Alvin C. York was born at Pall Mall in the Valley of the Three Forks of the Wolf on December 13, 1887. The third of eleven children growing up farming, hunting, and fighting, no one would have suspected Alvin York would become an American Hero.
Trust Amidst Doubt and Adversity
by Douglas Mastriano
The Testimony of Alvin C York
Sergeant Alvin C. York ~ American World War I Hero ~ Recipient of the nation’s highest military award - The Medal of Honor
Sergeant York at the spot where he captured 132 German soldiers on 8 October 1918 (National Archives)
Trust amidst doubt and adversity Executive Summary:
The Argonne Forest, France, 8 October 1918.
After his platoon suffered heavy casualties, Alvin York assumed command. Fearlessly leading 7 men, he charged with great daring a machine-gun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machine-gun nest was taken, together with 4 German officers and 128 men and several guns. (1)
The lessons derived from Alvin York’s testimony:
Trust and Faith – Alvin York had to trust God to carry him through his doubts about a Christian serving in the military.
Talent – God gives each of us a distinct talent to fulfill our role in furthering His kingdom. York’s life is an example of this.
The impact of Christian men – It was in York’s deepest times of doubt that two Christians stepped up to the plate; York’s Battalion Command (Major George Edward Buxton) and Company Commander (Captain Danforth). These men were well grounded in the Bible and helped York overcome his doubts about serving in the Army.
Theme Scripture - "For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not evil, to give you a future and a hope." Jeremiah 29:11
Important Quote: A conversation between Sergeant York and his Division Commander, General Lindsey, in January 1919 when they toured the site where York captured 132 Germans three months earlier.
General Lindsey: "York, how did you do it?"
Alvin York: "Sir, it is not man power. A higher power than man power guided
and watched over me and told me what to do."
And the general bowed his head and put his hand on my shoulder and solemnly said,
General Lindsay: "York, you are right."
Quote from Alvin York:
“There can be no doubt in the world of the fact of the divine power being in that. No other power under heaven could bring a man out of a place like that. Men were killed on both sides of me; and I was the biggest and the most exposed of all. Over thirty machine guns were maintaining rapid fire at me, point-blank from a range of about twenty-five yards. When you have God behind you, you can come out on top every time.”
The Alvin York Story
"Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. "Joshua 1:9 8
October 1918 - Argonne Forest, France. It was another wet and foggy morning in the rugged Argonne Forest. At precisely 6:10 AM, the battalion attacked. The mission was to take the German Decauville Rail. This would force the Germans out of the Forest. The attack took York’s battalion up a funnel shaped valley, which became narrower as they advanced. On the sides of the valley were steep ridges, manned by German machine guns and troops. As the Americans advanced, they encountered intense German machine gun fires from the left, right and front. As York recollected:
“The Germans got us, and they got us right smart. They just stopped us dead in our tracks. Their machine guns were up there on the heights overlooking us and well hidden, and we couldn’t tell for certain where the terrible heavy fire was coming from…And I'm telling you they were shooting straight. Our boys just went down like the long grass before the mowing machine at home. Our attack just faded out… And there we were, lying down, about halfway across [the valley] and those German machine guns and big shells getting us hard.” (2)
German machine gun crew – World War One (National Archives)
The German fire took a heavy toll. Something had to be done to silence the German machine guns. Sergeant Early took three squads of men to attack the machine guns (this included York). They worked their way behind the Germans and captured a large group of German soldiers who were preparing a counter-attack. Early’s men where contending with the prisoners when machine gun fire hit them, killing six Americans and wounding three others. The fire came from German machine guns on the ridge, which turned their weapons on the US soldiers. The loss of the nine put Corporal York in charge of the eight remaining US soldiers. As his men remained under cover, guarding the prisoners, York worked his way into position to silence the German machine guns.
"And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a 'racket in all of your life. I didn't have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush... As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over thirty of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting. I don't think I missed a shot. It was no time to miss… All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn't want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had." (3) Sergeant Alvin York.
One of York’s prisoners, First Lieutenant Vollmer, emptied his pistol trying to kill York (while York was contending with the machine guns). Failing to injure York, and seeing his mounting loses; he offered to surrender the unit to York, which was gladly accepted. By the end of the fight, York and his men marched 132 German prisoners back to the American lines. York was promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor. Sergeant Alvin York’s life is relevant for us since it is an example to emulate.
A Lost Soul
"…And how shall they hear without a preacher?" Romans 10:14d
Alvin York was born in the backwoods of Tennessee on 13 December 1887 and was the third of eleven children born into a poor farming family. When Alvin’s father died in 1911, he rejected Christianity.
"I got in bad company and I broke off from my mother's and father's advice and got to drinking and gambling and playing up right smart…I used to drink a lot of Moonshine. I used to gamble my wages away week after week. I used to stay out late at nights. I had a powerful lot of fistfights." (4) Alvin York
Christianity, Character, and Courage
"War is for the participants a test of character; it makes bad men worse and good men better." (5)
COL Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (American Civil War Hero)
Alvin achieved local renown as a superior sharpshooter. However, the course of his life soon took a new direction. On 1 January 1915, Alvin attended a revival meeting conducted by Reverend H.H. Russell. During the sermon, York felt as if lightening hit his soul (6) and was moved to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. His life was forever changed and he immediately abandoned “smoking, drinking, gambling, cussing and brawling.” York took this commitment serious, grew in his faith, taught Sunday school, led the choir and became an elder in his church.(7) York’s old friends tried to persuade him to go drinking, but he continually refused. It took a lot of moral courage for York to remain firmly committed to His Lord. But with the strength of the Holy Spirit and his personal resolve, York remained on the Lord’s side. This sharpened York’s character and moral courage, directly contributing to his heroic deeds in the midst of battle only two years later. Character is like a muscle; the more it is exercised and used, the stronger it becomes. Every time we choose to do what is right, we build character and moral courage. York consistently chose to follow the Lord’s Way and was faithful in the little things.(8) As a result, he was able to accomplish unimaginable feats later in the heat of battle. Our challenge is to exercise moral courage in all of our decisions to develop character.
As the famous Civil War general, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, said;
"We know not of the future, and cannot plan for it much. But we can hold our spirits and our bodies so pure and high, we may cherish such thoughts and such ideals, and dream such dreams of lofty purpose, that we can determine and know what manner of men we will be whenever and wherever the hour strikes, that calls to noble action. This predestination God has given us in charge. No man becomes suddenly different from his habit and cherished thought." (9)
Thou Shall Not Kill
"For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as high as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts." Isaiah 55:8-9
Alvin’s world turned upside down in June 1917 when he received a draft notice. When he read, “thou shall not kill” in the Bible, he believed a Christian could not kill a human no matter the reason. However, he also believed that God ordained governments as instruments to be obeyed. (10) Alvin York summed up this dilemma when he said;
"I wanted to follow both [the Bible and the US]. But I couldn’t. I wanted to do what was right…If I went away to war and fought and killed, according to the reading of my Bible, I weren’t a good Christian." (11)
Alvin York applied for exemption from the draft, but his requests were refused. This put York into doubt and confusion.
"I was sorter mussed up inside worser’n ever. I thought that the Word of God would prevail against the laws of men…” (12)
General John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), inspects his soldiers. (National Archives)
The Impact of Christians
York was assigned to the 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Gordon, Georgia. His Company Commander, Captain Danforth, and Battalion Commander, Major Buxton, were both Christians. Alvin shared his concerns with them. Buxton and Danforth knew their Bible very well, and dedicated hours of their time to contend with York’s doubts. They literally walked through the Bible together to debate the issue. For every verse the commanders used to support their position on warfare, York countered. Finally, one night, Captain Danforth read Ezekiel 33.
"But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand." Ezekiel 33:6
With this, York stood up and said, "All right, I'm satisfied." (13) With this assurance, he sought to excel in all that was entrusted to him.
Take Time to Listen & Talk to those with Questions
There are several lessons to learn from the York story. The central one is the impact Christians made in Alvin’s life. Specifically, Danforth and Buxton made the difference. They spent hours out of their time to hear the concerns of this one Soldier. They had every reason to decline speaking with York, foremost was the serious time constraints the unit was under. They only had a few months to train raw recruits for combat. Despite this, they sacrificed their time to help York overcome his doubts. (14)
"We talked along these lines for over an hour… We did not get angry or even raise our voice. We jes examined the old Bible and whenever I would bring up a passage opposed to war, Major Buxton would bring up another which sorter favored war. I believed that the Lord was in that room. I seemed to somehow feel His presence there." (15) Alvin York
Better than merely listening to York’s concerns, Buxton and Danforth were courageous enough to share their own testimonies with him. In our days of political correctness, this is quite a challenge. We must use common sense, wisdom and discernment in approaching such matters, but speak the Truth boldly when called upon to do so.(16) Because of Danforth and Buxton, York went on to save his regiment from annihilation only months later. What a difference a Christian can make.
"And they overcame him by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death." Revelations 12:11
There are three primary lessons from the York story:
1. God used Sergeant Alvin York to save the lives of hundreds of Americans and Germans on 8 October 1918. In the decades since this, the testimony of Sergeant York is still told. Like Alvin York, we must endeavor to take our faith seriously, and build our character and moral courage “muscles” by choosing to do the right thing every day. This will prepare us for the day of battle that lies ahead. Certainly, York was physically courageous on the battlefield, because he was morally courageous in his spiritual life.
2. God has endowed each of us with distinct talents/gifts to fulfill His purpose for our lives. In the case of Alvin York, his sharp eye as an expert rifleman made the difference during the fierce battle for the Decauville Railroad in October 1918. With such confidence, believers can move forward knowing that God has equipped us in the right place and the right time to fulfill His plan for our lives.
3. The example of Major Buxton and Captain Danforth speak to us today. These men gave hours of their precious time to help Sergeant York work through his spiritual doubts. Because of their boldness for the faith, patience and understanding, York was able to fully commit himself to the tasks that lie ahead and ultimately save his regiment from defeat. Although not many of us can expect to be a Sergeant York, surely we can live up to the examples of Captain Danforth and Major Buxton.
(1) Extracted from York’s Medal of Honor Citation.
(2) Richard Wheeler, ed., Sergeant York and the Great War (Mantle Ministries; Bulverde, TX, 1998) 154-155.
(3) The Diary of Alvin York, 18 October 2001 at http://acacia.pair.com/Acacia.Vignettes/
(5) The Diary of SGT York, 18 October 2001 at http://volweb.utk.edu/school/York/diary.html
(5) Alice Trulock, In the Hands of Providence, (University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 340.
(6) Interview with Colonel Gerald York, grandson of Alvin York, in April 1996 at the Presidio of Monterey.
(7) Richard Wheeler, ed., Sergeant York and the Great War (Mantle Ministries; Bulverde, TX, 1998) 58-60.
(8) Matthew 25:21
(9) Trulock, 143.
(10) Romans 13.
(11) Wheeler, 68.
(12) Wheeler, 72.
(13) http://volweb.utk.edu/Schools/York/biography.html Alvin C. York by Gladys Williams
(14) Wheeler, 79-82.
(15) Wheeler, 81-82.
(16) Matthew 5:13-16.