A Brief History of Covenant Mountain Mission near Jonesville, Virginia as written in January 1985 by Miss Naomi F. Sundberg and Miss Winifred V. Swenson
The Early Years
Naomi Sundberg of Stanton, Iowa had for years felt an interest in becoming a full-time Christian worker, but it wasn’t until she was at North Park College that the place of service seemed to crystallize. While there, she visited the Covenant Missions Office, then on Belmont Avenue, and talked with Rev. Gust E. Johnson about the possibility of missionary work in the Appalachians. He said we had no work in that area, and so she didn’t pursue it further at that time.
Another young lady, Gertrude Warner of Lincoln, Nebraska, also had a vision of missionary work in the Appalachians and felt called of God to go to the southern mountains. While at North Park, she visited the Covenant Office also to inquire about work there. She, too, was told that the Covenant has no work in that area. Her reply was: “They will have when I get there!” Her aggressiveness and determination was stronger than that of Naomi. She continued to pray and plan and the Lord answered by prompting someone in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area to send a check of $1000 designated “for work in the southern mountains.”
Viola Larson was at that time in the States because the doors to China, where she had ministered, were closed to missionary work. She was chosen to accompany Gertrude in this pioneer adventure for the Covenant.
Rev. Elmer Fondell had some time previously visited the area around Sneedville, Tennessee. The Covenant decided to support this Home Missions Ministry in 1941. They purchased a 1929 Chevy Sedan, which the girls soon named “Shasta” because she hasta have tires, she hasta have a driver, she hasta have gasoline, etc. On their way to the mountains they visited the Fondell’s in Paxton, Illinois to confer with them about the Sneedville, Tennessee area. They decided it would be well to visit Esther Wahlsted at the Evangelical Free Mission near Hazard, Kentucky. They arrived October 24, 1941. On the 29th Esther traveled with them to Sneedville, Tennessee. There was a land trial there at that time and much feuding amongst the people. It was not advisable for the young ladies to remain there. After studying the map and choosing three probable places of location, they left Sneedville. Neither Gertrude nor Viola had had much experience in driving prior to this trip, so when they drove over the mountains, one drove and the other worked the emergency brake. They missed the first place they had chosen because of a detour. The second place was Blackwater, Virginia, which had only one general store and the post office. So, they continued to cross the Powell Mountain to Jonesville arriving October 30, 1941. In looking for a place to live, they were directed to a two-room tourist cabin, which became home to them for six weeks. Esther Rose visited the girls there, and she insisted they find better living quarters. They were able to find and rent some rooms in the large farm home where they lived until summer.
The first months were spent getting acquainted with the people and area, which helped them decide on areas of ministry. They visited the Jonesville churches, and it was after their first visit at the Baptist church, that they were invited to Nell and Henry Carroll’s home for dinner. They gladly accepted the invitation, and Nell told them later, had they refused, it would have taken a long time before they were accepted. Many of the people of the area were suspicious of them; some even thinking them to be German spies.
They visited the School Board and got permission to go to the schools for chapel services on school time. This helped them to become better acquainted with the people of the area, and it was really the beginning of the ministry of Covenant Mountain Mission. Through these services, they learned of needed help in some rural churches. They helped with Sunday school in the Roller’s Chapel Methodist Church on Wallens Creek and at Elijah’s Knob not far from Stickleyville where they met in a one-room log schoolhouse. Getting there required much effort, as it was 1 1/2 miles farther to the schoolhouse. They also met weekly with a group of girls from the Jonesville Baptist church for bible study and fellowship in the homes.
After school was out, they rented a small house in Pennington Gap, Virginia. During that first summer, they conducted Vacation Bible Schools in rural communities. Now they were becoming more and more acquainted and accepted by the people.
Now it was time for them to have a vacation and also have Shasta overhauled, and so they headed for Chicago. Naomi was at this time teaching in a rural school near Stanton, Iowa. She had kept in touch with Gertrude and Viola through letters. The call became stronger, and she wrote a letter to President Theodore W. Anderson that she never mailed. A short time later she received a letter from him asking her if she was willing to join Gertrude and Viola at the Covenant Mountain Mission. This was a direct answer to prayer, and made the call a reality. Her dedication took place at the Annual Meeting in Minneapolis in June 1942. She met the other young ladies in Chicago in August, but Shasta wasn’t ready to travel until the first part of September.
Now with added help, it was possible to add more schools to their schedule. Each year more schools were added as the staff increased, until members of the Covenant Mountain Mission staff visited ultimately 54 small rural schools twice a month. Home visitation was also a major part of their schedule, which helped lay the foundation for a varied ministry amongst the many needy families. They soon discovered a great need for Bible teaching, for there had been much revival preaching, but little teaching of the Word of God.
Early in 1943 it became necessary for them to move from Pennington Gap, as the owners wanted to move back. After much searching for a place to live, they found a large, old farm house on Sugar Run available, complete with slave house, barns, spring house, chicken house and many other interesting buildings. They moved there, finding many friendly people who are to this day dear friends of the missionaries. Being nearer Jonesville, they responded to a request to have Cottage Bible study and prayer meetings west of Jonesville. It wasn’t long until Children’s Bible classes were held in the Missionary Home, which led to a request to help in the Sunday school of the Pleasant Hill Methodist Church approximately one mile down the road. They also had Vacation Bible School there.
In October 1943 Naomi went on her first itinerary to the Pacific Northwest. Anna Johnson came to stay with Gertrude and stayed on to assist in the work for a few months before going to North Park College.
On April 14, 1944 Gertrude Warner left for her home in Lincoln, Nebraska in preparation for her upcoming marriage to Arnold H. Johnson of Springfield, MA on June 10th. Arnold was in the seminary at North Park at that time.