necessary send fire from Heaven to burn it up, and that very night an old dry tree near the distillery took fire, fell on the shanty and destroyed the whole thing. The whole neighborhood firmly believed Sheffey's prayer brought down that fire, which rid the neighborhood of the evil.

During a revival meeting, many of the moonshiners had gathered in the back of the church.   They had come to see if Sheffey would dare to speak against them and their vile trade.  Knowing that they were there, Sheffey rose and stood behind the pulpit.  He said, "I know that there are moonshiners here tonight.  God knows who you are!  I have prayed a prayer concerning you.  In that prayer, I asked God to do one of three things tonight....that you repent and get saved, or that you will leave town, or else that He will strike you dead!  The choice is yours!" Knowing that Sheffey had the reputation of getting exactly what he prayed for, several moonshiners ran to the altar and the rest ran out of the door and left town that very night!

Traveling through a community, Brother Sheffey came across a distillery. Approaching the owner, the old circuit rider warned him to shut the business down or else God would cause an oak tree to fall upon the buildings and smash it to pieces.  The wicked owner laughed him to scorn and said, "Old man, there isn't an oak tree within miles of here!  What can God do about that!  Get out and leave me alone!"   That very night, a violent storm hit that region.  A powerful wind came down upon a mountaintop miles away, uprooted a large oak tree and carried it a great distance and dropped it right on top of the distillery completely destroying all of it!

Mr. Sheffey's hostility and open expression against the liquor traffic and the traffickers, often brought down upon him, not only the curses and hatred of these people, but once at least, a pounding upon his head. He was preaching in Bland County, and during the service was interrupted by some crude young men under the influence of alcoholic spirits, which led to their severe censure and arraignment by the preacher.   This offended and enraged them so that they took position at the outside of the church door, and as Mr. Sheffey went out they clubbed and beat him severely. These people were indicted in the Court of Bland County, and Mr. Sheffey summoned as a witness for the Commonwealth. He did not appear, and compulsory process was taken against him, and on his appearance in Court he endeavored to avoid testifying. The young men were convicted, when Mr. Sheffey with tears in his eyes, and a prayer on his lips implored the court to allow them to go unpunished, that they knew not what they did; that he had forgiven them, that he had asked the Lord to forgive them, and now asked the Court to forgive them, which in a measure it did.

Once while traveling to Wytheville, Virginia, he noticed a low hanging limb with a large hornets nest on the outskirts of the town.  As he entered the town, his attention was drawn to numerous men coming in and out of a very large house.  He approached a young man coming out of the house and  inquired what was the cause of the comings and goings at this home.  With vulgar sarcasm, the young man remarked that Sheffey must be rather stupid to not know that it was a house of prostitution.  After the young man left, Sheffey hailed two young boys to come to him.  He offered them a fifty cent piece for their help.  He told them of the hornets nest on the edge of town.  He asked them to carefully get the nest, plug the opening and bring it to him.  A little while later, the young boys came with the nest.  After paying them their reward, he walked up a side alley and gently opened a window on the first floor of the home.  He cast the hornets nest into the room and shut the window.  Smashing to the floor, the nest released a swarm of angry hornets.  All of a sudden, a panicked mob of men and women burst through the front and back doors of the house.  Sheffey had cleaned house!!

As has already been stated, Mr. Sheffey went to the Lord about everything he did, even about small things, which sometimes brought him into ridicule by some classes of people, but that did not in the least deter him. He believed that the Lord controlled the actions of animals as well as men, and in verification and illustration thereof the following story is told by a gentleman living a few miles south of Pearisburg, Virginia. Mr. Sheffey stopped at his house over night, and by Mr. Sheffey's direction his horse was turned on pasture. Mr. Sheffey, having an appointment for the next day and anxious to get off early, requested the gentleman to have his horse ready for him. The man went out very early to get the horse which he was unable to do, even summoning help, still the horse would not allow himself to be caught, nor would he be driven into the stable yard or lot. Finally the man gave up the effort to secure the horse, went to the house and informed Mr. Sheffey of the situation, and he went out with the man into the field where the horse was grazing, and requested the man to wait until he told the Lord about it. Down upon his knees he went and told the Lord of the inability of the man to bridle the horse and requested that He put it into the mind of the horse to stand and be bridled, and on rising from his knees he said to the man "you can now bridle the horse," which he immediately did. Many other such things occurred in the history of this man, which for want of space cannot here be related.

Whatever may be said of this peculiar man and his eccentricities,  he was a man who walked with and knew his God.  The brilliance of his itinerant ministry lit up the dark hollows, valleys and mountaintops of early Appalachia and  covered and filled them with the glorious light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Hello shook when he came to town.  He died in peace with God and man, and all who knew him revere his memory.  His mantle of ministry did not fall to the ground when he died.  Elijah's mantle fell upon Elisha at Elijah's departure.  Sheffey's mantle has been kept on hold until an  Elisha Generation would come along and pick it up.  That generation has come.  It is time to pick up this fallen mantle and finish what this old circuit rider started long ago!
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