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