Monday, August 26, 2013

Voiceless Women: Elizabeth Zwecker Sheffey

BJU's 1977 film "Sheffey" leaps lightly across the protagonist's marriage to Elizabeth Zwecker, a union which spanned more than a decade, allowing her just five nameless seconds of the two-hour movie: "I did have a wife," the Sheffey character allows, "but she died ten years ago."

That lonely sentence piqued my curiosity. But when I got my hands on the biographical novel on which the "Sheffey" screenplay was based, I was soon so disillusioned I had to put the book aside for many months--a rarity for me. Not only did the movie version omit the first Elizabeth Sheffey, it showed Sheffey as father to only one devoted son--passing silently over the six children he fathered with his first wife.

As a Quiverful "sister-mom", I found myself identifying with Sheffey's wife, with his children, with his sisters-in-law. I was repulsed by the callous way this "saint of the wilderness" treated his wife and family. I wondered why Unusual Films chose to leave out that--to me, significant--part of the story. By then, though, I was realizing how frequently Christian biographers painted their subjects only in bright, cheery colors.

Here, then, is the story of that wife that Robert Sheffey "did have", drawn largely from Jess Carr's now out-of-print book The Saint of the Wilderness.

* * * * * * * * *

Elizabeth Zwecker was born in 1817 and spent her entire life near Cripple Creek in Wythe County, Virginia. Elizabeth had little education. She was apparently introverted and sensitive, probably illiterate, a melancholy temperament, perhaps? Life wasn't easy in Cripple Creek, but the Zweckers were a large family (four girls, five boys) and Lizzie was especially close to sisters Leah--an "old maid" in her thirties--and Sarah, who was just two years older than Lizzie. After being abandoned by her first fiance, Elizabeth was in her mid-twenties and gun-shy when Robert Sheffey proposed marriage. She turned him down at first, then reconsidered his offer.

Who was this generous schoolteacher who was so taken with her? Robert Sheffey had been raised by a well-to-do uncle and aunt, who brought him up in a mild Presbyterian tradition in Abingdon, VA. After his uncle's death, the young Sheffey fell in with a different crowd, which indirectly led to a religious conversion at a lower-class revival meeting. As a result of this and other tensions, Robert was estranged from his aunt, leaving the comforts of her home and heading off to have his own youthful adventures which acquainted him with the more rough-hewn side of life in Virginia. He was eventually persuaded to attend college for a while but was a dismal orator, frequently violated curfew, and never could muster much appreciation for higher education. Wisdom, he explained, was more valuable than knowledge anyway.

The increasingly eccentric young man was increasingly attracted to lively revival meetings and didn't mind traveling long distances to participate in them. After he dropped out of college, he was employed at a store for a while. When locals invited him to take the tiny school along Cripple Creek, Robert accepted. And then he fell in love with Elizabeth Zwecker.

Elizabeth was 26 when she married the little schoolteacher, three years her junior. He could read, write and teach; he noticed details no one else paid attention to; he was never at a loss for words and he was so sure of himself! He could have had a city girl with smooth hands and a parasol, but he had chosen her. How she wanted to be worthy of his love! Everyone liked Robert, and he would stay by her side always.

The newlyweds lived with her parents for the first couple of years. Robert, who was teaching school at the time, missed the birth of his first child. As the arrival of their second child drew near, Robert continued to travel all over Virginia to attend revival meetings, mixing with the audiences and encouraging potential converts to repent. For a while, his brother rode along on these trips, but Daniel decided the travel was too exhausting. Robert found the trips invigorating, always meeting new folks, staying in the homes of strangers.

And while Robert traveled, friends and relations were constructing a new cabin for the growing family. Sure, he helped with some of the work, but others did the lion's share. Robert would include the building project in his lengthy classroom prayers which bored and confused his students who expected to see someone else standing the room when they peeked from behind their folded hands. Two of the four rooms were still unfinished when the family of four moved in at Christmastime. They were also $100 in debt, which worried Elizabeth.
Not the Sheffeys' cabin

By the time the school year came to a close, Robert was itching to be back at his hobby--and maybe not just exhorting this time, but even preaching. He tried to help Elizabeth get the garden in, but he was really daydreaming a sermon and had trouble multi-tasking.

The babies kept arriving: James and Hugh were followed by Daniel in 1848 and Sarah in 1849. Sarah's pregnancy had been rough for Elizabeth, who begged her husband to stay close to her for a while. So while his wife slowly and painfully recovered from the birth, Robert curtailed his travels, staying within a day's ride of the cabin all summer long, thus discovering many tiny church groups he had hitherto overlooked. At one such meeting just twenty miles from home, he had his first opportunity to preach.

Robert went through the motions of teaching the following school year, again helped Elizabeth with the garden, and tried not to make too many trips that summer. But he had found his passion. He would join the Methodists, he determined, and maybe he would even become a licensed preacher. He forced himself through another year of teaching, itching for summer to arrive. Elizabeth was pregnant again, but James was six and could be a help. Leah and Sarah Zwecker often came by to help their sister with her house full of children.

Robert made his first missionary journey early that spring, in April, before the garden was even planted. But he was at home in August when Elizabeth delivered Margaret. This time, she hemorrhaged so badly that she could hardly hold the infant, let alone feed her. Robert called a doctor the following week, who said Elizabeth needed rest. Robert negotiated with a slave woman's owner for her service as a wet nurse and tried to stay close to home. He studied the Bible, read the newspaper he subscribed to now, helped in the garden, and taught school.

After a few months, Elizabeth had improved enough to visit the city with Robert, but she was anxious about her health, still unable to breastfeed little Margaret, and she dreaded the arrival of another spring. "Please don't leave me--stay home with us," she begged him. And come summer, she was still far from well. Robert planted more crops that year and imagined getting a license to preach in local churches. That fall, Elizabeth helped her husband as she was able, until he decided she should save her strength. Poor Elizabeth was pregnant again.

She was 35 when she pushed baby John out into the world in 1853, her sixth delivery in less than nine years. A month later, she was still frail, able to stand up for only an hour a day. They had to hire another wet nurse. Robert promised he wouldn't leave them, but he made exceptions: a trip to see a dying slave from his childhood home, visits to the Methodist district presiding elder to seek a preaching license.

Poor Elizabeth wished Robert would stay put. Months after the birth, she continued to battle hemorrhages. The doctor put her on bed rest and Sarah and Leah took turns helping with their six nieces and nephews. After Christmas, as Elizabeth's life continued to leak away in red blotches, Aunt Sarah moved in with the family to stay. Two of the older kids were home sick with mumps in February, 1854 when Elizabeth suffered a massive hemorrhage and bled to death in her bed. She was 36 years old.

Though Elizabeth's story ends there, she lived on in the hearts of her grieving husband, her loyal sisters, and her motherless children. Sarah and Leah Zwecker had grown close to their nieces and nephews and were glad to share the responsibility of mothering them in their sister's stead, leaving Robert free to travel as he chose. And he did choose, after his initial sorrow. He left teaching and took up independent itinerant work for the Methodists--praying, preaching, and discouraging the distillers of moonshine whiskey.

Robert Sheffey
As the years passed and the older boys left home, one to join the Confederate Army, another for employment and further education, Sarah Zwecker urged Robert to allow the remaining children to move in with their grandparents and doting aunts and uncles. The younger two had no memories of their mother at all, but were very attached to the aunts who had raised them from infancy. Robert withheld his blessing on this plan, however. He had met an attractive woman on his journeys and had begun to build a new castle in the air.

When Robert Sheffey announced his plans to marry Elizabeth Stafford and move his family to another part of the state, his sister-in-law was incredulous. Aunt Sarah had devoted over nine years of her life to raising her nieces and nephews, while their father traipsed all over the countryside, and she became their advocate now.

For nearly a decade, the Zweckers had been all the family these young ones had known. And Robert--this man known far and wide for his obsessive compassion for the smallest creatures: rescuing tadpoles from a shrinking puddle with his handkerchief, righting overturned beetles and moving insects away from wagon wheels, insisting on the best care for his horse--this preacher wanted to uproot his children from their home and give them a new mother they'd never met? Robert was always quick to make demands of his hosts for his own comfort (requesting different bedding or dishes prepared a particular way) when he stayed with strangers, yet when it came to the emotional needs of his own flesh-and-blood, he seemed both deaf and blind.

In the end, Sarah's pleas prevailed. Robert did remarry in 1864, but Elizabeth's children were settled at the Zwecker home "in a manner that was pleasing to all". Robert let the empty cabin out to tenants and split his non-preaching time between visits to his children in Cripple Creek and stays with Eliza and his new son Eddie in Giles County. Unlike the first Mrs. Sheffey, Eliza knew from the start that she was marrying an itinerant Methodist and their largely long-distance marriage was a happy one. They are buried side by side in a churchyard in Trigg, VA.

Biographer Jess Carr wrote in his introduction: "Perhaps this old Methodist circuit rider was really crazy after all. Plenty of people thought so."

I wonder what Elizabeth Zwecker Sheffey thought. Was she happy? Did she have regrets? Did she love Robert in spite of his eccentricities? Because of them? Did she feel that her husband loved her? Did she ever believe he was off doing God's work?

"To love another person is to see the face of God."
                                                                        Victor Hugo

Perhaps Robert Sheffey was the one who missed out, after all.


  1. I love that you're researching the TRUE stories behind the stories we were told. My heart aches for his first wife and I'm staggered that he was presented us such a loving, caring man when he had no care for his wife and children. :-(

  2. No doubt Elizabeth Sheffey, her children, and her family suffered disappointment at what the tragedies of life handed them, and as reads this article, the seemingly selfishness of Robert Sheffey. Has it occured to you that it is possible he grieved his wife's illness and death in escape from the reminders of her, mainly their children? And since he died 75 years before the movie was released, did he command creative license to barely mention them from the grave? Ah, that Christians were nlt tremendously flawed human beings called by God to do what the truly pious believers consider "foolishly eccentric"...

  3. Source citations?


  4. It is good the know the truth. I think he was another preacher who really had an imbalance with God and wife and family. God does come first but your family needs to be secure and loved and provided for by you.

  5. Tim Beasley of Virginia Beach, VA here. My mom's mom was Nellie Sheffey, of Max Meadows area. Trying to fit in my geneogly. My mom told me she was Robert S. Sheffey's great grand daughter...

  6. Just purchased this movie and I thank you for the added information. I wondered why they left out any part about a first wife. Only God knows the whole truth, how much he did that was actually God's will and not his own, but perhaps some benefited from what he did do. Matt 7:21.

  7. The constraints of the time available for the film (it is over 2hours and 15 minutes long) made it necessary to omit the earlier part of Sheffey's life with his first wife. I worked on the production for the film and am well aware of the difficulties. I am in the process of writing a detailed description of the miracles that took place to have the book which is out of print and the movie made. I lived with Sheffey for over three years that it took to make the film.

  8. This film was one of the best Christian films ever made.

    1. Yes it is. It's my top favorite film! Thank you.

  9. Thank you for posting this information concerning the background of this man.

    Just last night I was brought to the attention of this so-called preacher through a friend who watched the movie concerning Sheffey's life. I researched it immediately, because, unfortunately I do not trust my friend's discernment concerning so-called "Godly Men" used by God.

    We have every biblical responsibility to question if a man, as you put it so well, " Doing God's work". "Did she ever believe he was off doing God's work?" After what I read from the biography from Wikipedia, I would have to say a resounding no.

    Concerning Robert Sheffey, I found when I read how his son Edward came to him with a query concerning him spending more time with the family, this is a direct quote;"“Uncle Johnny thinks that you ought to spend more time with your family,” to which Sheffey replied, “Son, Uncle Johnny doesn’t know which way the rats run. The Lord will take care of you.” I was appalled at his response comparing his brother with rats! Does this sound like the Grace and Love of God? Does a godly man talk in this manner? It sounds more like this man Sheffey had real pride issues.

    I dislike how he was labeled as a "powerful man of prayer" and that through these "prayers" miracles were worked! Many of those so-called "prayers" brought hell fire down against workers of evil, such as those who made alcoholic drink. Where is this type of action supported within the New Testament scriptures?

    Also his over-the-top care regarding pests, animals, he cared more for the creatures than his own household. He cared more for his comfort at the cost of his hosts! I see no support for this type of behavior, this is pride, not humility.

    Let us view how a man of God is suppose to be towards his family, especially his wife and children:Read Eph 5:25-28, and Eph 6:4 This was not followed.

    So many during this time period wherein we live, just except anyone that names the name of Christ without checking to see "if" they be truly of the Lord. We must compare their workings, teachings, preachings according to the full council of our God! And "if" they walk another path, we are instructed not to follow nor to support.

    Overall I am not impressed, nor do I sense this man to be following the "voice of the Lord". He followed a voice that contradicts the Word of God.

    So.....on this basis, you had every right to question the "authority" of this man's so-called ministry because his family suffered greatly from his actions.
    The bible teaches us that our relationship to the Lord comes first, then family, then the Body of Christ, and then to the preaching to the lost, as lead by Holy Spirit. Anything less is disobedience and rebellion against the one True God and His Ways. The Lord will NOT place any man who is NOT mature in the things of God to lead others, it's just not supported by Scripture.

    The Lord bless you for posting this, and questioning the viability of Sheffey's ministry.

    This is NOT the best Christian film ever made, it is a travesty of truth and righteous judgement!

    1. Let's let Jesus be the Judge. God bless you brother.

    2. I believe you are being critical and judgmental on what little information you have from a non-autobiographical book, and a movie made as a condensed version of the book. Apparently God as concerned as someone's background, wisdom, shortcomings, weaknesses, etc., as he is concerned about their willingness to make themselves available to his service. None of God's servants are perfect. And this man is certainly not here to clear up any discrepancies of "history" concerning his life. This is a great Christian movie, more for the fact that the gospel was clearly given!

  10. I appreciate this post. I agree with what you said here.

  11. The great A.W. Tozer, and pioneering missionary C.T. Studd were not great family men. We're all deficient sinners. Sheffey won souls, and was giving. Yeah, he wasn't home like he should have been. "Sister-mom"- Mormon?

  12. Enjoyed the thoughtful article, but wish to give you a caution. After reading Jess Carr's Diary entries while he was writing Saint of the Wilderness, I have come to the conclusion that he was not entirely careful with the details, and invented some characters and situations. I have visited with descendants from the Cripple Creek area, and they seem to enthusiastically uphold their forebear's name. An elementary school is named in his honor, and a stained glass window at the Huddle United Methodist Church was placed in his memory. With Robert Sheffey away for so long from this area, it it doubtful that if the case were as bleak as you described it, that the descendants would have honored him as they have, and still do. I also learned that Robert would make an annual trek to visit his wife's grave near the anniversary of her death. A revered spring house still barely stands (I was just there last week) that Robert built himself. I understand that Leah, the "old maid" sister, encouraged Robert to continue his travels, and that she would continue to nurture her nieces and nephews. Not saying that any of this justifies rank neglect- just saying it calls into question if there was rank neglect.

    1. I certainly hope you're right. I certainly wrote this from the lens of a Quiverfull childhood that was both abusive and neglectful. (And if I was Leah, I think I would want as little to do with Robert as possible.)