Editor’s Note — Following is the first segment of an autobiography of Rev. Hobert L. Wright, recorded on audio cassette tape shortly before his death. A child born into poverty in a remote section of Scott County, Wright spent much of his life in the ministry. Perhaps most notably, his sermons were among the first in the rural northern Cumberland Plateau region to heavily promote the practice of tithing. Now common practice, tithing was a controversial subject in the early 20th century. From walking seven miles to reach a church where he held the pastorate to working “full time” for a monthly salary of $20, his story paints a picture of what life was like for rural ministers in the early 20th century, and what rural Christianity in general was like in the early 20th century.
This is May 12, 1980. I am Hobert L. Wright, an old preacher from Grassy Knob. Grassy Knob is located in Robbins, Tenn., two miles from the Black Creek community.
I know that I have only a few more days to live. This message is for the benefit of my great-grandchildren, who will never get to hear me or know me.
My wife and I have a tombstone set up in the Cross Roads Cemetery and people will see it, of course, but we will soon be forgotten. I would like for my great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren to know something about my life and about my preaching. I would like for them to know my God, to know what a big God he is, and how He deals with His people.
I was born here in these mountains, here in this home, here in this place. I was brought into the world by a 16-year-old girl. I guess she was pretty. Everyone told me that I was the prettiest baby they had ever seen. The old saying is, “The prettier the baby, the uglier the man,” so you can just imagine how ugly I am this morning.
I got off to a good start because I was blessed to be born into a good, religious home. My father was an old soldier of the Spanish-American War of 1898. He was unhealthy, but he worked hard in the timber woods to provide meat and bread for us children.
Our country up here was poor country. It always has been and still is. Dad and Mom worked hard to send my brothers and sisters and I to school. I was the oldest boy of the family and went to Black Creek School. They had a woman there to teach public school about three months out of the year. That is all the schooling I had. I wasn’t any good in school and didn’t care if I learned anything.
One morning when we went to school, the woman was teaching us about the nation we live in, about how the nation had sent men to war. They lost their lives to provide us the opportunity to worship God any way that we wanted to. She said, “Now, children, I want you to be good this morning. We are going to study for a little while, then we are going over to the church house.”
The church was about a hundred yards from the schoolhouse. Of course we wanted to go; we always wanted to do something exciting. She said, “There is a preacher coming out today to preach. I would like to hear him and I think it would be good for all you boys and girls to hear him, too.”
I remember that day as if it were yesterday. I sat down on the right-hand side of the church. After they sang a song or two, the preacher — old man Jacob Chambers — got up behind the desk and opened his Bible.
I’m not sure how old I was, but I was old enough to have a sweetheart. I had found a little girl who I thought I loved, and I thought she was the prettiest girl around. A pretty woman can make a man do a lot of things. She came in and sat down in the seat across the aisle. I thought about her for a little while, then I thought, “Well, I have been wondering for a long time who I am, where I came from, how come I’m here, and why,” so I sat up and began to listen to the preacher.
The first thing he did after he opened his Bible was just stand there and cry. He just kept on crying and crying and crying. I thought to myself, “Old boy, why don’t you open up and tell us something instead of crying so much.” Since I’ve been trying to preach, I realize why he cried.
Preacher Chambers began to deliver his message. He told us about how God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son to die for our sins. He told us that he was sent to the church by the Holy Spirit to tell us about Jesus. He said he would like to see us come down to the altar and bow down there.
My sweetheart got up and went right by me. She went to the altar and bowed down. I should have gone but didn’t. I felt something in my heart but I didn’t know what it was. I had felt the spirit of malice when I was mad, and I had felt the spirit of jealousy, but I had never felt this feeling before in my life.
When I got home from school that day, I told my dad what happened. I said, “Paw, the school went to church today to hear the preacher preach. He told me about Jesus, and how He loved me enough to die for me. I believe he was telling the truth. I had the funniest feeling in my heart that I ever had in my life. When he asked us if we wanted to go up there and bow down before all that congregation of people and ask God to save us, I wanted to go. Then my sweetheart went and that made me want to go even more.”
Dad said, “Son, if you ever get that feeling again, don’t turn it down. That was God talking to you. God doesn’t talk in a voice like I do, but He lets you know that He is around. You just go on up and do what they ask you to do and God will bless you, and you’ll be thankful all of your life.”
I took the advice of my daddy because I thought he was the best man in the world. He always gave good advice. There was one good thing about him that people have forgotten today, and that’s how to raise good children. When he told me that he would whip me if I did something, and I did it anyway, I always got the whipping. He never told me a lie.
Starting a Family
When I was about 20 years old, I was working in a coal mine. We used coal to power railroad trains that hauled stuff around the country. My job was to help get the coal out of the mountains. These mountains looked like big piles of dirt that God piled up and never leveled off. There were black seams of coal through them. Some of them were two feet thick, some were 18 inches, some were just a few inches, and some were up to six and seven feet thick.
I was working in a mine in Helenwood at the time. I didn’t drive a big, fine automobile like you folks are riding to work in today. I had to use these two legs that God gave me. I was a young man: healthy, happy and enjoying life. That is the prime of life for a young man. I had taken God as my savior and my maker and He had been with me. He helped me get out of a few scraps, but now I needed His help again.
I had begun looking around amongst the girls in Sunday School who were my age. I wanted a pretty one and a good one. I wanted to make a good judgment. As I looked them over, I found one who I thought was the prettiest girl in all the world. I got acquainted with her and we got together a few times. We didn’t just go together one or two years, or for a long time, and do mean things. We didn’t have a lot of “clean fun,” as some folks call it. We meant business. She accepted me as her husband for life, and I accepted her as my wife, my helpmate, and my lover for as long as life remains in this body.
That was in 1923. For a while, we enjoyed life as most young couples do. The first thing you know, God slipped us in a little baby girl. We named her Marie and we loved her. She was the flower of our home. It touches my heart when I think of the beautiful little children God has put into homes to hold them together and the parents just throw them away or destroy them because they didn’t want them to start with.
When our baby was two years old, God gave us another one. I reckon he must have liked the job we were doing as parents. We were living in good health and getting along fairly well.
Suddenly, the second child, who had been the picture of health, took sick. We did everything we did for her, but she just got worse and worse. We were scared and I began to call on God for help. I was scared because I felt that I had not done what I should have been doing for the Lord. The Bible says that God took King David’s baby away from him because of his sins, and David was a man after God’s own heart.
I went and talked it over with God and He began to show me where I was failing. I was failing to serve Him as I ought to. I repented of my sins and God forgave me.
I was a young man with a pretty woman and two sweet little girls. But I was not as happy as I should have been. I kept on going to church every time I could, but I still was not doing my duty. When God calls us, He has a job for us to do. He expects us to be faithful.
I had created a habit over a number of years in my life; something I call a “pet sin.” When we think we have surrendered our life to the Lord, we keep some of it in reserve. That’s just nature. In my case, I carried a pistol, like other men I knew around here. I guess it just made me feel good to have a pistol hanging under my arm when I went to church and Sunday school. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone with it, but I also didn’t intend to let someone come in and butcher my family.
Our little girl’s health wasn’t getting any better. One night, I walked over to Crossroads Church. I had a habit of going to church and listening to the preacher but when they would call the Christians to the altar for fellowship, I wouldn’t go. I would slip outside, because I was holding back on the Lord.
I got about halfway into the church house on that particular night and sat down. Bro. Walter Stringfield, the pastor of the church, got up to preach. On that night he got up and said, “Folks, tonight my subject will be ‘A pistol and a deck of cards.’” I hated cards and always had. But when he got on the pistol, he showed me where I was failing. There I sat with my pistol under my arm. I don’t believe he knew I had it, but God knew I had it, and the Holy Ghost knew I had it. The Holy Spirit told him what to preach. He told me in that sermon that God was watching over me, and how my little girls at home were watching every move that I made. Marie, my oldest daughter, was big enough to run around and notice things. She would watch me take the pistol out of its holster, put oil on it, and hang it on the wall.
Bro. Walter showed me all of that in his sermon. I sat there and swallowed it down. After they dismissed the service and I started off down the road, my heart began to feel awfully heavy. I thought of this God that I am serving now and recommending to the world: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God that helped Paul and Silas get out of a Roman jail. I began to pray, and I prayed and prayed. Finally, the Lord forgave me of all my sins.
The second installment of Hobert L. Wright’s autobiography, in which he recalls his entrance into the ministry, will be the subject of the June 2018 installment of Focus On: Religion, which will appear on this page in the June 28, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.
This story is the May 2018 installment of Focus On: Religion, presented on the fourth week of each month by Huntsville Manor as part of the Independent Herald's Focus On series. A print version of this story appears on Page A3 of the May 24, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.