History Leaves of the Methodist Tree
Compiled by Johnny Cordell
“Saint of the Wilderness”
In 1974 Author Jess Carr, after many years of research, completed his historical novel about circuit rider Robert Sayers Sheffey of Virginia (1820-1902). Brother Jared Wood had a copy of this book, and he asked if I would like to read about this particular circuit rider. It was an enjoyable and enlightened biography of an eccentric individual who rode the backwoods of Virginia, West Virginia and the fringes of Tennessee and North Carolina. He was not one that could be easily characterized but embodied attributes of many historical figures such as Bishop Francis Ashbury, the non-violent civil rights activism of Martin Luther King, the conservationist John Muir, the human and wildlife concerns of Gandi, and a touch of Mother Teresa.
Jess Carr’s biography of Robert Sheffey weaves a story of a unique man, in the true meaning of the word, the details of whose life entitle him to the mythical position he holds even today among the people of the South, where so many years ago he traveled his many circuits as an itinerant preacher. Born in 1820, raised in Virginia, and having spent a part of his early youth in the home of a wealthy Presbyterian uncle and aunt, there was little in his early background to explain his call to the Methodist ministry, his unusual conversion, and, against all odds, the eventual acceptance of his unorthodoxy by the hierarchy of his adopted church. And, ultimately, the adoration of an army of followers who came to believe him to be a Divine.
This book documents Robert Sheffey’s extraordinary gifts of exhortation, the depths of his caring about every single soul in the widespread territory he rode. The brutal rigorous, self-imposed schedule, as well as the unexplainable psyche and prophetic talents that truly earned him the title “Saint of the Wilderness”. It’s a detail story of this physically frail, yet incredibly strong man and the demons with which he had to wrestle, his personal deprivations and sorrows and triumphs, the beauty of his love for all living things and his unshakable faith and prayer petitions.
He was a man who believed and practiced a total integration with every facet of life, a man who showed a unique appreciation for every gift bestowed by a loving and very personal God. The tiniest bug and the most gigantic tree were friends who breathed a very special breath and paid a very special tribute of living testimony. This St. Francis of the wilderness carried his message and lived the example of his life for 63 years after his conversion. Although the extent of his own travel throughout his life was confined to parts of four states, his spiritual stepchildren still oversee the missionary posts of the world and sit in the highest counsels of government. He was only one of many who helped shape the real character of American frontier. No American may with impunity disregard the dynamic influence of the pioneer circuit rider. No American can disregard Robert Sayer Sheffey as one of the great chiefs among them. I encourage you to secure a copy of Jess Carr’s book, step back in history, and ride in the saddle with the man who was called the “Saint of the Wilderness.”
*Compiler’s note: Book can be bought on-line at Amazon.com for $36.87 or maybe Brother Jared Wood will loan you his copy.
Last month’s question: A bit of historical trivia in the age of Star Wars. What was the maiden name of Rev. Bob Power’s wife Carol? Carol’s maiden name was “Force”. Bob and Carol have since passed on to receive their reward, “May the force be with them”.
Next month’s question? What is the approximate membership of Chapel Hill United Methodist Church?