“The most sacred place of the heart is the place of prayer. If we would only pray – out under the stars – in the heat of the day – in the cool of the day – in the city – in the home – in the desert – in time of trouble – in time of health – at all times ... how helpful it is to climb the hill, to get out under the stars, to meet and mingle with other people.”
—Roger B. Sherman, “Sacred Places of the Heart.” Sermon, 1962.
To the cowboy and ranch families living far out in the remote landscapes of the American Southwest, Presbyterian mobile ministers Ralph J. Hall (1891-1973) and Roger B. Sherman (b. 1892) were legendary men. They eschewed the pulpit for the saddle and preferred to meet their congregants under the stars rather than within a church building.
Often traveling hundreds of miles on horseback, they would arrive on the doorsteps of families so isolated they had never stepped foot inside of a church, read a Bible, or heard a sermon. After arriving in a new community, they worked tirelessly among the cowboys and ranchers, rounding up and branding their cattle, to earn a place in their small communities. Though they erected many chapels, churches, and church schools, their most enduring work lives on through the communities they established outside of traditional church structures.
Before becoming a minister, Ralph Hall was, first and foremost, a cowboy. Raised on a cattle ranch in the western plains of Texas, he understood the loneliness that came with ranch life and found inspiration in the work of a traveling minister who arrived one day on his family’s doorstep.
When the residents of his little town crowded inside a schoolhouse to hear the minister’s sermon, “there was a spirit of awe and reverence about it all” that he never forgot. Hall dreamed of becoming a missionary for the Presbyterian Church but an eye condition discouraged him from pursuing a seminary education. Soon after he left home at the age of eighteen to become a lay missionary, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. Presbytery of El Paso became aware of Hall and realized that his inability to baptize or provide communion services was a hindrance to his work. The presbytery ordained him in 1916, and in 1925, he was appointed the synodical missionary for the entire state of New Mexico. By 1940, he was the supervisor for all Sunday school missionary work west of the Mississippi River.
In A Sunday School Missionary’s Dream That Came True, Ralph Hall describes his work in Lindrith, New Mexico, which led to the building of a church, manse, and health center there.
Roger Sherman was raised on a ranch in Lubbock, Texas, where he and Ralph Hall later met and formed a lifelong friendship. Hall converted Sherman and convinced him to become a lay minister for the Presbyterian Church. In 1929, Sherman began missionary work in Nevada. Two years later, the Presbytery of Pecos Valley transferred him to New Mexico, where he worked side by side with Hall. Despite never finishing high school or pursuing seminary training, the presbytery ordained him in 1939.
In 1948, Sherman acquired a permanent ministry at the First Presbyterian Church (now Community Presbyterian Church) in Magdalena, New Mexico, a church which he helped to build.
On January 1, 1940, Ralph Hall, R. Everett King (Director of the Department of Sunday School Missions), and cowboy Joe Evans met in the Hotel Del Norte in El Paso, Texas, to plan the first Ranchmen’s Camp Meeting: an event featuring guest preachers, Bible study, singing, and meals cooked over a fire.
They based their idea on the Bloys Camp Meeting, founded in 1890 by Presbyterian minister William B. Bloys (d. 1917) and held in the Davis Mountains of Texas ever since.
After scouting the New Mexico landscape for a location, they settled on Nogal Mesa—a beautiful high pine mountain site near Carrizozo, New Mexico. Despite the lack of water on the mesa, little money for food or supplies, and no advertisement beyond word of mouth, the meeting was a huge success. By 1964, camp meetings were formed in six states and attendance exceeded 20,000. Though sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, camp meetings were and remain interdenominational.