Alvin York, Christian Hero

Alvin York, Christian Hero

October 8, 1918
Alvin York captured 132 German soldiers

Every individual is buried in the shadow of his decisions. This fact was never more glaring to me than when I stood with some of my family members a number of years ago at the graveside of Alvin York, noted World War I veteran. I had learned that he had come to the difficult decision to leave his pacifistic scruples behind him while struggling with the issue on a mountainside that cradled his small community of Pall Mall, Tennessee. The locals knew the yellow door-like rock formation where Alvin had gone to make his decision as the “yalla durs.” From Sergeant York’s graveside, it is yet possible to see that formation. The life of Sergeant Alvin York remains one of the most endearing and enduring in the pages of American history.

His Early Life

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Pall Mall, TN

As is true of much of America’s true history, the story of America’s greatest World War I soldier has also been tragically forgotten. Alvin Cullum York was born in a two-room log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee on December 13, 1887, the third of eleven children born to Mary Elizabeth Brooks York[1] and William Uriah York. The York family descended from English and Ulster Scots ancestry. To help supplement the farming efforts of his impoverished family, William labored as a blacksmith. Needing his sons to help work the family farm and hunt for game to feed the family, William withdrew his sons from school after only nine months.

When his father William died, Alvin helped his mother shoulder the responsibility of raising his younger siblings, since his two older brothers had married and relocated out of the area. Alvin supplemented the family income first through working in railroad construction and then as a logger. Overshadowing his benevolence for his family was his alcoholism and aptitude for violent fighting in saloons, which was the cause of several arrests against him.

His Conversion

Though influenced by a godly Christian mother, Alvin resisted his mother’s persuasive efforts. Within the community, the local Methodist Church exercised influence over the spiritual life of Pall Mall and Alvin in particular as a result of a revival held there. Despite his reputation for drinking and fighting, Alvin attended church regularly and often led the signing, but his state of spiritual duplicity experienced a radical change in late 1914 and the beginning of the new year. At the end of 1914, the local Methodist Church welcomed Rev. W. W. Loveless, a minister with the Churches of Christ in Christian Union (CCCU), to hold a revival in their church. During the course of the revival, Alvin was saved on New Year’s Day 1915, and because of a subsequent exemplary life, became known as the “singing elder.” The life of Alvin York was radically changed for good by the grace of Jesus Christ. This revival was the beginning of a new life for Alvin and the beginning of a new local church for the Churches of Christ in Christian Union. Alvin and his family supported Rev. Loveless in his efforts to start a new CCCU congregation, and support of the York family for this local congregation has continued until the present.[2]

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John Wesley

Most historians and admirers of Alvin York neglect to call attention to one important theological fact that has been a formative influence in the life of America. In the mid- and late-eighteenth century, John Wesley began to send Methodist ministers and missionaries to America whom he obligated to preach the message of forgiveness for and cleansing from sin. In the nineteenth century, the Methodist Church became the largest Protestant denomination in America, proclaiming that the grace of Jesus Christ not only forgave sin (justification), but Christ could also cleanse the heart of the root of bitterness (sanctification). As a result, the message of purity of heart and life was a leavening influence upon all America. Both the Methodist and Churches of Christ in Christian Union churches of which Alvin York had been a part were, in his generation, advocates of this message, as was Alvin himself. Alvin’s support for this truth was reflected in the fact that his son, George Edward York, became a long-time minister in another denomination (Church of the Nazarene) that also preached the necessity of purity of heart and life.

World War I

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Gary Cooper as Sgt York

With the advent of World War I in July 1914,[3] Alvin experienced a crisis of conscience. With other young men from 21 to 31, Alvin registered for the draft on June 5, 1917 at the age of 29. When registering, he answered the question “Do you claim exemption from draft (specify grounds)?” by writing “Yes. Don’t Want To Fight.”[4] When his claim for conscientious objector status was rejected, he appealed the decision, and while the application was being considered,[5] he was drafted and began his service at Camp Gordon in Georgia (November 1917).[6] The thought of being called to fight and kill in the war deeply troubled him: “I was worried clean through. I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my Bible.”[7] Even the most casual studies of his life reveals the fact that Alvin York was not a casual Christian. He took Scripture seriously, applying its principles to the practices of his life.

The Argonne Forest

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Argonne Forest Battle

Having received a ten-day leave to return home to settle the issue of killing in war time, Alvin resolved the matter in the “yalla durs” of the cliffs surrounding his rural village. Coming to the conviction that it was God’s will that he fight, Alvin entrusted himself to divine protection for what laid ahead of him.

Promoted to corporal, he was sent to the front lines in France where he quickly distinguished himself in a vicious struggle for life and the safety of his fellow comrades in arms. Alvin was part of the U.S.-led portion of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, masterminded by Marshal Ferdinand Foch to breach the Hindenburg line and force the Germans to surrender. The entry of his diary for October 8, 1918 records the events that culminated in Alvin’s heroism. He recounts the action during an attack by his battalion on German positions near Hill 223 (49.28558°N 4.95242°E) along the Decauville rail-line north of Chatel-Chéhéry, France:

….there was 17 of us boys went around on the left flank to see if we couldn’t put those guns out of action. So when we went around and fell in behind those guns, we first saw two Germans with Red Cross bands on their arms. So we asked them to stop and they did not. So one of the boys shot at them and they run back to our right. So we all run after them, and when we jumped across a little stream of water that was there, they was about 15 or 20 Germans jumped up and threw up their hands and said, ‘Kame rad!’ So the one in charge of us boys told us not to shoot; they was going to give up anyway. (These prisoners included a major and two other officers). By this time some of the Germans from on the hill was shooting at us. Well, I was giving them the best I had, and by this time the Germans had got their machine guns turned around and fired on us. So they killed six and wounded three of us. So that just left 8, and then we got into it right by this time. So we had a hard battle for a little while, and I got hold of the German major and he told me if I wouldn’t kill any more of them he would make them quit firing. So I told him all right if he would do it now. So he blew a little whistle and they quit shooting and come down and gave up. I had killed over 20 before the German major said he would make them give up.[8]

I covered him with my automatic and told him if he didn’t make them stop firing I would take his head off next. And he knew I meant it. After he blew his whistle, all but one of them came off the hill with their hands up, and just before that one got to me he threw a little hand grenade which burst in the air in front of me. I had to touch him off. The rest surrendered without any more trouble. There were nearly a 100 of them. We had about 80 or 90 Germans there disarmed, and had another line of Germans to go through to get out. So I called for my men, and one of them answered from behind a big oak tree, and the others were on my right in the brush.[9] So I said, ‘Let’s get these Germans out of here.’ One of my men said, ‘It is impossible.’ So I said, ‘No; let’s get them out of here.’ So when my man said that, the German major said, ‘How many have you got?’ And I said that, ‘I have got plenty,’ and pointed my pistol at him all the time. In this battle I was using a rifle and a .45 Colt automatic. So I lined the Germans up in a line of two’s, and I got between the ones in front, and I had the German major before me. So I marched them straight into those other machine guns and I got them. So when I got back to my major’s P.C. (post of command) I had 132 prisoners.

Battlefield Investigation

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York at Hill 223

Alvin’s actions that day near Hill 223 in the Argonne Forest silenced the German machine guns and enabled the 328th Infantry to renew its attack to capture the Decauville Railroad. Throughout the investigation that followed York’s fight in the Argonne, he consistently played down the importance of the action. When he marched his prisoners back to the battalion post of command, Brigadier General Lindsey said to him, “Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole German army,” to which York replied modestly, “No, I only have 132.” He appeared almost apologetic for bringing in a mere handful of prisoners.

The next morning twenty-eight dead Germans were found at the scene of the fight. York says that is the number of shots he fired. They also found thirty-five German machine guns and a lot of other small arms and ammunition. In their official report General Headquarters, the officers of the 82nd Division highly commended Corporal York:

The part which Corporal York individually played in the attack (the capture of the Decauville Railroad) is difficult to estimate. Practically unassisted he captured 132 Germans (three of whom were officers), took about thirty-five machine guns, and killed no less than twenty-five of the enemy, later found by others on the scene of York’s extraordinary exploit. The story has been carefully checked in every possible detail from headquarters of this division and is entirely substantiated. Although York’s statement tends to underestimate the desperate odds which he overcame, it has been decided to forward to higher authorities the account given in his own name. The success of this assault had a far-reaching effect in relieving the enemy pressure against American forces in the heart of the Argonne Forest.”

Recognition of His Heroism

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Sgt York with Medals

Corporal York was promptly promoted to sergeant––the first of many rewards and awards to follow. After further investigation, he was presented with the Medal of Honor, presented to York by General John J. Pershing, the commanding general of the American Expeditionary Force. Eventually he received fifty decorations for his heroism, including the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor from the French Republic and the Croce di Guerra al Merito and Montenegro and War Medal from Italy. History would remember him as America’s most highly decorated veteran of World War I. But his European accolades where only a foretaste of that which he would receive from an appreciative and admiring American public.

Returning Home

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York Grist Mill

America, though belated, ecstatically celebrated the return of its new hero. More than six months passed before America awakened to the fact that it had a battlefield-hero in Alvin York. Not until the April 26, 1919 edition of the Saturday Evening Post was America made aware of what had transpired on October 8 of the previous year. Journalist George Patullo, in his article “The Second Elder Gives Battle,” set forth the features of Alvin York that have characterized him ever since. Some Tennesseans living in New York City arranged for the city to greet York, including a for a five-day furlough for him to get to see New York City and Washington, D.C. He arrived on May 22 at Hoboken, N.J., stayed at the Waldorf Astoria and attended a formal banquet in his honor in New York before touring Washington.

Following these festivities, he proceeded to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia where he was discharged from the Army. Arriving home in Tennessee, he was greeted with more celebrations. Barely home a week, Alvin married his sweetheart Gracie Loretta Williams on June 7, 1919 in a ceremony performed by Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts in Pall Mall.

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York Bible Institute

In the years that followed his return home, Alvin refused hundreds of thousands of dollars in endorsements, believing they might compromise his Christian convictions. He traveled the nation seeking to raise money as a public speaker to support interests in his community and county. Actor Gary Cooper helped to perpetuate and ensconce the legacy and influence of Alvin’s life through the making of the classic Hollywood film, Sergeant York (1941). Alvin’s royalties from the film were used to advance his community. He became owner of a grist mill in Pall Mall, and started a Bible Institute there as well, but his most enduring legacy was to the education of youth through York Institute in the neighboring city of Jamestown, which continues today. [10] Though the Bible Institute has long been abandoned for use of its original intention, it remains a vivid witness to Alvin’s devotion to advancing the principles of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

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Alvin York Graveside

Had Alvin York been self-serving, he could have died a wealthy man, but instead, he desperately struggled to give to his county a brighter future. Alvin lived his Christian convictions. Years earlier, he had determined to live for God. From Alvin York’s grave, visitors may see the “yalla durs” where he made the decision to follow his Christian convictions. Just as Alvin York now rests in the shadow of his decision, every individual will rest eternally in the decisions they make in time. Alvin left behind a legacy of Christian influence that has been apparent in the lives of his children and succeeding generations of Yorks–one that has brought blessing to his community and to many far beyond the village of Pall Mall, Tennessee.


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[1] Mary Elizabeth Brooks York was the great-granddaughter of Coonrod Pyle, an English settler who settled Pall Mall. William York and Mary Brooks married on December 25, 1881. The order of their eleven children were as follows: Henry Singleton, Joseph Marion, Alvin Cullum, Samuel John, Albert, Hattie, George Alexander, James Preston, Lillian Mae, Robert Daniel, and Lucy Erma. “Alvin C. York,” Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_C._York, November 11, 2013).

[2] At the date of this writing, November 11, 2013, the York family continues its involvement and support of this local Churches of Christ in Christian Union congregation.

[3] World War I was centered in Europe, beginning on July 28, 1914 and ending on November 11, 1918. In America, Veteran’s Day is observed annually on the day the WWI Armistice was signed––November 11.

[4] [Christopher Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 68]; quoted in “Alvin C. York,” Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_C._York, November 11, 2013).

[5] At this point in American history, conscientious objectors were still required to serve, though not required to serve in assignments violating their principles.

[6] From the day he registered (June 5, 1917) until his return from the war on May 29, 1919, Alvin maintained a diary of his activities. He recorded that he had refused to sign documents presented to him by his pastor seeking to be discharged from the Army on religious grounds and he had refused to sign documents presented to him by his mother claiming exemption from service on the grounds he was the sole supporter of his mother and siblings. His diary also disclaims the fact that he was ever a conscientious objector. “Alvin C. York,” Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_C._York, November 11, 2013).

[7] [Christopher Capozzola, Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 67]; quoted in “Alvin C. York,” Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_C._York, November 11, 2013).

[8] German First Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer, commander of the First Battalion, 120th Landwehr Infantry, had tried to kill York, emptying his pistol at him while York was engaged against the machine guns. Failing to hit or injure York and weighing his own mounting losses, Lieutenant Vollmer submitted his surrender of his unit to York in English.

[9] All the non-commissioned officers except York had been killed or severely wounded, leaving him in command.

[10] Kostlevy, Historical Dictionary of the Holiness Movement, s.v. “York, Alvin.”

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Written by Dr. Stephen FlickNumber of posts: 218
Stephen Flick heads Christian Heritage Fellowship, a national organization dedicated to reclaiming America’s Christian Heritage and celebrating the life-changing influence of the Gospel around the world. Concerned with the cultural decay of America, Dr. Flick has sought to provide answers to fellow Christians (and unbelievers) concerning the questions and objections to Christianity often posed by secularists and the irreligious. Dr. Flick is a writer and speaker and has authored numerous articles and books on America’s Christian heritage. He earned his Ph.D. from Drew University in history and Christian theology and has taught at the graduate level as full professor. He has been a licensed minster for nearly forty years and resides in East Tennessee with his wife, Beth. They have two grown, married children and five grandchildren.

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