Slate Mountain, part of the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains, is about five miles east of Buffalo Mountain. The Blue Ridge Parkway cuts across it. You will recall Buffalo Mountain from my August 1 blog, the story of Pastor Bob Childress: a mountain man who ministered to his people, planting six churches. One of those churches was Slate Mountain Presbyterian Church (SMPC). On the internet, SMPC has the largest presence of any of Pastor Childress’ churches. That made it possible for me to not only find the pastor on Facebook, but also listen to their services now being offered online during the Covid-19 quarantine. And that led to me and my daughter travelling to Slate Mountain to meet Pastor Jeff Dalton and SMPC’s historian, Nelene Wood and her husband, Charles.
Nelene was born into the Underwood family, a name that is easily spotted on headstones throughout the church’s cemetery. Her parents were charter members. She began attending church services at two weeks, and as a child, never missed a Sunday unless she was sick or the family was away. She was baptized by Pastor Childress. Her family was not the typical backwoods type. Her grandfather was a farmer and owned a large, productive farm, passing it on to Nelene’s father. This only confirms Pastor Childress’ ability to unite people from the entire community through the preaching of Jesus Christ and to care for them all as a loving shepherd.
Charles Wood’s grandfather was also a farmer who owned a huge plot of land, part of which was donated to SMPC and on which the church stands. After the church was built, the land was deeded over to Pastor Childress—which shows just how easily such things were accomplished in those days!
Slate Mountain Church
The people of the community had built a little school on land purchased by the Floyd and Patrick County School Boards. On Sundays they held a church service in it and asked Pastor Childress to come and preach there whenever he could. By 1932, he was doing so on a regular basis, (in addition to preaching several other services in nearby places), and the SMPC people had decided they were ready to build their own rock church like the one at Buffalo Mountain.
This is when Pastor Bob went to visit John Whorley to ask for his helpful advice regarding the construction of the building. John, like Pastor Bob, was a tough mountain man. He had a reputation in the lumber camps where he worked because of his ever-present guns, brass knuckles, and police dogs. He was awed by Pastor Bob, who commanded respect without any of those things. He began to get acquainted with Bob, talking with him alone after prayer meetings. Eventually, the pastor asked John to accompany him as he made visitation rounds. Whenever they parted, Bob would pray with and for John, right there while John listened.
John was beginning to understand that Someone bigger was behind all that Pastor Bob did. So when he was asked to help with the building of the church, he took the job seriously. He summed it all up in a statement to the author of The Man Who Moved a Mountain. “It was hard work, for we met up with a kind of shale that had to be picked loose, piled into a barrow and hauled off. Nearly all of us were farmers, so we’d work a week, then go home and catch up on farming for a week.”
Vacation Bible School children enjoying watermelon
John had also given Pastor Bob an idea for financing part of the project. Each man made a pledge, and then worked off his pledge at the rate of one dollar a day. Presbytery gave a thousand dollars and Pastor Bob’s face and good standing with the bank in Willis was always good for a loan. So another two thousand dollars was obtained for cement and nails and other materials. It is noted in the church’s historical records that the entire community pitched in to help with the establishment and building of SMPC, and they continued to help even after that job was finished. Ollie Belcher was a devoted Primitive Baptist, and yet for over 20 years she walked to SMBC weekly to clean it even though she received no pay for doing so.
Meanwhile, John Whorley continued talking to Pastor Bob, not only going on visitations with him, but also discussing scriptures with him at the end of their time together. He began to study on his own as well, so that he could ask more questions of Bob the next time. John hesitated to join the church because he knew it involved a complete selling out of his past ways. But one day, he did indeed make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ and joined the church. With it, came the resolve to stop drinking and bootlegging.
He told Pastor Bob, “Preacher, I thank the Lord you’ve got plenty for me to do, for the more work I do the easier it gets to keep my promise.” Bob continued to give John new tasks. He took him to revival meetings and John made door-to-door visits inviting people to attend. John came to realize that God had supplied the strength to disentangle from his old life and fully embrace the new life he found in Jesus. Shortly after that, John became a Methodist preacher and began holding services in the entire area and counties beyond. He once told Pastor Bob: “I reckon by now I’ve preached everywhere I ever bought liquor, made it, or bootlegged it.”
Original Slate Mountain Church
Once the new rock church was completed, folks realized it stood on a unique location. Rain on the east roof ran down through creeks and rivers to Albemarle Sound and then into the Atlantic Ocean. Rain hitting the west roof found its way into the Mississippi River and then eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. Unknowingly, they had built their church on the continental divide.
But there would not be division among the members. Under Pastor Bob’s leadership, the church quickly grew. The building itself was completed in the fall of 1932 and was originally organized as a chapel under Buffalo Mountain Church. Then in 1939 they became a particular congregation, with 65 members. By 1940, 12 more had joined and the church voted to accept a budget for the next year of $113.75. Fifty dollars was the pastor’s salary, ten dollars for benevolences, and $3.75 for the minister’s annuity. Nothing was allocated for miscellaneous.
SMPC never held back in its outreach to the community. There were Sunday morning services, evening services, and prayer meetings between Sundays. There was Sunday school for the children and Bible school during the summer. Sometimes the Bible school combined children from Buffalo Mountain church with attendance at nearly 100 children. Sunday school teachers even ventured beyond their walls, starting outpost Sunday schools in places like Mayberry and Stamping Birches. For a while, Nelene Woods remembers, Pastor Bob had an old school bus that he used to drive children from one community to another.
Nelene and Charles Underwood
Nelene doesn’t recall a lot about Pastor Bob, but she does remember him as a “very jolly type person,” she says. “He is pictured in a lot of write-ups as being a hot-tempered man. He may have been, but I never saw it. I did know he was strict. You didn’t come into his church and misbehave. You were quiet and reverent. You dressed properly.”
“I remember going over to the manse when I was just a kid,” Nelene continues, “and I always thought this was so funny. Around here we had biscuits and gravy for breakfast and felt lucky to have a bowl of corn flakes. He was eating shredded wheat. I’d never seen that and thought it was the funniest thing. The manse itself seemed like a huge house to me. You had to climb the steps to the front door forever. I remember the inside of the house real well.”
Pastor Bob loved the people of SMPC. They always welcomed him and it was a rare Sunday that he didn’t return home after a service with beans, apples, cornmeal, ham, and bacon. He loved the singing at SMPC and also began integrating services from time to time by inviting members from an African American church in Squirrel Creek to come and sing. But there were also worship services together and SMPC folks travelling to the Squirrel Creek church to worship on occasion.
Pastor Jeff Dalton
Pastor Bob’s seemingly boundless energy did begin to diminish. It was while he was hauling stone for SMPC’s building addition that there were signs something was wrong. He started to overheat and had to stop before the job was done. His doctor had urged him to slow down for years, but to no avail. A few days later, in the late months of 1954, he suffered a stroke. At the time, he was leading as many as 14 services in multiple churches in a week, and driving an average of 40,000 miles a year. Finally, it was time to slow down; and sadly, he announced to the SMPC congregation that it was time for them to find a new pastor. A year later, Rev. Thomas Hall became the pastor.
God’s blessing has remained on SMPC through the years—through several pastors, including two of the three Childress sons who followed in their father’s footsteps to become ministers of the gospel, and then one more Childress, a grandson.
For the first few years into the 21st century, SMPC had only interim pastors. Things were getting discouraging. Early in January 2008, Jeff Dalton was having dinner at a restaurant in nearby Christiansburg when he was confronted by an SMPC member. “Don’t you preach?” she asked. ”Yes, ma’am,” he said and then she asked if he would be interested in coming out to SMPC and filling in for them. Jeff said he would, and that began a couple years helping out with “filling in” to accepting full time pastoral duties in 2010.
Sanctuary of Slate Mountain Presbyterian
Pastor Jeff Dalton comes from a very interesting background. He calls himself a “denominational mutt.” Growing up in the local town of Willis, he first attended the Church of the Brethren with his family and as a teen switched to Willis Presbyterian, another of Bob Childress’ stone churches. But it had by this time become interdenominational, and it was here that Pastor Jeff says he was saved and baptized. Later in his teens, he switched to a Holiness Pentecostal church, because they used drums and he was a drum player. He stayed there until he graduated from high school and then he fell into the wrong crowd and began to drink. He knew it was wrong but the pull was strong.
His parents’ solution to this bad behavior was to call on friends they had in the police department. The outcome was that on Friday nights when Jeff planned on going out with his drinking buddies, a patrol car would show up at his house, inviting him to go riding around. He had always planned on doing something with mechanics, but during those nights of riding around with the police, they talked him into being a police officer.
Jeff tells the next part of the story: “That straightened me up a little bit, but didn’t clean me up. I was still drinking a lot. In 1993 I woke up one Sunday morning just hung over really bad, and I called out to God and I said, ‘God you just gotta help me.’” Jeff realized that it was up to him to make a decision to obey God, or not. He continues: “So I straightened up, and quit drinking.”
Stone work of Slate Mountain Presbyterian Church
In 2001, he felt called by God to preach. He spoke to his pastor about it at Willis Full Gospel Church. His pastor encouraged him to prepare a sermon and wait and see what happened. Jeff says he was beginning to think that he—and not God—had come up with the whole idea, when about a year later, a pastor finally said to him, “I know you’re law enforcement, but would you come speak at our church?” Jeff agreed and then began to preach a couple Sundays a month.
Jeff believes the people of SMPC really did well to hold together so long without a full-time pastor. They were trusting God to continue the vision they believed God had for their church. “They were solid,” Pastor Jeff says. “I think it was about down to 30 or 35 people the first Sunday. I didn’t have anything against Presbyterians at all. But I came out of Pentecostal where things are, you know, a little bit disarrayed at times. I just didn’t know how this would be, but it’s been an awesome fit. The people have accepted me. We’ve grown together. I remember the first Sunday that I walked in as pastor, I asked God to fill up the sanctuary. He knew I couldn’t handle it then. I was too new, too green; but we’ve grown together. There are times we have over 100 on a Sunday. I’m just a pastor who really listens to God. I want Him to direct everything.”
One of the first things that got accomplished shortly after Jeff became pastor, was a switch from the Presbyterian Church USA to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. “That switch was a hard one,” Pastor Jeff reminisces. “I prayed God’s grace over us. I cherish this church and will protect them. I know that I am ordained to be here right now. I’m proud to stand in the pulpit that Bob Childress stood in. He was a wonderful man. He clearly had a vision from God. To go out and start all these churches. I could see a man having a vision to build one church, but he had a vision for this community. It’s quite humbling sometimes to think about standing where he stood. And all the saints that have stood here. The scriptures tell us we are surrounded by a mighty group of witnesses and I think [about] that when I stand here. All the people that have stood on Bob Childress shoulders.”