TENNESSEE’S "CHRISTIAN WARRIOR"
by Stan Griffin
Popular movie star Gary Cooper won his first Academy Award portraying the title character in "Sergeant York," a 1941 film that told the true story of a World War I hero and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. (Cooper later portrayed a second Medal of Honor winner in "The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell.") Cooper and York met during filming, and the two men found they had much in common.
Alvin Cullum York left the mountains of Tennessee in November, 1917 to enter the U. S. Army. He had done his best to avoid military service, claiming his church condemned violence and killing. York returned 1 ½ years later; and from then until his death nearly half a century later, he was "one of the most popular men in the country."
York’s church was a small fundamentalist sect called the "Church of Christ in Christian Union," sometimes referred to as the "Christian Union" or the "Church of Christ."
In the late 18th century, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, voiced an article of faith he called "perfectionism." It said Christians got a "second blessing" called "sanctification" which assured them of freedom from original sin as well as salvation. Accepted by his church in England then, by the mid-19th century, it was no longer part of American Methodists’ beliefs.
The Holiness movement of the 1860s adopted sanctification as a "vehicle for spiritual rejuvenation." Disaffected Methodists left to establish new churches committed to that idea. and fed the growth of the Church of Christ in Christian Union. New groups were formed in Columbus, Ohio (1863) and Terra Haute, Indiana (1864). Other congregations grew up in the Midwest and in the border states of Kentucky and Tennessee after the Civil War.
The C. C. C. U. discouraged "political preaching." It minimized distinctions among Christians which was especially appealing to people at the lower end of the social scale such as "mountain folk" like York who had no wealth or influence. The Bible was considered the "only rule of faith and practice," and they encouraged parishioners to interpret Scriptures THEIR WAY.
New members had only to confess Christ as savior, accept the Bible as the revealed word of God, and promise to study it and follow its teachings–as THEY understood them. Local congregations were self-governing, with full authority to select and ordain pastors. There was very little central control. Even basic sacraments like baptism were performed in a "scriptural" manner–as individuals felt were correct.
The church had no specific doctrine of pacificism, but there was a history of resistance to warfare. Early in its life, the founders had refused to: (1) vote for resolutions of war; (2) pray for the success of war; and (3) join the ranks that marched on the streets at war meetings.
Alvin York was born on December 13, 1887 near the community of Pall Mall, Tennessee in the Valley of Three Forks of the Wolf River, in the Cumberland Mountains, Fentress County, just a few miles from the Kentucky border. His father died when York was 24 years old, and he became responsible for his mother and ten brothers and sisters.
Guns had been a major part of York’s entire life. Hunting was more of a necessity than a sport in the mountains, and he soon acquired a reputation as best marksman and hunter in the county. Shooting matches were popular in Fentress County, and York often outshot all comers.
He was a "rowdy" young man even though he attended church regularly. He gambled, drank moonshine, and rough-housed (got into fights). Described as "wild" and "no account," his mother worried constantly about him, as did the young woman York hoped to marry: Gracie Williams
Alcohol brought out the violent side of York’s nature, and this often resulted in confrontations with fists or weapons. He had several brushes with the law. Gradually he became wholly dissatisfied with his lifestyle; and over a period of time, his religious faith gradually grew. Finally, in December, 1914 evangelist H. H. Russell conducted a revival meeting in Fentress County. His sermons persuaded York religion was the only thing that would give him the self-control he was after.
According to custom, he was considered to have been "saved" by a personal experience with Jesus Christ. His sins had been pardoned ; he would begin a life of faith, making a complete break with his past. By 1917, York was the "second elder" at his church and conducted services when the pastor was absent. That April, the U. S. declared war and entered the conflict in Europe.
York was torn between conflicting loyalties. Patriotism was a "strong part of his mountain heritage," but his church told him violence was wrong. When he received his notice to report for the draft in June of that year, he spent a lot of time praying, studying the Bible, and wandering through the mountains. Encouraged by his pastor, York sought exemption as a conscientious objector based on his membership in the Church of Christ in Christian Union. He filed four appeals, all of which were rejected. The reason given: his church had no creed except the Bible which was open to opposing interpretations. He was inducted into the Army in November.
York’s first weeks of military service were miserable for him. Homesickness, the cultural gap between himself and his fellow draftees, and the confusing "Army way" combined to make him despondent. Most of all, there remained doubts about the righteousness of war; but he told his superiors nothing about his misgivings until being assigned to Company G, 328th Infantry, 82nd Division, a combat unit headed for Europe. His company commander sent him to see Battalion Commander General George Edward Buxton. Buxton was a devout New Englander. He and York spent hours discussing the Bible’s teachings about war.
Buxton quoted several Biblical passages. Among them were: "He that hath no sword, let him sell his cloak and buy one" (Luke 22:36); Jesus’ words: "For my kingdom is not of this world, but if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight" (John 18:36); " ... Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s" (Matthew 22:21)-- therefore Christian servants of the government should fight for its preservation; (Ezekiel 33:1-6) suggested the Lord expected his people to defend themselves.
Following this conversation, York was even more confused. Buxton gave him a 10-day pass to go home and think things through. He agreed to discharge him then if he hadn’t changed his mind (Buxton later named one of his sons after York.)
York again did some soul-searching as he spent two days in the mountains praying for divine guidance. He eventually experienced an "emotional commitment to the war against Germany," convinced the Germans were trying to overrun the world. York matched this idea with a Biblical quote: "Blessed are the peacemakers ...", taking the stance that " ... We were to help make peace the only way the Germans would understand ..."
York was lucky to have an understanding commander. His attitude wasn’t typical of the way most military men approached the problem of conscientious objectors. They were often harrassed by officers and other recruits Many of them, like York, eventually decided to take up arms. Of the 20,000 who wanted C. O. status in 1917-1918, 16,000 (under pressure) changed their minds.
After York returned to duty in April, 1918 the "All-American Division" sailed for France where they spent two months putting the final touches on their training before moving to the front lines. In late June, they were rotated into place on the Western Front.
Life in the trenches was dangerous and uncomfortable. York read his Bible in his off-duty hours. He, like many other men, kept a diary (even though their officers tried to discourage them). York wrote, "The only thing to do was to pray and trust God."
In September, York’s unit took part in an attack on the St. Mihiel Salient. The Germans used poison gas, and there were many American casualties. York commented on the fact that the dead " ... won’t be going home ..."
The Meuse-Argonne offensive in northeast France was a "big push" designed to end the war before winter. York’s unit was one of several taking part. On October 8, near Chatel-Chehery, France, Cpl. York led a seven-man patrol to eliminate flanking machine gun fire that was halting his regiment’s advance. Pushing ahead of his squad which had already suffered two casualties, he found himself alone opposing a German machine gun company with just a rifle and a pistol. Without hesitation, York "took them on" by himself. He killed six Germans sent to draw him out, then positioned himself at the end of their trench and began shooting them as they stood in line.
When the "fire-fight" ended, 25 of the enemy were dead. The other 132 gunners became discouraged and surrendered to York and his patrol. He was later promoted to sergeant and eventually received 50 decorations and honors including the Congressional Medal of Honor.
York’s battalion spent three more weeks in combat. They were then sent to a rest area; and before they were returned to action, the Armistice was signed (November 11) and the war was over. York believed his victory over the machine guns was "fulfillment of God’s promise , , , because he was serving a holy cause." He considered himself to be "one of the Lord’s agents" in the Argonne.
York remained in Europe through the winter of 1918-1919. He spent much of his time in France performing Christian service and revival work with the Chaplain. They held prayer meetings with small groups of men.
A story in the April, 1919 "Saturday Evening Post" " ... catapulted York to worldwide prominence" and brought him to the attention of the American people. He returned to the U. S. in May. The city of New York honored him with a ticker-tape parade After a few days of sight-seeing, he came back to Tennessee where he married Gracie with Governor Albert H. Roberts officiating.
York had received many offers to capitalize financially on his fame. No one bothered to add them all up, but they probably would have totaled between $250,000 and $500,000. York rejected all of them. He did accept a gift from Nashville’s Rotary Club and the city newspaper: a 400-acre farm in Fentress County.
York believed God had chosen him to " ... bring the benefits of an industrial society to his neighbors ..." and that " ... the war had been part of God’s plan to prepare him for a life of service .. (to his neighbors)." He said, "My ambition ... is to devote my time improving conditions here in the mountains."
He was aware of problems faced by his people: roads; schools; and the need for libraries, modern homes, and up-to-date farming methods. Fentress County children had no access to an elementary school with an eight-month term To accomplish his goals, York set up the Alvin C. York Foundation. Its purposes were to improve the education of mountain children with an elementary school, support an industrial school, and a Bible school to " ... encourage faith and prayer ..." In 1929 the York Agricultural Institute was opened to provide vocational training. He considered this to be his greatest achievement.
York was able to make a "lasting contribution to the lives of his neighbors in spite of the problems (that intruded) ..." Petty squabbling and politics haunted his attempts to improve life in the mountains.
During World War II, York served as chairman of the Fentress County Selective Service Board. Two of his sons were drafted and served in the military. He toured army training camps and advised the men to " ... keep your Bibles with you ..." Visiting his old division, he made a suggestion that General Omar Bradley (its commander) put into practice: to set up short-range firing courses in addition to those of regulation length. (During his combat service, York found he had to do a lot of shooting at closer distances.) He took part in War Bond Drives and did fund-raising for the Red Cross.
York’s financial problems escalated in his later years. His generosity toward education and religion was partly responsible. York fought an Internal Revenue Service claim that he owed $25,000 in back taxes. To assist him meet that obligation, the "Help Sergeant York Committee" was established to collect popular donations. Money poured in from all over the U. S. In a six-week period, 10,000 contributions were received, many from schoolchildren. Ultimately, the amount sent in surpassed $50,000, more than enough to satisfy the I. R. S. The extra was placed in a trust fund to help with the York family living expenses.
Physical problems began to plague York as early as the late 1940s. Over a 15-year period, he had arthritis, lobar pneumonia, high blood pressure, and he suffered several strokes. He was forced to end his public service activities as he became an invalid.
In August, 1964, York fell into a coma at the Nashville Veterans Hospital. He died on September 2 with his wife and children at his bedside. His funeral was held at York’s Chapel in Pall Mall. Over 8,000 people attended. He was buried in the local cemetery.
The "Sgt. Alvin C. York State Historic Park" in Pall Mall includes the York family farm and the gristmill he operated for many years on the banks of the Wolf River. He has also been honored with a 10-foot statue on the grounds of the State Capitol in Nashville. His medals and trophies can be seen at the Tennessee State Museum.
Alvin York ". . . succeeded in turning personal glory into community
progress ..." Americans saw him as "a man who represented the finest
elements of the national character."
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