Robert Sheffey: The Power of Prayer

5 min

Two circuit riding preachers slowly rode their horses over the mountain ridge. A curl of smoke ascended from a distillery in the valley. The two preachers knew from local reports that this particular distillery had wrecked the lives of several families in the area. Lives were destroyed as Christians had backslid into drunkenness and rage. Men struck their wives in fits of drunken anger. Children cowered in fear of their enraged, intoxicated fathers.

The preachers reined their mounts to a stop. One of the two men dismounted from his horse and took a faded, worn sheepskin from his saddle. Draping the sheepskin on a rock beside the narrow trail, the preacher began praying. He asked the Almighty to send a mighty torrent of rain that would wash out the entire hollow and destroy the distillery forever. His surprised companion marveled at the boldness of his brother, noting that there was not a single cloud in the sky.

Yet within an hour’s time, a mighty storm arose from nowhere! The skies became black with rain clouds, and soon the valley was pummeled by torrents of rain. A forceful flash flood arose in the hills and soon overwhelmed the creek. The rushing flood waters washed out the entire distillery!

The residents of the valley were astonished at this mighty intervention of God. But Brother Robert Sheffey was not surprised. He trusted in a God Who said, “Is there any thing too hard for the LORD?” For Brother Sheffey, this dramatic occurrence was not at all out of the ordinary. The sudden, torrential downpour and overwhelmed creek were just another of many examples of God’s faithfulness in answering the petitions of His servant.

Robert Sayers Sheffey was born on July 4, 1820, in Wythe County, Virginia, in the mountainous southwestern corner of the Old Dominion. The Sheffey family was very prominent in western Virginia, and Robert’s parents, Henry and Margaret White Sheffey, were part of the upper classes of the county. Relatives included prominent businessmen, farmers, and even lawyers, statesmen, and judges. The Sheffeys were Presbyterians and brought up their children in formal religious instruction.

After the death of his parents, Robert and his siblings were sent to live with an aunt in the town of Abingdon in the next county. For further schooling, Sheffey was sent to Emory and Henry College. From there, he was expected to follow his older brothers into a career field, such as law or business. But the young man was unenchanted by university life. Searching for truth, Sheffey was converted at a Methodist revival meeting in Abingdon at the age of nineteen.

Sheffey’s family urged him to remain in the Presbyterian church and to seek formal ordination as a “gentleman.” But Robert Sheffey had tasted the power of God. He had seen the beauty of simple, unadorned singing. He had experienced the truth proclaimed by “unlearned and ignorant men” that had been with Jesus.

Sheffey determined that he would enter the service of His Lord, seeking God’s blessing and authority alone. In 1844, at age twenty-four, Sheffey married a young woman named Elizabeth Swecker. For a time, he farmed a small plot of land, served as a clerk in a store, and even taught children in a rural school.

But Robert Sheffey’s heart was more and more inclined to preaching the Gospel. He began to take opportunities that were presented to him for preaching from God’s Word. He loved preaching to simple mountaineers who had no formal church to attend. He called them from sin to salvation and pointed them to love his “sweet Jesus” Who had suffered and died for sinners.

After the death of his first wife, Sheffey left farming altogether to become an itinerant preacher. For the remainder of his life, he rode his horse all over the mountains of Virginia, spanning fourteen counties. His life was filled with countless hardships. He forded dangerous streams; traversed steep, rocky trails; slept under the stars; faced wild beasts, and even wilder mountaineers!

While Sheffey’s life seemed one of loneliness, yet he was never alone. He developed the habit to pray on a sheepskin that he kept constantly on his saddle. On this sheepskin, he would pray for hours by the side of the roads.

Sheffey was widely viewed by society as eccentric and peculiar. The man had a fondness for honey and for sugar. He loved animals and would show them compassion in their distress. It was not unusual for him to stop along the road to flip over wayward beetles or turtles that had somehow wound up on their backs. Sheffey was known to have once stopped by a puddle and collected all the tadpoles, transferring them to a creek where they would have better chances of survival!

As for his ministering to people instead of wildlife and critters, when he entered the pulpit, Sheffey would sometimes prostrate himself on the ground and pray silently while the audience sat in awkward silence. But invariably, when Robert Sheffey prayed, the Spirit of God moved in a mighty way.

Sheffey also had an unusual habit of holding his hand to his right cheek whenever he sang hymns. But he sang out mightily, and the Spirit of God blessed the singing as much as He did the preaching!

This itinerant circuit rider was once accused to his face of being peculiar in his habits! Sheffey answered his critic directly that Christians were expected to be “a peculiar people” (Titus 2:14). The critic admitted yes, that was true, but he said that Sheffey should not be so “childish” in his ways. Sheffey answered with a smile with another text of Scripture, “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein” (Luke 18:17).

The prayers of Robert Sheffey are still remembered in the valleys where he labored. He was known especially for his prayers against distilleries. The rainstorm and washed away distillery story presented earlier was not an isolated occasion. At another time, he prayed that a tree would fall on a moonshine still and smash it to the ground. Upon his praying this specific request, the largest tree in the vicinity fell! The remnants of the still were made (seemingly appropriately) into a pig pen.

Another time he prayed to Almighty God regarding three stills in the same valley. Shortly afterward, one burned to the ground. The second still was flattened by a large tree. The third still ceased operation when the moonshiner fell dead! Some whiskey makers and sellers left the valleys where Sheffey was ministering for fear of their lives.

But Brother Sheffey not only prayed against sin; he prayed for God’s servants. A Christian beekeeper and his family were suffering from a bad year, and Sheffey prayed that the bees would be restored to their former prosperity. God answered and it happened! A drought had brought suffering to a community of some faithful Christian farmers. Sheffey prayed for rain. Almighty God answered and the rain came! Yet another time, Brother Sheffey prayed that an honorable little boy would marry the nice little neighbor girl. Years later, God answered and they married!

Like the Lord Jesus, Brother Sheffey lived not to be ministered unto, but to minister. He once gave his horse away to a needy family. On several occasions, he gave away his coat to a mountaineer in need. When a farmer once told Brother Sheffey that he would attend the revival meeting if he only had a decent pair of pants to wear, Brother Sheffey opened his saddlebag and gave him a pair of trousers, saying, “I’ll be looking for you tonight.”

In 1864, Brother Sheffey married Miss Eliza Stafford. The Lord blessed the couple with one son, Edward, who became a comfort to his mother during the long periods of absence when Brother Sheffey was riding the circuit deep in the mountains.

Brother Sheffey died on August 30, 1902. Although he could no longer preach in the final days of ministry, he could still pray! God’s people flooded the mail with letters, asking Brother Sheffey to pray for them. He believed in an omnipotent God, and he saw the power of the Almighty. The inhabitants of those mountain valleys where he rode still remember his name with gratitude.

Edward Sheffey carried on his father’s faith, serving as a faithful and generous founding member of his Methodist church. Sheffey’s grandson went to Africa as a missionary of the Gospel. The legacy of Robert Sheffey, who believed in the Lord’s mighty power to answer prayer, will endure forever.

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This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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