The State of West Virginia was founded in 1863, and contains 24,000 square miles, with a population of 1,750,000 people. Its borders reach out to the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Kentucky. Called “The Mountain State,” West Virginia can boast of 40 mountains over 4,000 feet high. It has only 8 cities with a population over 20,000 and 4 of those are located along the Ohio River. The average elevation of the state is 1,500 feet, the highest point being Spruce Knob, 4,800 feet. Of the 55 counties in the state, 36 have coal mines, producing 145 million tons of coal yearly. Thousands of small villages can be found, nestled in the hills of this state of which 75% of the land is forests. As you can readily see, the main industries are coal and lumber. Because of the terrain, there are not very many straight, or level roads. Due to an isolated atmosphere in many places, the inhabitants manifest an independent attitude and guns abound.
My first exposure to the state as a herald of the cross was in 1963, when George Graham and I held a series of gospel meetings in a feedmill store. I never returned to West Virginia until 1970. During that interval there were four older servants that took an interest in me: William Warke, Archie Stewart, George Graham, and Oswald MacLeod. These godly men taught me much relative to the Lord’s work, and being with them was like “the days of heaven upon the earth.” They introduced me to various assemblies which later supported me in my pioneer efforts in West Virginia.
Another preacher told me, “Out of sight, out of mind.” I proved him to be wrong, for being away from assemblies for months on end, we never lacked. In 1970 our tent was pitched four miles outside of Keyser, W.V. No other laborers were available to help me. About 125 attended. Brother William Williams advised me upon entering a new place to gain the favor of the local police and the newspaper. This I did, and the newspaper gave me a free write-up on a weekly basis. The series lasted 12 weeks and 19 professed. This was immediately followed by 25 weeks of Bible readings, and through the assembly teaching given, the new converts told me that they were going to remember the Lord and would I join them? It was a memorable occasion, March 21, 1971, when, with many tears, they broke bread for the first time.
I was taught by older brethren that upon going out into the Lord’s work, one should have a definite field of labor. West Virginia became my field, and I sought to work it faithfully for the Lord, taking occasions to visit the assemblies that were supporting us.
The West Virginian has a great sense of humor. Those of the southern part seem to be more given to fighting and drinking. I remember in one place, they beat up the sheriff, threw him and the keys to his car in the ditch and had a good laugh over it, yet to me they were respectful. My tent has never been vandalized in 35 years, except once. My P.A. system was stolen and a sign taken. Most people recognize the word “saved,” and “born again”; however not all that profess salvation possess it.
Since there is a greater respect for the Bible than in the northern States, and less prejudice against Northerners than in the southern states, West Virginia seems to be the ideal place to prove God with the gospel. Most folks are plain-living, hard working souls. Laboring in a village can be a rewarding experience. Suspicion has to be broken down. Since we never took a collection, George Graham and I were suspected on one occasion of being government agents, using the preaching as a cover-up. When preaching in Purgitsville a rumor circulated that I was a demon worshiper. The result was, the tent was packed with people that came to see what a demon worshiper looked like. The store owner who gave me the tent lot threatened to kill the person that spread the rumor. I calmed him down, explaining that our mission was one of peace, and not of war. While there, I knocked on a door and heard a voice saying, “Come in.” I entered, only to find a high-powered rifle pointing at me. What would you have done? Well, I threw up my hands and said, “I give up, you finally caught me.” He laughed and put the rifle down and offered me a cup of coffee. He had hoped that I would have run for my life so that he could tell other men that he had put the new preacher on the run. I considered it just a bit of West Virginia humor.
Many small villages lack motels or eating places. I found my travel trailer an invaluable asset to the pioneer work. It was common, when knocking on a door at mealtime, to be invited to join them. Other evangelists seemingly were not exercised to labor in West Virginia on a permanent basis, consequently many lonely moments were spent, months on end. As Mr. William Warke quaintly said, “I was so lonely that I would have been glad to see a Christian’s dog, let alone a Christian.”
Fairmont is a town of 27,000 and 90 miles west of Keyser. We invaded it with the gospel in June of 1974. The first night my 40X60 tent had 3 women for an audience. The next night 12 came, the third night 25, and then folks began to attend until the audience reached 165 souls, all of whom I had never known before. Nightly Bible readings in a prominent businessman’s home followed the nine weeks of tent meetings and continued until December 26. On my birthday these people presented to me, and my wife, many gifts, emphasizing the fact I had preached that to refuse a gift was an insult. They knew that I wouldn’t take their money for the work of the Lord, so they used my birthday to show their gratitude. Some envelopes contained $100 bills. Most of them were older people who professed to be saved. Such kindness deeply touched our hearts. At Plum Run, some 30 miles distant, the last night of our series at the close of the meeting, the Baptist preacher rose up and thanked God for the refreshments. Then the audience cleared the tent, brought in tables, cakes, pies, and other pastries from their pickup trucks, to celebrate my birthday. I stood there dumbfounded. This was West Virginia hospitality.
Is West Virginia open for the gospel? Yes, it still is! True, times have changed in 35 years, but there is still an open door. How encouraging it would be to see two young men obtain a travel trailer and drive into the mountains looking for openings, and then when one was found, to live with the people for a few months with a view to seeing some saved and an assembly planted.
Then, if there were no response, to move on to another village and try again. Running here and there to conferences will never accomplish much for God in new places. Can we not blame brethren for the lack of pioneers? For no sooner is a man commended to the Lord’s work than he is bombarded with requests by brethren to come for meetings in their assembly, and the new ground lies untouched. Are there any assemblies that would be willing to purchase a travel trailer and truck to equip a couple of young men to such work, expecting them to stick at it? The commission condemningly stares us in the face today, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Where are the men? West Virginia patiently waits.