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Two Books About Life-Changers

I recently happened on two books about two men. I had never heard of either book or either man before I saw these books, but in both cases just a little page-flipping made me want to know about them, the circumstances of their early lives and the events that changed their lives so that they became agents of positive change in the lives of people around them.

These were two men born in southern states—Virginia and South Carolina, to different races and very different cultures. Both men started life in extremely poor families in rural areas, with little or no opportunity for an education. Both men in their youth experienced the destructiveness of alcohol addiction, the proliferation of violence and hate, and the hopelessness that saturated the communities in which they grew. Both men heard the gospel of Christ in their teen years and both made their way stormily into the Christian faith and ministry. And each of these men became agents of God’s love, changing lives in their own home towns and reaching beyond into other areas of the country. Both used automobiles to travel to serve and preach, each one driving tens of thousands of miles per year—many times with no resources for fuel but the prayer of faith.

The first book I read was The Emancipation of Robert Sadler by Sadler and Marie Chapian, published in 1975 and revised in 2012. The second was The Man Who Moved a Mountain by Richard C. Davids, published in 1970.

Redemption from Twentieth Century Slavery

Robert Sadler was born in 1911 near Anderson, South Carolina. His family was black and poor. His father was abusive, and a heavy drinker, spending most of the little he earned on alcohol. His mother did her best to love and care for her children. She had borne so many children that, by the time her two youngest, Robert and Ella, were born, the older ones had already left home, with the result that the littlest ones did not know their names or even that they existed.

By the time Robert was five years old his mother and younger sister had died. His father had remarried—to a woman who soon grew tired of the burden of his younger children—offspring of another woman. Soon Robert’s father found a way to placate his new wife. He put Robert, with his two next-older siblings, Margie and Pearl on the wagon and drove to the plantation of a white family, selling the three of them into slavery. That family sold one of the sisters to another family just over the state line in Georgia, then gave the remaining two back because of their teenage daughter’s sensitivities. She had threatened to kill herself if her father did not free the children, so he took them back and dumped them. A week later Robert’s father found a plantation family who had no qualms about holding black people in bondage.

Robert’s father sold his young children twice. This second plantation was the place where five-year-old Robert would live the remainder of his childhood, until at the age of fourteen he finally (almost miraculously) walked away down the road into the outside world.

During his years on the plantation he would experience lots of hard work, first as a houseboy, then after a downturn, as a field laborer. He would experience alternately the respect and the hatred of the folks in the slave quarters depending on circumstances beyond Robert’s control. He would yearn for the love of a father, even hoping beyond hope that the abusive white master would be pleased with him, soften his heart, and allow Robert to go to school. He never did.

Child Robert did find love on the plantation—in the slave quarters. There was a couple who adopted him, giving him a home in their cabin. And there was old Miss Ceily who told Robert about Jesus, about praying, and about the necessity of surrendering to Christ all the hate and bitterness in the human heart. She was the one who told Robert that, contrary to the white folks’ doctrine, black people have souls, and can be saved and go to heaven because of Jesus who loves every person of every race. And, even though Robert would not come to a saving faith until he left the plantation, Miss Ceily was the one who faithfully planted seeds of the gospel in his life.

After freeing himself, 14-year-old Robert went back to town, found his older sisters who helped him, and met his dad, forgiving him while he was still living. Robert went to the industrialized north as many other southern blacks would and found paying work. Eventually he learned to read, married—and gave his life to Christ for the salvation of others. Although his ministry was not the kind that made headlines, he touched with loving service the lives of thousands of black, white, native American and others.

He kept his backstory under wraps for many years. It was too painful and embarrassing. Eventually he would share it with author Marie Chapian. I’m thankful for this book; it has given me lots to think about and led me into studies I never would have found otherwise.

How Could This Be True?

It could be the reader is dubious of a story of plantation slavery in the twentieth century. I was puzzled and taken aback also. I even had the fleeting thought, “maybe this is not entirely true,” so I did some web-searching to try to find other similar stories. What I found were lots of references to “Jim Crow” laws, revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the twentieth century, and this website about a book Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon (and a documentary film about the book).

We didn’t learn this in school, but there were lots of ways and means by which African Americans were enslaved into hard labor during the period after the Civil War up until the Second World War. Convict leasing was the major practice. After that was debt bondage. I suppose Robert Sadler’s story would fall under the guise of debt bondage. The plantation owner, if asked by a moral authority how he had the right to hold the children in bondage for labor, would have said, “I lent their daddy 85 dollars.” Some of the adult workers on his farm might have come from the jail, having been convicted of vagrancy, or other charge easy to stick on black men. Then once they were in bondage they would be easy to hold in place by debt (they were not paid as much as the value of what they consumed, thus they were indebted to the plantation) and violence.

The decade of Robert Sadler’s early childhood was the decade of the resurgence of white supremacy, the revival of the Ku Kux Klan, and in 1915 at almost the same time Robert was being sold to a plantation family, the iconic film “Birth of a Nation” fed flames that many thought had been extinguished years before.

The Story of a Tireless Church Planter

The book is The Man Who Moved a Mountain written by Richard C. Davis and published in 1970 by Fortress Press, an imprint of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Scots-Irish were Scottish Presbyterians and other dissenters in the British Isles who emigrated to Ulster County, Ireland during the time of King James I. Many of the descendents of these families, known in Great Britain as Ulster Scots, re-emigrated to other nations, mainly to the American Colonies, later known as the United States. The earlier settlers founded farms and towns in the fertile valleys of Virginia and North and South Carolina, but, as the good bottomland was taken up their children and grandchildren had to go higher and higher up into the hills and hollows to find land for their families to exploit. The Appalachian Mountains, though we in the present day think of of them as scenic and quaint, do not have many good places for large and productive farms. The settlers had to learn to use what they had available to them.

In the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia in the late 1800s the cash crops were corn (planted in small plots) apples, and trees—mainly the chestnut which dominated the Eastern forest of the United States. Supplemented by a few farm animals, that was the agricultural economy in this mountainous region. Corn and apples were a lot easier to turn into cash by making them into whiskey and brandy. And it was easy to drink what one did not sell.

It was on one of these homesteads that the subject of this book, Bob Childress, was born in 1890. The community of Ararat, Virginia was only about five miles from Mt. Airy, Andy Griffith’s town, just over the North Carolina line. But it did not resemble “Mayberry”. What Childress knew was a culture of drunkenness, poverty, and violence. Each family and clan made and carried out its own law. Government authorities in many locales did not interfere in local conflicts, fearing for their own safety.

The Mountaineer Who Wanted Something Better

There was never much to eat in the Childress home and when Bob was born, his mother was undernourished and didn’t have much milk for him. When he got colicky they pacified him with a rag soaked in molasses and brandy. His mother developed post-partum depression and roamed the woods for hours on end. One day Bob’s older brother Hasten, coming back from the mill, came upon the sheriff and a deputy with their mom in custody—in handcuffs. Hasten, about 14 years old, had a rifle with him and told the lawmen to release his mom. When they balked he brandished the weapon and insisted. They must have thought it better to release her than to fight and so she was taken home to recover.

A young girl, one of Bob’s dear neighbors, caught her dress on fire as she was fixing food for her siblings as her folks were gone several days drunk. She died, one of many deaths described in this story. Untimely and violent death was common, whether accidental, self-defense, self-inflicted, or just plain murder, and the mountain people, mostly Primitive Baptists, took comfort that it was God’s will—the time had come for that person and there was nothing to be done about it. Many times killers, often under the influence but sometimes not, were not prosecuted.

Bob tells of a Christmas when he was just three years old, being given enough brandy to make him drunk. He felt fine, but soon collapsed and slept. Everyone drank. He described both parents as heavy drinkers. They loved their children and did the best they could but alcohol addiction proved a heavy handicap and burden.

The Quakers sent a young teacher to the area and Bob’s older brother took it upon himself to make sure all the young ones got to school. It was five miles each way—two hours to get there and two hours back in the afternoon. They really enjoyed it but pressures of economy did not allow much schooling for most Blue Ridge children.

“Will I Kill a Man?”

Bob grew into a typical young man of his culture. His teen years were filled with drinking and fighting. At a funeral he heard the preacher say of a young man who died at the hand of another, it was meant to be, it couldn’t have been otherwise and Bob wondered whether fate had decreed that he would soon kill a man or be killed. One day playing cards he witnessed one friend stab another then hold him in his arms as he died. There seemed to be no reason—it just was. One day Bob got in an argument with a man in town and drew his gun on him. The man fired at him, but was so drunk he missed. Many times he considered suicide; there was nothing to live for. But the Lord had better plans for him.

By the age of twenty-one he had married and was doing somewhat better. He was working and raising some tobacco. His older brother urged him to finish his education. About this time there occured the infamous Hillsville massacre, where the head of a powerful family, on trial for murder, had his relatives come to the courthouse and attempt to rescue him. They killed several government officials and onlookers—right in the county courthouse, then scattered to hide out in the hills. Crowds of news reporters from all over came to town and young adult Bob Childress was inspired to enlarge his experience. He joined the posse and went out search for the outlaws. One by one the wanted men trickled in, many of them young boys, younger than he was. Bob came to the conclusion becoming a lawman was not good enough. There must be a better way to help his neighbors.

Education and Church

As a married man with a good wife and a child on the way Bob was motivated to give up drinking. He was thinking of right living, financial stability for his family as well as doing what he could to help the people of his community.

He took his wife to church, sometimes borrowing a horse and wagon to visit more than one church on a Sunday—trying to keep his mind off the urge to drink. There were Methodists, Presbyterians and Quakers, besides the numerous Primitive Baptists, who were known as Hardshell Baptists.

The Hardshell preachers were all laymen; educated preachers were considered unspiritual and unqualified in their culture. Bob Childress was not drawn to them—their satisfaction with the status quo, disdain of education and sometime hypocrisy did not move him to associate himself with their churches. He fellowshipped around and began to help with different churches, finally joining the Presbyterians because of their good work, good theology, and their non-sectarianism. They held open fellowship with other groups, which was important to Bob (as it is with me, your reviewer, JWP) because he did not want any barriers to helping people.

He and his wife Pearl were the parents of two little children when the Great War brought the flu to North America. When Pearl died Bob searched for strength. He repeated the Lord’s Prayer and sought a deeper relationship with God. Grieving for his wife and caring for the two children, he heard of a neighbor family who were all so sick with flu they didn’t have the strength to care for their little girl. He stepped in and helped—successfully. The child lived; Bob had begun the life of service he would become known for in the years to come.

He remarried, had more children, worked, dreamed, and—against all odds—got a college education and a seminary degree. He was ordained to the ministry and, because of his powerful and colorful way of preaching, got offers from churches in several places. But he was called by God and by his heart to go back to the mountain people who he loved; he lived and loved among them until he died in 1956.

This is the way he explained one of this theology lessons to a neighbor: “Moses gave us the laws. Jesus gave us love. Without love there can be no forgiveness. Where the law strikes, love heals. Law and love walk side by side.”

Mountain ministry Bob Childress’s way was not easy. Opposition came from many sides. People died needlessly and without God and he redoubled his efforts. His own sons nearly witnessed a violent suicide. A close neighbor, feeling blue one morning, had asked his wife to come back to bed and lie with him. But she was too busy and he went outside the house and blew his brains out. The children heard the shot, came running, and saw the results.

A Life Whose Effect Could Not Be Hidden

Bob ministered with all he had. He preached, he started schools, he joked, he gave people groceries and money. He arranged bank loans for people whose potential he believed in. He began a sawmill business in order to employ good men who needed work and to finance the construction of churches in the area. And he lobbied for the government to improve the roads. Second wife Lelia raised the kids, kept the house, took people in, and balanced Bob’s tremendous outgoing energy with a stable home environment. After so many years of an almost constant zero bank balance the kids had to encourage Lelia to save money secretly just so the family would have an emergency fund.

Bob Childress drove thousands of miles in a Model T Ford on roads that were barely passable in good weather, much worse in rain and winter, to minister regularly in a charge of several churches. He drove people to doctors and hospitals. In the 1920s, before integration was in vogue, he fellowshipped with and included local African Americans, inviting them to his services and visiting theirs. He went to the home of a notoriously mean man to invite him and his family to church. And they came. They came and their lives were changed. Others, seeing the lives of notorious sinners changed, were attracted.

The Childresses, with their neighbors and friends, planted at least seven churches in the area. Six rock-faced buildings and one frame one are there giving testimony, but even more lasting are the lives of many changed for the better and for eternity.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book call The Tipping Point in which he describes the process by which great changes come in society. They often start out small and gather momentum until they reach a tipping point and things become different. Bob Childress was a part of the changing of everything in the Blue Ridge of Virginia. He, and the Spirit he carried in him, were agents of change and the region tipped for the better. Thank God for men and women such as these.

The authors of both of these books did great service and wrote well. I would call them page-turners. Once you start you don’t want to put them down. And the lives whose stories are told here will leave their marks on your life.

A footnote: when I was helping my wife Ruth go through her dad’s books (he had passed away several years prior) we found a copy of The Man Who Moved a Mountain. So that, even though I have not known him in adulthood, I feel maybe God is winking again, just a wee little wink.