Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Robert Walter Childress (19 January 1889–16 January 1956), Presbyterian minister, was born in the portion of Patrick County known as the Hollow. He was the son of Columbia Francis Smith Childress and James Anderson Childress, a farmer, timber cutter, and failed distiller of whiskey. Bob Childress, as he was known, grew up in a large family living in extreme poverty. He recalled taking his first drink of whiskey when he was not quite three years old. In 1896, against his mother's wishes, Childress followed an elder brother's advice and entered a local school operated by a Quaker missionary from North Carolina. Childress left school about 1904 and returned in 1911, but after a few months he quit again to live as he chose. His drinking and fighting earned him a reputation as "The Heller of the Hollow."

On 12 January 1912 Childress married Pearl Ayers. They had one son and one daughter. Childress became a farm laborer and helped out in a blacksmith shop. Later in 1912 he joined a posse to track down members of the Floyd Allen family after the notorious courthouse shootout in neighboring Carroll County. The degrading comments about violent and illiterate mountain people that appeared in press coverage of that event persuaded Childress to give up drinking and violence and focus on a better life. He and his wife attended a succession of Methodist, Quaker, and Primitive Baptist churches before she died on 21 November 1918 after giving birth to their third child, who also died. Following her death Childress opened his own blacksmith shop and in June 1919 became deputy sheriff of Patrick County.

On 3 August 1919 Childress married Mamie Lelia Montgomery, also of Patrick County. They had four sons and two daughters. He began teaching Sunday school and eventually decided to enter the ministry. Childress also taught beginning students at a local school and led church services at the Free Union Church, a nondenominational congregation he helped found, and at a small African American community chapel. He and his family were baptized and joined the Presbyterian Church.

Childress resumed his own education and returned to high school late in 1921, the same time that his eldest son started the first grade. He completed the tenth grade in one month and in September 1922 moved his family to North Carolina so that he could attend Davidson College. While in school Childress sold apples to support his family and earned extra money as a substitute teacher in a local elementary school. His professors arranged for him to become a student pastor at Mayberry, in western Patrick County, and he also began leading services at nearby Vesta. He acquired a portable pulpit and preached against the drinking and shooting life that he had once led. Childress occasionally lost his temper with a congregation's behavior during revival services and once pitched a chair down the center aisle in order to run Satan out of the church. His rough but dramatic method succeeded, and seventeen people converted that evening.

After one year at Davidson College, Childress borrowed $100 from a brother and in 1923 moved his family to Richmond, where he was permitted to attend classes at the Union Theological Seminary in Virginia (later Union Presbyterian Seminary). After his successful first semester, the school president offered him two scholarships and a house on campus. He also received financial assistance from the city's First Presbyterian Church. Childress did not complete a bachelor of divinity degree but did receive a diploma for finishing the full English course in 1926. During his studies he continued as pastor of the Mayberry Presbyterian Church and with the help of the congregation erected a school in the town. The Roanoke Presbytery licensed and ordained him in the autumn of 1924.

Childress accepted a call to preach at Buffalo Mountain, a southern Floyd County community then without an organized church, and early in June 1926 moved there. He opened Buffalo Mountain School with three mission teachers. He helped erect Buffalo Mountain Presbyterian Church using stone and timber from the local mountains and labor, horses, and oxen provided by local residents. Completed in 1929, it was the first of six churches that Childress erected during his ministry. He simultaneously made an effort to improve the local economy so that residents would not resort to running moonshine. Childress experimented with different types of livestock, including goats, swine, and Brahma cattle that he acquired in South Carolina. With an anonymous $200 donation he purchased and operated a sawmill, which provided much-needed jobs during the Great Depression. In the 1930s Childress lobbied for public money to improve and build new roads and bridges in Carroll and Floyd Counties. He then used the roads to facilitate his own travel to the eight churches at which he preached each week.

During parts of his career Childress served as many as fourteen rural churches simultaneously. Three of his sons also became Presbyterian ministers, as did one grandson. In August 1950 Childress suffered a stroke that partially paralyzed his right arm and leg. He had so many visitors at the hospital that his doctor sent him to Florida to recuperate in a hospital there. Once recovered, Childress ignored his physician's advice to reduce his church visits and continued to preach at as many as nine churches each week. After his stroke he began encouraging racially integrated fellowship and communion between members of an African American church where he sometimes preached and white congregants of several of the other churches he served.

Robert Walter Childress suffered a second stroke in December 1955 and died in a Roanoke hospital on 16 January 1956. He was buried in the cemetery at Buffalo Mountain Presbyterian Church. His enduring regional fame and his accomplishments resulted in articles about him appearing in regional periodicals during subsequent decades, publication of a biography, a proposal to produce a film about his career, and the staging in Floyd County in 2002 of a play based on his life.

Sources Consulted:
Birth date from Birth Register, Patrick Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics (BVS), Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia (LVA); gravestone inscription, family tradition, and several reference works with 1890 birth year; birth date of Jan. 1891 in United States Census Schedules, Patrick Co., 1900, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; E. C. Scott, comp., Ministerial Directory of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., 1861–1941: Revised and Supplemented, 1942–1950 (1950), 121 (with birth date of 19 Jan. 1890); Richard C. Davids, The Man Who Moved a Mountain (1970), with birth date of 19 Jan. 1890 and several portraits; Rodger Doss, "The Man Who Moved a Mountain," Blue Ridge Country 6 (Sept./Oct. 1993): 44–49, including excerpts from unpublished memoirs in possession of Childress family (2002); BVS Marriage Register, Patrick Co. (1912, 1919); information supplied by grandson Stewart Childress (2002); obituaries in Roanoke World-News, 17 Jan. 1956, Roanoke Times, 17, 18 Jan. 1956, and Hillsville Carroll News, 26 Jan. 1956; memorial in Minutes of Montgomery Presbytery (1956), 152–153 (with birth date of 19 Jan. 1890).

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Amanda Morrell.

How to cite this page:
Amanda Morrell, "Robert Walter Childress (1889–1956)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Childress_Robert_Walter, accessed [today's date]).

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