Chelsen Vicari, evangelical program director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, recently penned a wonderful biographical piece about a Great Depression-era minister from the Blue Ridge Mountains.
A special thanks to Vicari who agreed to our publishing the piece here at The Washington Times. I know you’ll find it worth your time as you consider the impact one individual can make, even in the most difficult of environments.
The Minister Who Moved a Mountain, by Chelsen Vicari
If you ever visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, then you’re sure to hear wild stories of rough mountain people and their gritty Appalachian history. Old-timers will tell you tales of crafty bootleggers, notorious family feuds, and shadowy superstitions. But if you’re lucky, someone might tell you the astounding story of a simple Presbyterian preacher who moved a mountain closer to Jesus.
I married one of those rough mountain people from the Blue Ridge. My husband Eric is related, although “distant kin,” as he says, to Robert “Bob” Childress, a well-known mountain minister who during the early 20th century built six churches and served at least eight congregations across the nearly impassable peaks of the Blue Ridge. Curious, I sought out to learn more.
The Man Who Moved A Mountain was written by Richard C. Davis in 1970. It is the only published biography on Childress I could find, but if offers first-hand accounts into a little-known, yet the extraordinary ministry of a simple mountain man.
A Mountainous Mission Field
Smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression, Childress brought the Gospel to the deepest coves and hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It wasn’t easy. During this dark period of Appalachian history, there were multitudes of challenges facing the young preacher and his growing family.
No warm greeting was offered when Childress moved his family onto Buffalo Mountain in Floyd County, Virginia whose summit resembles a charging buffalo.
Here was a man of God who came to the mountains to preach against bitterness and hate, vices and violence, and spread the transformative truth and love of Christ. Meanwhile, his new neighbors were liquor distillers, bootleggers, drunks, and rifle-toting murderers mighty skeptical of outsiders.
Hardly any of the locals, then called mountaineers, ever stepped foot off their plots of land, much less traveled off the ridge. National news couldn’t quite make it that far up the mountains. There were neither paved roads nor bridges. Families were considered fortunate if their pantries contained a pail of apples and a little corn meal. Education was not much of an option and Christianity was given its limits.
During this dark period, the Blue Ridge was Primitive Baptist country. They are said to have ruled religion in the ridge with their liquor and guns. In his Childress biography, Davis wrote of the denomination, “It had roots in the Scriptures but thrived on superstition and fear and was kept alive only by man’s ageless hunger for worship.”
Primitive Baptist preachers were nicknamed the Hardshells, for they were staunchly intolerant of most everything from seminary educations to Sunday schools, late night services to new church buildings. Imagine the scandal when suddenly Childress encouraged the local children to attend his Sunday school and day school and began “sprinkling” babies at baptism.
A Rough Start
God knew exactly what He was doing by calling Childress to this mountain mission field. No city slicker would’ve survived. The people of the Blue Ridge needed a minister who spoke their language, and even then they weren’t excited about him.
Childress was a stubborn, hot-tempered mountain man who grew up at the bottom of “the mountain” in what was called The Hollow, Virginia. He was born in 1890 and his family was said to be “the poorest in a place where everyone was poor.”
“Our home, at best, couldn’t be called a happy one,” Childress wrote of his early life. “When I was not quite three, I got drunk. That’s the first thing I remember in my whole life… Brandy was god in our cabin. It was brandy that made life bearable.”
He was first introduced to Scripture at six years old. A Quaker college in North Carolina sent a young teacher to The Hollow to start a school and lead Sunday school. The schoolhouse was five miles away from Childress’ home, but his older brother insisted on all five children making the two-hour walk on Sundays.
As a teenager, Childress was a rowdy rebel. There wasn’t much to do in The Hollow for a teenage boy looking for excitement except to drink liquor, gamble and pick fights. That’s exactly what Childress did. By age 20, Childress was in total despair. “I was miserable and sick to my soul,” wrote Childress. “[T]wice I went out into the woods and put my pistol to my temple. But each time I put it down. I can’t tell you why.”
A local Methodist church held a revival a short time later. Childress was walking by and heard singing. He went in. When the minister gave an altar call, Childress surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. He wrote, “For the first time in my life I felt a power stronger than liquor and rocks and guns.”
Childress’ heart was heavy for his rowdy friends and family. He hated the corruption and despair he saw all around. So for two years he served as a deputy sheriff arresting Moonshiners and busting up distilleries. But after watching his fellow law officers steal the liquor they were supposed to confiscate, he knew the law couldn’t change Appalachia. But he knew Christ could.
He felt the Lord calling him to seminary. Childress desperately wanted to be an ordained minister. But by this time, he was 30 years old with only an eighth-grade education. His teachers and minister told him it would be impossible and encouraged him to focus on lay leadership.
Childress was determined to become a minister. He finished high school in one year. Seminary would be a harder feat. Childress was a penniless mountain man with a wife and five children. But through several miracles occurrences, he went on to graduate from Union Theological Seminary of Richmond at the top of his class.
After graduation, Childress was offered two jobs. One in a prosperous community in North Carolina. The other on Buffalo Mountain back in the Blue Ridge. But Childress knew God called him to seminary so that he could return to Appalachia. Transformation would soon move beyond the man to the mountain.
No towns or villages lay on Buffalo Mountain, or simply called “the mountain.” Only a few storehouses and dispersed cabins.
During the week, he would ride his Model-T along bumpy dirt trails to introduce himself to local families and invite them to a Sunday service. Often families explained they couldn’t attend because they felt ashamed to show up in their tattered clothing and barefoot. The next day Childress returned with second-hand suits and dresses.
When he learned of a widow, Childress would ride out to her cabin and chop firewood. If a family was ill, Childress would ride over with the food his own family was willing to spare. He worked hard to build friendships with some of the most feared mountaineers around. When moonshiners were arrested and thrown in jail, Childress would plead with the judge for their release. Still, gaining the mountaineers’ trust was a slow process.
Childress was a jovial man who loved to make others laugh. So he used jokes to try softening the mountaineers. During one visit a man told Childress he wouldn’t go to a church filled with “too many hypocrites.” Childress only smiled and said, “There’s always room for one more.” The man nodded and laughed before accepting the invitation.
Women and girls were the first to fill the little Presbyterian sanctuary and Sunday school classrooms. The mountain was filled with uncertain dangers for women. Childress’ church was a safe place to socialize and simply escape the harsh realities of mountain life for a while. The men needed more convincing.
“If you want a little excitement, try serving the Lord,” Childress often said during his sermons while rowdy men stalked outside. Childress didn’t hold back Gospel truths for the sake of feelings. His sermons tackled the sins destroying the mountaineers. He rebuked drink-induced abuse, killing, and gambling. Childress’ unwavering witness was met with hostility. Some pelted rocks at the side of his church. Others tried or threatened to kill the mountain minister during the middle of the service. But he never softened his sermons. He was just as stubborn as them.
Childress was a man of action. The Presbytery warned Childress to mind his own business on the mountain and just focus on his preaching. But Childress was unsatisfied with merely speaking against bad behaviors from the pulpit. His heart broke for the mountaineers. So he actively sought out ways to reform some of the harmful Appalachian habits.
Idleness was the mountaineers’ biggest obstacle to growth – both spiritual and fiscal. Childress sensed consistent work would distract the men from their constant drinking and fighting, and perhaps inch them closer to church. The problem was the Blue Ridge had few resources and so fewer opportunities. Tobacco, the cash crop at the time, was unable to thrive in the mountain’s hilly terrain as it did in the Piedmont just below the ridge. Some mountaineers had apple orchards. Others grew cabbage and potatoes. But the produce the mountain could yield was barely enough to feed the local population.
Timber is what grew on the mountain, Childress knew. But without trucks and roads, it seemed impossible for the mountaineers to haul loads of timber into nearby cities for a profit. “Does it matter?” thought Childress to himself. His goal was to move the men towards work and away from trouble-making. So he took out a loan, bought a second-hand sawmill and put some of the local men to work cutting timber. If they wouldn’t go to church, then at least they would go to work. It was a start.
The next project was construction. Childress wrangled together the men to build multiple church buildings across the area so that the mountaineers wouldn’t have to travel far from home to worship. Childress even got the Hardshells to join in on the work. He offered the Hardshells access to the building for their weekly meetings, so long as they helped with construction. A savvy means of unity.
The Mountaineers were still low on materials. So they took advantage of another natural mountain resource: rock. And so, Childress became notorious for his beautiful “rock churches” scattered across the Blue Ridge.
Childress chiseled slowly away at the hearts of the Hardshells, the moonshiners, the smugglers, the wife beaters, and the killers. In private, the mountain men asked Childress about repentance and salvation. Then the mountaineers slowly drizzled into his sanctuaries. Before long, Childress’ sanctuaries were overflowing.
A Lasting Legacy
In January 1956, Childress died suddenly of a heart attack. In his book, biographer Richard Davis included a snippet from the Roanoke Times:
In spite of snow and threatening weather, hundreds of people rode on those roads to pay tribute to one who loved his fellow man and never spared himself in the service of God. They crowded a large stone church overflowed into the church yard for the funeral of the Sky Pilot of the Buffalo Mountain country, and a Good Samaritan to many man, woman and boy and girl to whom, for more than a quarter of a century, he ministered.
A remarkable man, a remarkable career and a wonderfully fruitful ministry was Bob Childress. His personal friendship and his ministerial influence extended beyond the area dominated scenically by the lofty peak where he made his home, to include much of Virginia and portions of other states.
“He gave most of us all the upright we ever knew,” recalled mountaineer Steve Kemp to Davis. “He moved this ol’ Buffalo.”
A lot has changed in the Blue Ridge since Bob Childress. Then again, some things haven’t changed at all.
Looking about our current cultural climate, we are tempted to feel these days are the darkest they’ve ever been for the nation. I’m not sure I believe that anymore. The story of Bob Childress is not only eye-opening, it offers us hope for today.
Despite facing abject poverty, alcoholism, grief, domestic abuse and gun-wielding foes, Childress didn’t cave to culture pressers. He certainly didn’t soften his theology. But he did soften hearts and minds to Jesus.
The challenges we face look different, but sin is ever-constant. With unfaltering boldness in Jesus Christ and his teachings, we too can move a mountain or a city or a suburb closer to the Kingdom of God.
Note: This piece was published originally at the website of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.