Robert SheffeyElizabeth (Eliza) Sheffey

Fathers Away on a Mission

June 17, 2015

What a paradox that God puts children in families, but then sometimes calls the father away on a mission of His purpose.

Moses was called by God to go to Egypt to lead His people to freedom. (Exodus 3:10-22)

Moses tried to take his family, but ended up sending them home. (Exodus 4:20, later Jethro brings Moses’s wife to him, after the exodus). Even when his family was finally reunited, Moses was cautioned to get help for his work, or ‘the people would weary you.’ (Exodus 18:17-24). He had little time for his family.

What about some of the great men of the past who did great things for God? Did their families suffer because of it?

Robert Sheffey (July 4, 1820 - August 30, 1902) was a great Methodist circuit-riding preacher in the Appalachian region. His legendary prayers destroyed at least twenty-five stills by storms, death, and fire. If Sheffey prayed against a still, men left the area. His prayers brought rain in times of drought and withheld rain during harvest.

His eccentricities became folklore. He saved tadpoles from puddles. He fed stray dogs his lunch. He walked steep grades to spare his horse. He gave his own socks and coat to another. Even his horse, he gave to one whose horse had died pulling a wagon.

He did great things for God.

But what happened to his family?

He married Elizabeth Zwecker. During their years together, Robert was away so others built his growing family a cabin. They moved into the unfinished cabin in the dead of winter.

When he finished teaching for the year, he left Elizabeth to plant the garden.

After a difficult birth, Elizabeth begged him to stay close to allow her recovery. He stayed within a day’s ride of their cabin, but still pursued his passion: preaching.

When his teaching obligation was over the next summer, Elizabeth was pregnant again. Before he left, Robert explained that their six year old James would help plant the garden this year.

He returned when their daughter Margaret was born.

Elizabeth hemorrhaged so badly after this birth that she could not hold nor feed her infant. She needed rest.

Robert found a wet nurse and stayed close to home.

After several months, Elizabeth improved enough to travel to the city with Robert. She still could not breastfeed and dreaded the spring when he would leave again. “Please, don’t leave me--stay home,” she begged.

Summer came. She was not well. Robert planted the garden that year and worked on his preaching license.

Elizabeth was 35 when baby John was born in 1853: her sixth baby in less than nine years. A month later, still frail, she could only stand less than an hour a day. Robert hired another wet nurse. He promised not to leave, but a visit to a dying slave from his childhood home and trips for his license took him away.

Months after the birth, Elizabeth continued to hemorrhage. Bed rest did not improve her health. Her family cared for the children. After Christmas, her aunt stayed with the family. Elizabeth died the winter of 1854 from massive bleeding.

Robert was now free to travel. He took up circuit-riding, praying, and preaching. His children, because they were well established with his in-laws, remained with them.

Aunt Sarah, who had raised his children for nine years while Robert was gone, would not allow him to take them when he re-married.

Robert split his non-preaching time between his six children and Eliza, his second wife, and their son Edward.

Unlike his first wife, Eliza knew that she was marrying an itinerant Methodist preacher. Their long-distance marriage was a happy one.

Edward told his father, “Uncle Johnny thinks that you ought to spend more time with your family.” Sheffey replied, “Son, Uncle Johnny doesn’t know which way the rats run. The Lord will take care of you.”

I understand Elizabeth’s request, “Please stay.” Pregnancy, birth, and health issues cause insecurity and need for greater protection and care. It would be easy to doubt her husband’s love when care had to be begged for. How much did she believe in his mission?

Should a man give up his dreams to care for his wife? If he does give up his dreams, will God allow him to pursue them later?

Can wives keep their husbands from their mission? King Solomon, with all his wisdom, was turned from God by his wives.

What power do you exert on your husband? Do you support or hinder his purpose?

Robert’s first time told him to stay. Did she learn dependence upon God while her husband was gone, or did she allow her family, who did not approve of him, sway her thinking?

The second wife, by accepting his passion, was able to have a happy marriage, in spite of his absences.

What made the difference? Eliza, the second wife, was not without her hardships. She not only shared his time with his preaching but with his other family. She had even less time with him. Biographies do not tell the whole story.

God puts children in a family. (Psalm 107:41). God sometimes gives a man a mission away from his family.

A paradox? Or an opportunity for God to show that both can succeed only with His help?

The obedience of each couple rests before God. So does their success.

Hard questions. No easy answers.

We’ll talk again.


How do  you respond when your husband is away?
What helps you?

Helen is right, this is a very difficult subject, and one where we must allow God to lead. He works with us as individuals (families) and does not have the same answer for every one. We must seek His will, and then follow wherever He takes us.

Difficult topic. Easy to criticize and judge others; hard to do what God wants US to do. We all have to work out what God's will is in our OWN lives and support others who are trying to do what God is telling THEM to do regardless of whether we understand or not.

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Author of Biblical fiction, married to my best friend, and challenged by eight sons’ growing pains as I write about what matters.

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