Paw-Paw's Scroll

An autobiographical sketch by Henry H. Mitchell.

Tent Revival in Chatham

The church's sawdust-floor revival tent is seen on a rainy evening during the summer of 1985, North Main Street, Chatham, Virginia.

Along the Sawdust Trail

It was Monday night, August 12, 1985. We were under a big tent on the north side of Chatham, Virginia. Our church was sponsoring an old-fashioned tent revival, and the weekend services had been heavily attended and rather dramatic. But tonight nobody showed up except for the faithful few from our church.

The visiting evangelist for this night was the Rev. Roger Graves. After taking stock of the situation, he announced that there would be no sermon for the night. It would just be a prayer time, and he invited to the front any who felt led to come forward.

My wife Patricia joined the short line at the altar, and soon Rev. Graves was talking to her. He asked her, “Where is your husband? The Lord has given me a message for him.”

Patricia replied, “He's right behind you on the platform, the fellow at the keyboard.”

Then Rev. Graves turned and got my attention, “Stop playing and come down here!”

I stepped down, and he said, “This is very unusual. I've never been given anything like this before — a promise and prophetic word which was already given to your family in a previous generation and to every descendant from that previous generation….” He continued with a detailed promise for our family.

To say I was startled would be an understatement. I had heard the same words about 25 years earlier.

A Few Moments With Paw-Paw

John Watson Helvey

The Rev. J. W. Helvey.

Around 1960, my parents and I were visiting my maternal grandparents at Emory, Virginia. My grandfather John Watson Helvey (“Paw-Paw” to me), a former Methodist circuit rider and pastor, had taken me aside. We sat in his bedroom as he told me about his “fire-from-heaven” conversion experience as a young man on the sinner's bench at the little Salem Methodist Church in the Kimberling Valley of Bland County, Virginia. He talked to me about the utter assurance he received of his own salvation, and asked me if I had that assurance — if I knew I'd go to heaven when I died. I had to admit that I did not have that confidence. He acknowledged that most people don't have an experience such as he did, but that it is still important to receive an inner assurance of salvation and acceptance before God. I said I guessed I had it, but I couldn't say for sure. I could see the disappointment in his face.

And then he told me about a vision he had had. He said he was sitting in a chair in his back yard when the heavens rolled back like a scroll, and an extensive message was written for him on the scroll. The message said that his family was called to carry on his own ministry, that they were to come together cooperatively, and that through his family many nations of the world would be blessed.

With a catch in his voice he explained that he had shared this vision with all of his four children, but that he felt that they were not responding to it. He said he hoped and prayed that I, my brother and sister, my cousins — that we would pick up where our parents had seemingly faltered.

The Promise Repeated

Sarah, David, Patricia, and Henry Mitchell

Sarah, David, Patricia, and Henry Mitchell under the church tent, summer 1985.

Paw-paw passed away in 1967 at age 92, and as the years went by I forgot about his scroll vision. But fast forward back to 1985 and the tent revival in Chatham: Roger Graves seems to be reading from that same scroll again. He concluded with several specific promises and instructions for Patricia and me, including a statement that my parents would now, soon, separately respond to this same call, and he named other members of our far-flung families who would experience a dedication or re-dedication to Christ. (The Rev. Graves did not know us prior to this occasion, and he certainly had no experiential knowledge of our extended families.) Then he moved on to some of the others who were awaiting their turn for prayer.

After the short service was concluded, I went back to thank Rev. Graves for his ministry, to confirm that his statements to us were quite remarkable, and to ask if he could further clarify them. He said that not only could he not clarify them, he couldn't even remember anything of what he had said!

I wrote my parents in Bristol, Tennesee a note the next day, not detailing the message but mentioning that miracles were occurring in the tent revival.

News from Tennessee

A few days later my parents called to report a miracle in Bristol. My 76-year-old mother had, for 25 years or so, been suffering from extreme allergies, which greatly restricted her life to the extent that she hardly left the house anymore. My sister Joan and her husband Jim had recently transferred their membership to First Methodist Church in Bristol, where Joan was involved in the music ministry. So my parents had decided to transfer their membership as well. My mother determined to go to the service at which they would be recognized as new members, even though she often had great difficulty with allergies from the cosmetics and perfumes present among crowds. So they went, and upon their arrival they discovered it was communion Sunday. My mother had been allergic to the communion elements for years, and had been taking a substitutionary communion at home consisting of water and rice bread. But she said to herself on this occasion that she was going to receive the “ real” elements, and the Lord was just going to have to take care of her.

As is the habit among Methodists, the congregation filed to the altar in groups to take communion. My mother knelt at the rail beside my father, awaiting distribution of the bread and grape juice. When the pastor came to where she was kneeling, he stopped and said to the assembly, “I feel led to pray for the sick among us,” and he did so. My mother said that she cried out silently to God at that point, “Let this prayer be for ME!”

Mom said that at that point she felt a violent earthquake, and she blacked out. When she came to, she found she had been thrown up and over the communion rail, so that her head was hanging down on the other side. She looked around with panic to see if others might be hurt, and to try to find my father, and she realized that everybody else was still kneeling silently, eyes closed, just as before. The earthquake had been hers alone. And she also began to realize that now she FELT different. In the days to come, she discovered that the food and cosmetic allergies were gone, and only some skin sensitivity remained.

She realized that supernatural healing was not one of the emphases and expectations at the church in which she had just received it, so when she heard of the news from Chatham and the tent revival, she thought that more “God work” just might be in order! So she and my father arrived in town right away. The tent revival was over by this time, so they attended a Sunday morning service. Our pastor Landon Spradlin laid hands on her and prayed for her, and she reported that the needed healing miracle was now complete.

This turn of events had an energizing effect on my parents, as you can imagine. The first part of the promise stated by Rev. Graves had occurred. In the following weeks and months other encouraging reports trickled in from other relatives.

Another Reminder

Oak Grove Residential Care Facility

The Oak Grove Residential Care facility in Chatham, Virginia.

After some time had passed, I decided to use the turn of events as a topic for a weekly Sunday evening service at the Oak Grove Residential Care facility in Chatham. I read several scriptures and spoke of God's promises' being undiminished with the passage of time. Promises to the patriarchs were honored after centuries and millenia. I told the group about Paw-Paw's vision and Roger Graves' restatement of it, and that I had been startled and gratified to learn that promises to my family were still good after a generation.

It was a quiet, unremarkable service. As it ended, I stood at the door and those who attended filed out and shook my hand. As I stood there, I heard a voice calling me from down the hall. I looked, and there came Helen Turner, an elderly lady who almost never missed a service. She was sliding her feet along as she always did, and holding up a hymnal for me to see. She apologized for not attending, but said she had been hunting in her room for this hymnal, which contained a song with which she was unfamiliar. She wanted me to play it, and had been determined to find it, and now she was late. I told her to wait until all the hand-shaking was done, and I'd be happy to play it.

The two of us walked back into the chapel, and she placed the book up on the piano, opened to the desired spot. I glanced at the hymn, but did not recognize it. So I began to sight-read it. A couple of bars into the song, I realized that the tune was “Danny Boy,” my Grandfather Helvey's favorite, which he knew as the hymn “Above the Hills of Time.” Whenever Paw-Paw and I were together in a room with a piano, he had asked me to play it for him. So I did. Again.

“Record the vision and inscribe it on tablets, that the one who reads it may run. For the vision is yet for the appointed time; it hastens toward the goal, and it will not fail. Though it tarries, wait for it; for it will certainly come, it will not delay.” (Habakkuk 2: 2-3 NASV)