Editor’s Note — This story, the fourth and final in a series on “The Mountain Preacher” to paint a picture of what life was like as a minister in rural Scott County in the early 20th century, is excerpted from the recorded autobigoraphy of Rev. Hobert L. Wright.
When I was a boy, I went to a lot of church meetings and baptizings at the rivers here in the mountains. Sometimes on Sundays we would be out playing together and we would play church. In these mountains of East Tennessee, the people were Baptist people and we believed that emersion — burying a man under the water and bringing him back up — was the only mode of baptizing.
One day when we were having a meeting, one of the boys said, “Look out yonder!” There was a bunch of sheep. One of the guys said, “Let’s have a baptizing.” So we went out and got the sheep and brought them to the river’s edge. We would take one at a time and baptize them.
We got hold of one that was losing its wool. He was feisty and mean. We took him out there in the water and tried every way we knew how to baptize that thing, but we just couldn’t get his head under the water. One of the boys said, “I’ll tell you what let’s do; let’s just sprinkle him and let him go to hell!”
So we had our fun, but only on Sunday. On Monday we had to take hold of the hoe handle or the axe handle or the plow handle and go to the fields to help provide food for our families.
Back in the deep depression, you worked for every dollar you got. You were lucky to have a job where you could make a dollar. So we just had to eat what we could grow and wear what we could get hold of. There was no relief; no pensions, no welfare. A woman who was a widow and raising a family of children had to buy a washtub and go out and wash clothes for wealthy people. She would wash the clothes and iron them and take them back to the people. That was the only way she had to make money to feed her family. People in this day are in heaven compared to what we had in the 1930s. Oh, we had fun when we had time for fun, but we had to work every time we could.
World War II came to this country of ours in 1941. They called for the young men to join the Army. I didn’t have any boys old enough for the war. I was willing to fight for my country, but my family was too big. I worked in the coal mines at the time and they wanted coal, so they just let me work right on through.
I enjoyed my work in the mines. I always liked to work for a living. I got a lot of coal dust in my lungs during that time and I neglected my duty to the Lord to a certain extent. I made preaching a sideline. I breathed so much of that coal dust into my lungs that today I am nearing my grave.
I was injured in the mines. Trying to speed up production, I busted one of my entrails. I spent 21 days in the hospital.
At the same time, our oldest boy, Kenneth, was in the hospital at Nashville. He was six years old and we thought the world of him. He was one of only two sons we had. A knot had appeared on his shoulder about the size of a hen’s egg. The doctor told us to rush him to Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville. The doctors there examined him and the verdict was cancer.
In the fall of 1943, I went to West Virginia to work in the mines there. I took my family with me and we lived up there for a year. Kenneth had gotten better. The knot on his shoulder had gone away. But while we were in West Virginia, the knot reappeared. We took him to the doctors there but they were unable to help him.
We moved back to Tennessee in the fall of 1944. We took Kenneth back to Nashville and the doctors there did all they could for him. But he never got well.
After Kenneth died and we put him in the grave, I went to the woods. I don’t know how long I stayed. I stayed there with God like Jacob stayed with the angel when he wrestled the angel all night to get a blessing. I stayed with God until I got a blessing. I promised Him that He would get 10 percent of every dollar that I made, even if I had to borrow money from the bank to feed the children.
From that day until this day, my wife and I always make our first check out to the Lord when we get a paycheck. If there is anything left, we use that to feed the family.
A Big Fish
Between 1950 and 1960, I was elected pastor of the Mountain View Baptist Church. At the same time, I was working in the coal mines on day shift. I was section foreman at the Brimstone Coal Company.
Just a few days before they elected me as pastor at Mountain View, I was standing in the mine office looking out the window and cleaning my safety lamp, getting ready to go inside to work. I knew they were having some union trouble at the mines and as I looked out the window, I saw a group of the men from the second shift gathered at the bridge with the mine superintendent.
The superintendent was a small man and they seemed to be having a pretty hot fuss. At that time we had a man in Scott County, Bates Pennycuff, who was just about the meanest man I had ever seen. Sometime before this, Bates had shot the sheriff. The sheriff recovered, then shot Bates. Bates had gotten well, but he was still a mean man. But he was a good worker.
I was watching these men on the bridge and I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I saw Bates Pennycuff. I saw him reach down, pick up that little old superintendent just like he was a baby, and throw him over the bridge banister and into the creek.
The superintendent waded out and went on his way. Bates went on to work and that was all that was done. Bates worked right on in the coal mines as he had always done before.
I was preaching at Mountain View in revival one night, and we had three or four seekers come down at the altar call. Just before I bowed to pray with them, I looked back in the center of the church and there sat Bates Pennycuff. I had never known of him going to church. I was never so surprised in my life. After we prayed and I stood up, I looked for Bates but couldn’t see him anywhere.
A man standing beside me said, “Brother Wright, tell me who that man is right there.” I looked down and Bates was in the floor, and he was trembling all over like he would die. He was praying so loudly that you could have heard him from a mile away. He thought he was going to die. I said, “Brother Ward, that is the meanest man in Scott County.” He said, “Brother Wright, he is not going to be mean very long if he stays there and talks to God that way.”
It wasn’t five minutes before Bates came out of there. He shouted all over the house. He said that he could feel the Holy Spirit even to the end of his toes. I believe he was the happiest man that I have ever seen.
I like to fish, and when I go fishing and catch a fish, I want to get him on a string before he gets away. I felt like I had caught a good one when I got Bates, so when the services were closing, I gave church privileges and he joined the church. He wanted to be baptized. He was so big that he had to look down at me; he must have weighed close to 300 pounds. He said, “Do you think you could do the job?” I said, “Brother Bates, I will do it or be found trying, if that’s what you want.” So I baptized him.
Bates didn’t stop there. He went to work. He went after the roughnecks, the mean ones. We had six or eight baptized. Most of them were grown men. When Bates went after one, he generally got him. He went on to become a preacher and pastored a church at White Pine.
I have given you some of the things that have been done in my work as a minister. We are proud of our mountain preachers. Some of them don’t have any education and are just like I was. Some of them have enough education, if they could study their Bible as they ought to.
I only made it to the fourth grade. You can imagine how much a child in the fourth grade knows. I could barely read and write. I was not interested in doing anything but I had a feeling that it would be an honorable job to be a preacher.
In my work in the coal mines to make a living for my family, I contracted Black Lung. I have suffered with Black Lung for several years now. Finally, the government has given us a pension to help take care of the expenses of Black Lung. It does not make us live any longer, though.
In 1943, I was hurt in the mines and stayed in the hospital for 21 days. In 1970, I had an artery operation and pneumonia fever kept me in the hospital for 40 days. I had a light stroke that has crippled me now, and I have spent about a hundred days in the hospital. I walk with a walking stick.
I can’t hear a lady speak at all anymore because the high frequency in my ears is dead and gone. I can hear a bass voice a little. I can’t talk much and I can’t hear. My wife is learning fast. She is learning to write letters to me. She said to me once, “How do you feel?”I told her that I felt like I had run across the wilderness and had come to the Jordan River but didn’t have strength enough to cross it.
There may come a day, maybe 50 years from now, when you want to come back and trace the life of Rev. Hobert L. Wright. You will be welcome, and you will have something to trace.
So goodbye, folks. I hope I get to meet every one of you in Heaven.
Hobert L. Wright was born April 4, 1903 and passed away June 21, 1981. He was the son of George W. Wright and Julie Silcox Wright. He married Rosia Jane Branim on January 7, 1923. To this union were born 12 children. Rosa Jane Wright passed away on October 1, 1987. At that time, she had 35 grandchildren and 63 great-grandchildren. Bates Pennycuff, who was saved during a service at Mountain View Baptist Church in the 1950s, was often called “the meanest man in Scott County.” Legend has it that he coughed up the bullet after being shot by the sheriff, Dorsey Rosser. The two men later became friends and worked together in law enforcement. Bates Pennycuff later began a sign ministry. Even today, some of his old signs — “Jesus Is Coming – R U Ready?” — can be seen along the roadsides throughout Scott County.
This story is the August 2018 installment of Focus On: Religion, presented by Huntsville Manor on the fourth week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Focus On series. A print version of this story can be found on Page A3 of the August 23, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.