Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Rev. George Erwin, Missionary to Russia

The Rev. George Erwin was a brother to Dr. Frank Erwin, subject of last week’s article. How Rev. George Erwin came to serve with distinction as a Methodist Minister and a missionary to Russia in the early part of the twentieth century is a story that needs to be told.

Following is “A Letter from the Most Distant Methodist Church,” written by the Rev. George Erwin, and published in “The Missionary Voice” of the Methodist Church in the January issue, 1930. Rev. Erwin wrote: “In Manchuli City, Manchuria, a town on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, is the most distant congregation of our church. It was my privilege to conduct the first revival meeting there in February, 1927. The temperature was about forty below zero, but in spite of the extreme cold, the people would gather in front of our chapel thirty minutes before the doors were opened to be sure to get into the service. I have never preached to people who were so anxious to hear the Gospel as were these Russians.”

First appointed as a missionaries to Russia in the late 19-teens, Frank and his wife, Vada, were assigned to Vladivostock, Russia in Siberia by the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Adjustment to the climate, much different from Union County where he was born, and South Georgia where he had worked as a minister in the South Georgia Conference, the young couple had an upsetting experience about six months into their work in Russia.

The Bolshevik Revolution occurred, and the town where they lived and worked was taken over by Bolshevik rulers. However, the new government did not prevent work by the missionaries. They were able to continue with their evangelical work and church starting until in the early 1920s.

Then the Mission Board of the Methodist Church gave them a new assignment to go to Manchuria, China to work among the Russian refugees who had settled there to get away from the political upheaval in Russia. It was from there he wrote the letter quoted above about the Manchurian Russians being so eager to attend church and to listen to the gospel. They remained in Manchuria until the late 1920s when they had to be recalled by the Conference because there was not enough money available (due to the Great Depression) to keep the Erwins on the mission field. By that time, they had been able to establish some churches and chapels, and the work proceeded, even though the missionaries could not stay.

He returned to the South Georgia Conference where he continued to pastor charges, and, after asking for a transfer to the North Georgia Conference, was assigned to churches nearer to his beloved mountains.

Let’s trace the life of this outstanding Union Countian that led him to be a missionary in a most difficult area of the world.

He was born in a cabin facing Brasstown Bald Mountain in Union County. He attended the Zion Elementary School. He was a nephew of the Rev. Thomas Coke Hughes, a stalwart and noted Union County Methodist Minister. The boy was dedicated to the Lord by his parents with his uncle officiating when he was a baby, and at age twelve he was confirmed in the faith and baptized by Rev. Hughes.

His father bought a farm on the Notla River and moved his family from the log cabin into a more adequate farmhouse. George Erwin helped with the farm work and attended school at Blairsville until he was eighteen.

At sixteen, he began to feel the call to the gospel ministry. He surrendered in the field as he hoed in his father’s corn. Again, his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Coke Hughes, wielded a great influence on the young lad’s study of the scriptures and his determination to gain an education.

He enrolled in Young Harris College with only $1.85 to help him pay his tuition and board. He washed dishes, waited tables, did laundry, and sold books to pay the $150 he owed the college when he graduated in 1914 with an overall average of 93. It was at Young Harris that he met the love of his life, Vada Kenyon of Weston, Georgia. They were married and he continued his theological studies at Vanderbilt University and Emory University. He was assigned to the South Georgia Conference in 1916, and given the oversight to minister to six churches. From this position, he was appointed as a missionary to Russia (and later China), spending over a decade working in a difficult area of the world. He does not tell how they learned the difficult language so that they could communicate with the people or how they adjusted to the cold climate and the strange culture. But these aspects of mission work are somehow handled with determination. They were beloved by the people to whom they ministered.

In retirement, he and his wife Vada moved to Towns County, Georgia. In reflecting over his life as a minister and missionary, he recalled that he had received over 3,000 into membership, had helped to mentor 25 young men who became pastors from his churches, and aided over 150 young people to attend college. He and Vada had three children who he termed “capable and wonderful…a joy to me!”

From a log cabin in the shadow of Bald Mountain to “the most distant congregation of the United Methodist Church” is a long stretch—both in miles and culture. But Rev. George Erwin and his beloved wife Vada met the challenge.

[References for the above article: New World Outlook: “The Missionary Voice”, Missions Magazine of the United Methodist Church.

Taylor, Jerry A., “Rev. George and Vada Erwin,” in Hearthstones of Home, Foundations of Towns County, Georgia, Volume I (1983), Pp. 90-91.]

c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published May 8, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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