Memories Of Mighty Men In Mingo County, West Virginia

By Ron Halbrook

Surveying the great amount of work to be done and the scarcity of laborers everywhere, Jesus said, “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:37-38).

Surveying the faithful work done by departed laborers, the Holy Spirit pointed out that their example and influence continue to do good on earth long after they are gone to be with the Lord.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from hence-forth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them (Rev. 14:13).

This article is a tribute to three faithful laborers in the kingdom of Christ in West Virginia who have departed to be with the Lord in recent years. The Lord raised them up to meet a pressing need. They accomplished much good. Their works follow them and will bear fruit for years to come, but much remains to be done there as everywhere. “Pray ye therefore the Lord of harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest.”

Clyde S. Allen (1922-1991), Johnny Hall (1909-1991), and Walter Murphy (1917-1992) lived and labored in Mingo County, which is in southwest West Virginia, in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains coal fields. Mingo County is wild, beautiful, and rugged terrain. The county’s western border is defined by the Tug Fork (a fork of Big Sandy River), which also marks the Kentucky-West Virginia border. This territory is best known for the infamous feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families. A more significant event for the region was the mine war of 1920-21 fought by the forces representing the mine owners and the forces of the miners aided by organizers of the United Mine Workers of America. There was truly “thunder in the mountains” when these two forces met in this little-known but significant encounter:

The West Virginia mine war of 1920-21 has been called America’s largest armed insurrection since the Civil War. In this colorful but largely ignored rebellion, some seven to ten thousand coal miners took up arms against their state and local governments and marched, in defiance of a Presidential ultimatum, against an army of some two thousand state constabulary, deputy sheriffs and volunteers. The two armies collided; machine guns chattered; thousands of shots were fired; planes dropped bombs, however ineffectively; and for a week the miners con-trolled some five hundred square miles of southern West Virginia (Lon K. Savage, Thunder in the Mountains, p. iii).

The miners lost this war, and it was not until the 1930’s that the mines of southern West Virginia were unionized. The mine war was recounted in a movie entitled Matewan in recent years, named for a town which was at the center of the conflict. Coal mining is still the backbone of the economy in Mingo County, and rich stories of the Hatfield-McCoy feud and of the mine war are still passed down from one generation to another.

Congregations of saints are scattered throughout the mountains of southwestern West Virginia. The churches served by these three men are scattered here and there near Highway 52 which passes through Mingo County. Churches in Mingo County are not served by what we call “located preachers” but by men who support themselves and en-courage all who can to participate in the pulpit work. Liberalism does not have the upper hand in this region, but battles with liberalism have been engaged during the last fifteen years. When someone suggested that some new classroom space be turned into a kitchen, I was invited to preach for a week in May of 1982 in order to help defeat the liberal spirit which was beginning to creep into the Beech Creek church. I was invited because someone had been reading my articles in the Guardian of Truth magazine. Since first going to Mingo County, I have held many gospel meetings there, held two formal debates (on located preacher question, 1985; on institutionalism, 1988), and engaged in many skirmishes on divorce and remarriage. The brethren in this area have been willing to openly study such matters and much progress has been made, as men such as Weldon Warnock, Mike Willis, and Larry Hafley have held a number of meetings. All of these efforts have been successful primarily because of the influence of Clyde Allen, Johnny Hall, and Walter Murphy.

Clyde S. Allen: Persistent Preacher Clyde Sydney Allen was born 12 November 1922 at Sarah Ann and died 11 September 1991 at his home in Baisden, near Gilbert. Brother Allen was 68 years old at his death. Like many people in the region, he had worked for many years as a miner and suffered from black lung disease. Clyde learned the truth after becoming an adult and came out of denominationalism. His convictions were strong and he very much wanted the truth of the gospel to be preached without compromise. He preached for the church in Gilbert, which is located right on Highway 52 as it passes through the town.

For many years Roy Hall held sway over the churches of Mingo County, and he taught much error on divorce and remarriage. His death came on 26 January 1990 when he was in his mid to late 80s, but he was still very active and vocal in June of 1983 when I held a gospel meeting at Gilbert. The seeds of truth on divorce and remarriage were planted at Gilbert at least as early as November of 1972 when Roy Hall was forced to debate his view that the put-away fornicator can marry a new mate (“Debate,” Truth Magazine, 1 February 1973, p. 204). Clyde knew that my coming to Gilbert would draw the ire of Roy Hall but wanted me to come and preach the truth anyway. A lively exchange occurred between myself and Roy Hall along with his supporters after my lesson on “The Home As God Instituted It,” but Clyde stood firmly for the truth.

Clyde’s wife Esther was a great asset to him in his work. The church at Gilbert was rather small for years, but Clyde and Esther simply would not give up. About twenty still attend the church there. When he died, I was in a meeting nearby and his wife asked me to help with his funeral service along with Bruce Murphy (from Beech Creek) and Hufford Williams (from Mouth Card, Kentucky). I spoke on “The Conversion of Saul” because Clyde like Saul was ready to change whenever he was convinced by the evidence of truth. Clyde Allen is buried in the Allen Family Cemetery behind his house at Baisden.

Johnny Hall: Sweet Singer Johnny Hall was born 5 April 1909 at Belo near Delbarton and died 27 May 1991 at Belo, where he lived all of his life, at the age of 82 years. Delbarton is a small community located about a mile from Highway 52. Johnny’s mother, Antha Starr Hall, was a faithful Christian, and it was through her influence that he began to serve the Lord after marrying Virgie Jones. He supported himself by working in the coal mines and often prepared sermons by spreading his Bible and notes on the floor and studying until two or three o’clock in the morning. Among those he converted was Elmer Spence, who later became a gospel preacher. After Ted Bowen was converted by Johnny Hall, Ted’s father (who was a denominational preacher) debated brother Hall through correspondence and was converted. Above all, Johnny was a highly capable song leader and even wrote several excellent songs. He was a member of the Caney Church of Christ but was often invited to hold singing schools or to lead the singing for gospel meetings at other churches throughout West Virginia and Ohio. Even after his legs were severely diseased, Johnny continued to serve as an elder and to teach Bible classes while sitting on a stool.

When I held a meeting at Caney in June of 1983, many liberals came and were exposed to the truth, which stirred up a hornet’s nest in the area. As a result, brother Hall went with me for a 3 1/2 hour study with three well known liberal preachers in the area (Cletis Smith, Hubert Compton, and Gene Clemons). In defending church sponsored social and recreational activities along with other institutional practices, these preachers argued that “whatever the church does, the individual does, and whatever the individual does, the church does.” We asked them if the three of them went into the coal mining business, would the church be in the coal mining business? They answered, “Yes!” This study was taped and copies were distributed throughout the region.

Part of one of my tapes was messed up and I asked Cletis Smith to replace it from his own recording of the study. He first agreed but I predicted he would find a “reason” to avoid giving me a copy. When I called him later to get the copy, he told this story. The tapes came from a church building which federal investigators thought might have been contaminated with radiation as a result of radio waves bounced off of two large relay reflectors in the area. Each tape was held together by a couple of tiny metal screws and Cletis thought they might be contaminated too so he destroyed all the tapes without making copies. (I did not make it up, folks, that is what Cletis said!)

Johnny later reported,

The Caney church has been working hard to weed out of our pulpit liberals and compromisers on institutionalism and on the issue of marriage and divorce. We want men in the pulpit who preach sound doctrine, who fight error, and who are known for standing clearly for truth. This meeting has done much to help people in Mingo County understand why Caney has taken its stand against liberal-ism of every kind. Everyone is not happy about it, but we make no apology for the truth of God! At Caney, we are united in the truth, are at peace among ourselves, and are gaining in spiritual strength (Johnny Hall, “Field Re-ports,” Guardian of Truth, 21 July 1983, p. 443).

Johnny used every avenue at his disposal for spreading the truth including correspondence, gospel literature, and tapes. By using tapes which he received from the church here at West Columbia, he converted a man out of the denominational Church of God.

I was in a meeting nearby when Johnny died in the hospital at South Williamson, Kentucky and was asked to participate in the funeral service along with Hufford Williams. After reading the obituary, I read Revelation 5:9-13 which pictures the beautiful scene of singing praises to God and to Christ in heaven. My comments were as follows:

As Christians we have the steadfast hope of being gathered around this throne of God and of the Lamb to join in singing their praises. Surely Johnny Hall will help to lead us in those songs and will sing with us there as he has done here. This is the hope of the faithful Christian. Those who had loved him and loved to hear him sing the praises of God, but who refused to serve the Lord, will never hear Johnny sing again. If you are not a faithful child of God, we hope this service will help you make up your mind to obey the gospel of Jesus Christ.

No husband ever had a more attentive or supportive wife than Virgie Hall. The Halls have graciously extended the hospitality and love of their home to many gospel preachers through the years. Virgie’s biscuits and gravy are out of this world! About sixty saints continue to meet at Caney. Johnny is buried in the Mahon Cemetery at Belo.

Walter Murphy: Steady Student Walter Burgess Murphy was born 18 April 1917 in Glen Alum and died on 26 December 1992 at the age of 75 years. Walter knew quite a lot about the Hatfield-McCoy feud which ran from the 1880’s until the turn of the century. He was born and lived for twenty-three years on land surveyed by Wall Hatfield of the Hatfield clan. “Wall Hatfield was father of 47 children by different women, and I personally knew over half of them” (manuscript by Murphy on Hatfield-McCoy feud). Walter said, “There hasn’t been a shootout in Texas to equal some we’ve had right here in bloody Mingo County” (Murphy ms.). Wall had a son named Ellison who was close to Walter and who said in 1935 that he had delivered over 700 babies. He was a preacher in the church of Christ but when he was called out at night to deliver babies, “You can rest assured about the second thing he put on was a shoulder holster that held a 32 Smith and Wesson revolver and know for sure he never left home without it” (Murphy ms.). Walter knew quite a lot about the coal miners’ war of 1920-21, too.

Walter was a member of and preached often for the Beech Creek church of Christ in the community of Devon, a few miles from Highway 52 and not far from Matewan. Devon is near Tug Fork. Walter enlisted in the U.S. Navy in October of 1944 and lived through the bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. “It has left a scar on my mind I can’t forget. When you think about all those men that were killedthe older I get, the more vivid the picture gets” (“Murphy, Blevins Remember Attack,” Williamson Daily News, 7 December 1991, p. 1).

For many years Walter ran an old country store on Beech Creek and talked with many people about the gospel of Christ. The most impressive thing about Walter was his constant, steady study of God’s Word. The kitchen table in his house was always covered with his Bible, Bible study books, and notes except at mealtime, and often meals were eaten in and around the books and papers. While he was a man of deep convictions, he was also willing to study and accept any truth which was new to him.

For many years Roy Hall held “membership” at Beech Creek although he lived at Feds Creek, Kentucky. Roy Hall taught that God divorced Israel and let her marry Christ, in an effort to prove that God will accept people in unscriptural marriages if they “repent.” From the time that I began to preach at Beech Creek in May of 1982, Roy Hall tried every possible means to drive me out of Mingo County. Walter soon began to see through Roy Hall’s error on divorce and on a number of other things, but some hot battles were fought over a period of years before Roy Hall’s influence could be overcome.

Walter’s willingness to stand for the truth played a key role in stabilizing the church at Beech Creek. The week of 21 July 1988 I debated Bill Dawson at Beech Creek on the located preacher question, an issue Roy Hall used to divert attention away from the marriage issue in the minds of people. On 24-25 November the same year I debated Gene Clemons at Beech Creek on liberalism and institutional-ism. During both of these debates, Walter Murphy stood firmly for the truth and his influence was a great help. Walter’s wife Violet Hatfield had no patience with error and encouraged him in his stand for the truth in many ways.

The funeral for Walter was held on 29 December 1992 at the Beech Creek Church of Christ with Bruce Murphy and Jerry Vance speaking before a full house. The church has 90-100 in attendance and continues to uphold the truth. Walter is buried in the Hatfield Cemetery at Beech Creek.

These mighty men of Mingo County were not known to brethren far and wide beyond their area, but the work they did was vital to the cause of Christ. I hope these precious memories of the persistent preacher, the sweet singer, and the steady student will be an inspiration to brethren every-where to use their talents and abilities in the service of Christ.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 21, p. 20-22
November 3, 1994