I had just moved to Lynchburg, Virginia when I discovered a unique bookstore. The kind that makes you feel at home, where you can sit in an easy chair or have a snack at the café and just read. One of the treasures I found was a book entitled The Man Who Moved a Mountain. This story about a Presbyterian minister in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains during the first half of the 1900’s absolutely captivated me.
Here was a man clearly used by God to impact a large mountain community. The story of his life gripped me so much, I checked online to see what was left of the work he had begun—which ultimately ended in me traveling to Buffalo Mountain to meet the descendants of some whose lives had been impacted by Pastor Bob. Today’s blog will be a longer read than usual, but a fascinating and inspirational one. Throughout you will find pictures my daughter, Kimberly, took on our visit and some given to me by the folks we met with. This is a two-part series. Next time, I will share the story of one of Pastor Bob’s churches still thriving today.
Bob Childress was born on January 19, 1890 in a place known as “The Hollow.” The families that settled in the mountains had come from the mountains of Scotland and Ireland in the 1700’s, looking for the freedom to bear arms and still whiskey. They made their way into the mountains of the new country and broke off into clans, each claiming their own plots of land. They were self-sufficient—teaching their sons to hunt at an early age, raising cattle and gardens to provide the food they needed throughout the year. Their seclusion led to a lack of education, and even laws that applied to those living in nearby towns were not enforced in these outback communities. They lived by their own codes. Shootings, stabbings, and fighting occurred on a regular basis, often as a result of drunkenness; and telling tales about these incidents provided the main entertainment.
One of Bob’s earliest memories was getting drunk at the age of three during a Christmas season when aunts, uncles, and cousins celebrated together for days at a time. Drinking started early on in life and no one gave it a second thought, believing that since the Lord made both apples and corn, He obviously intended that liquor be made from them. In telling his story, Bob referred to his father as a “liquor-head.” When he was sober, he worked hard; but that was not often, and it was difficult to feed nine children with such a lifestyle. He hired himself out as a timber cutter or farmhand but the jobs never lasted long.
Consequently, the family moved often from one one-room cabin to another, because the rent quickly fell behind. Bob’s mother was also a heavy drinker, common in their culture. His parents took swigs from a bottle first thing every morning. At breakfast, his mother passed the bottle around to the children. She had been taught by her folks that it was good for children and kept away diseases.
When Bob was six, the Quakers sent a young woman missionary to The Hollow to start a school and a Sunday school. Bob remembers his older brother taking him and five of his siblings to the school—a distance of five miles, or a two-hour walk. When one of the littler children grew tired of the walk, his big brother, Hasten, would carry them on his shoulders and play his breath harp to keep their focus off the long and tiring walk.
Bob loved both school and Sunday School. Even when his siblings did not want to travel so far on Sunday, Bob went alone. He loved the Old Testament stories—his favorite was Daniel and the lions’ den. He wondered at the kindness and caring spirit of the lady missionary. Being no kin of his, he couldn’t understand why she should care about him. One particular day, after he fought a freezing sleet storm to get to school, she stopped the class upon his arrival, hugged him, and placed him near the stove.
When Bob was 14 and had finished seventh grade, his brother, Hasten, married and left home. Miss Sally, the missionary teacher, also married and left the area. Bob was heartbroken over both losses. That’s when he began to really drink and fight. He had already learned how to hurt someone, but he began to practice the ability to “rock.” That is, throwing a rock so that it did the most damage. In his first big fight, a rock hit him behind the ear, knocking him out and almost killing him. He learned how to fight mean, mountain style. He longed for the day when he would be old enough to have his very own gun.
Through his teen years, Bob drank and got into fights more and more. His reputation grew as a tough man. Arguments between his peers often ended in stabbings or shootings to death. The mountain people viewed the murders as God’s intended time to die for the lives lost. Bob began to wonder whether the Lord planned for him to kill a man or be killed.
Young Bob Childress
Bob was the life of the party. He joked and had a magnanimous laugh, but he could also lose his temper quickly. One day while playing cards with friends, one of them hit him over the head with a bottle. He was knocked out and when he came to, everyone was gone. His head was bloody and throbbing. He felt completely alone and wondered if anyone cared about him. He passed his 20th birthday, drunk the majority of time.
This was his condition one day when he found himself wandering six miles from home. He heard singing and stumbled into a Methodist church revival service. At the altar call, he felt an urge to go forward. So he did. There, he prayed and found himself enveloped in peace. He slept like a baby that night, without the help of alcohol. The next morning, he left his pistol on the table, and returned to the revival that evening and every evening until the revival ended—although his life would not change drastically just yet.
However, he did begin to ponder his life. What would become of him? Would he turn out any differently than his friends or family, or would he get caught up in the same drink/fight/sober cycle? He knew that was not what he wanted. He decided the first step was to go back to school, and he entered the eighth grade at the age of 21 at the same mission school where he had finished seventh grade, six years earlier. It was there he also fell in love with a girl he had known his whole life, Pearl.
He was intent on marrying her; so one day he boldly drove to her cabin, and began to load her things. Amidst the yelling and screams of her family, she got in beside him and they ended up in the Methodist parsonage where they became husband and wife. With this new responsibility, he vowed to take care of her, dropped out of school, and began to work hard. Even her family was won over.
A view from Childress Road
In 1912, the world got a lot bigger for Bob Childress. In the town of Fancy Gap, which was only a few miles from The Hollow, lived a family with the last name of Allen. When two of their teens got into trouble with the law for breaking up a church service with rocks, their uncle beat up the deputy sheriff who had arrested them. Uncle Floyd was then arrested and later stood trial. It was pretty certain he would be sentenced to a year in jail—and no Allen had ever been to jail. So on the day of the trial, a group of Allens raided the courtroom shooting everyone in sight, killing five—among them the judge, the prosecutor, a sheriff, and a juror—and wounding several others including Uncle Floyd. As quickly as it happened, the shooters galloped off and hid in the mountains for several weeks.
Bob decided to join the posse that was put together to search for the Allens. The story gained national attention and exposed the lifestyles of the backwoods mountaineers to the rest of the world. Able to meet newsmen from faraway places and talk to law enforcement officials, Bob came to realize that the way he and the mountain people lived was not the way of most Americans. He told Pearl that the way they believed about killing was not what others believed. While he had been slowly realizing this, he also saw that because of this incident folks outside the mountains were calling the mountain people evil. Yet these were a people he loved, and he didn’t see them as evil.
After several weeks the Allens were caught, and two of them, a father and son, were sentenced to the electric chair. Meanwhile, Bob made an earnest decision to stop drinking. While Sunday was often the heaviest day of drinking in the mountains, since no one worked, Bob decided that attending church that day would help him to abstain from liquor. So, he and Pearl drove from one service to another every Sunday. At one service, an elder spoke to Bob about what it meant to live religion. It wasn’t only about going to church, he said. It was about living—the way you talked, the way you worked, the way you cared about your neighbors, even your enemies. It was doing what was right all the time.
The Childress Manse
In 1918, The Hollow failed to escape the Spanish flu epidemic. Several of Bob’s family members succumbed to it, including Pearl. Her loss overwhelmed Bob and the two children they now had—a boy, three, and an 18-month-old baby girl. Bob slept between them at night, and they often fell asleep together in tears. But during this time, Bob began to pray, “Not my will, but thine be done.” He realized that he had been living according to his own will and it was time to accept God’s leading, wherever that might be. In the next few weeks, he would reach out to others who had the flu, caring for them when no other family members would venture near them.
In those times, when a young man found himself a widower with young children, it was customary to give the children to the nearest relative, but Bob would have none of that. He determined to care for his children, teaching and nurturing them, and worked hard to provide for them. For two years Bob served as a deputy, hoping that by enforcing the law, the mountain folks would come to change their ways. Rather, he became convinced that killing and drinking was going to continue despite the law, so he returned to his original vocation of blacksmith.
By now Bob had become convinced that the way to change things in the mountains was to care about the people. He grew a reputation of helping those in need of some kindness. But even this was not without trials. Those who knew the old Bob continued to pick fights with him—but to no avail. He never missed a Sunday service and took to looking out for trouble-makers who tried to disrupt services. He believed that wherever a meeting took place, was holy ground. Eventually he fell in love again. This time, to the “prettiest girl in The Hollow,” Lelia. They were married in August 1919.
A new Presbyterian missionary had come to town and begun to hold Sunday school in the bush arbors around the area. By this time, Bob had become well known to all the pastors, and was often asked to lead Sunday school classes or pray during services. His kindness and caring spirit, his laughter and friendliness, and perhaps, most of all the changes in him, were drawing people to services that had never been interested before. From his study of the Bible, he became convinced that people needed to hear about how Jesus loved them—and when they could understand that, their lives would change.
The Childress headstone
A deep friendship developed between the Presbyterian missionary, Roy Smith, and Bob. One night during a talk, Bob said, “I’ve been thinkin’ hard, Roy, and I can’t let it alone. We need help here. We’re poor and ignorant and lost, and most folks don’t even realize it….I’ve made up my mind. I want to be a minister.”
Roy not only encouraged Bob’s vision, he helped. He studied the Bible with Bob, and other books as well. Bob was an avid student. Bob, Lelia, and all the children were baptized and joined the Presbyterian Church. However, the amount of education needed to become ordained seemed almost impossible—high school, college, and seminary. Eleven years. Now, with a wife and four children to provide for as well. But Bob was determined. After all, he knew that with God all things were possible! In September he began high school, the same day that his oldest son began first grade. Together, they travelled back and forth to school every day.
Within a month of Bob starting ninth grade, he was promoted to tenth grade, and by the end of the school year he was told his high school learning was completed. The Childress family was beginning to see unexplainable provisions as Bob enrolled in Davidson College, 200 miles away in North Carolina. With another baby on the way, the entire family made the move there. Money was tight but somehow there was always just enough.
The first Christmas, there wasn’t enough money to buy any presents for the children. Not even a Christmas dinner. Bob began to wonder if God was behind his decision to be a pastor. But boxes suddenly arrived at the house, full of clothing, toys, and food—enough food to last a couple weeks! Every child had something, even the newborn baby. No one ever admitted to sending the packages, and Bob and Lelia never found out who it was. More of the same was to follow.
At the end of his first college year he was called into a meeting with his professors. They advised him to leave college and go to seminary. After all, he was already 32 years old, and financing was hard to come by. Actually, what the professors were attempting to tell him was that he wasn’t cut out to be a pastor. His speech was rough. He looked and acted like a mountaineer. The professors encouraged him to spend the summer as a pastoral intern in a mountain church to see if this really was his calling.
Bob agreed to the summer internship, but hoped he would return to college in September. He travelled alone to the place that he had been advised needed a pastor—to Mayberry, Virginia. Bob was familiar with the town, which was not too far from The Hollow. Services were held in a school, and Bob held prayer meetings in a brush arbor. He preached against drinking and killing, which angered many in his hearing. To retaliate, men would sometimes stumble into Bob’s services drunk and causing a raucous. Bob’s temper would boil.
The story is told of how Bob hurled a chair at two drunken men who were causing a disturbance in the back. He followed the chair, and grabbing the men by their collars, moved them toward the door. Folks in the congregation stopped singing to help but he urged them on, “Keep singing. You know the hymn.” After removing the men, he returned to the pulpit to preach.
Buffalo Mountain Presbyterian Church
He even held revival services, believing that he was fighting evil forces. After no one came forward at an altar call, he threw a chair into the center aisle, exclaiming, “Devil, get out of this church. You’re not a-goin’ to stay here. I’m a-goin’ to run you right out!” Seventeen people made professions of faith that night.
Outside the pulpit, people were amazed at how gentle in spirit he was. He carted the sick to doctors in towns too far for them to walk to. He bought wheel chairs for crippled folks who hadn’t gone anywhere in years. He saw the need for more school teachers and a church building. He wrote to the Presbytery but got no response. Finally, he unloaded his heart to Roy Smith, telling him that he wanted to go immediately to seminary. There was so much to do, and this schooling was really holding him up. Roy knew there was no point in arguing with Bob. Together they travelled to Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Although administrators refused to break the rules. Bob prevailed, offering a plan of renting his own house and just attending classes.
Twice a month during that first year at seminary, Bob would return to Mayberry to preach. The roads were little more than dirt paths and the trip often took him eight to twelve hours each way, completely occupying his weekend. But God was in control. An article in the “Presbyterian Survey” later described it this way:
“When he entered Union Seminary no one thought he could do the work. He was refused a scholarship or a house rent free as would normally have been his due as a married student. Nevertheless, in the first semester he made a high record in every class. After having made so splendid a start, Mr. Childress attracted attention, and that great judge of men, Dr. Walter W. Moore, who at first had advised him against the ministry, came to him and personally apologized. Instead of giving him one scholarship, Dr. Moore gave him two, and his choice of all the houses on the campus. The First Presbyterian Church [of Richmond], to their eternal credit, gave several hundred dollars a year to him in the seminary.”
A better hunting trip
Seminary taught Bob to tone down his sermons, but he retained his humor and learned how to joke as he pointed out the truth. He interned at Mayberry each summer during his seminary years. The people knew he loved them, felt the warmth in his voice, and they listened. As he was finishing up seminary, Bob was offered a position by Presbytery. It was an area called Buffalo Mountain, Virginia, that was known for moonshining, killing, and attempted murder. Bob was familiar with it. His answer to Presbytery: “I’m a mountain man and I believe that’s where the Lord wants me to go.”
On June 2, 1926, Bob and Lelia and their growing family headed to Buffalo Mountain. Bob’s official ministry had begun. He was to serve there over the next three decades. Because of his ministry, the community was impacted and countless lives were changed. During that time Bob started six churches, including the one on Buffalo Mountain, and he continued to pastor at Mayberry as well. All of the churches were built by the labor of the congregants. Six of them are made of rocks that were collected and hauled to the building location by church members. All seven churches still stand solidly today. He encouraged education, building schools, and hiring teachers. Bob and Leila had six children together, and Leila was the mother that Pearl’s two babies came to know and love as their own.
Bob normally preached five sermons at five different churches each Sunday, travelling over 100 miles. During the week he logged even more miles, as he helped people, held prayer meetings, Bible schools, and revivals all across the region.
The Welcome sign as you enter Buffalo Mountain Presbyterian Church
As I travelled to Floyd County last month to visit Pastor Bob’s territory—I spotted Buffalo Mountain from afar. You can’t miss it—it so resembles the back of a buffalo. The land is cleared now for the most part, though still beautiful. Roads make travel to bigger towns and cities easily accessible. I thought about how different things might be in this mountain country if God had not raised up Bob Childress, changed his life, and called him to minister to these people. His legacy goes on. Long gone are the killings and the stills. Pastors and missionaries have since been raised in those mountains and gone from them to preach the gospel. Started by a man who loved God, loved Jesus, and preached the good news to a people he loved. Certainly the glory belongs to God!
(All quotes and information for this story were taken from The Man Who Moved a Mountain, by Richard C. Davids, Fortress Press, 1972)