“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
There are days in our life that we will never forget. Alvin York had a day that would change his life forever; and it wasn’t the day he is most notable for.
On October 8, 1918 as a corporal in the United States Army he became one of the most famous and highly decorated soldiers in history. His story of gallantry is well documented. During the Battle of Argonne, along with a small group of men, York went on a raid of a German camp. After pretty easily defeating the camp, the men found themselves pinned down by 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." Diary of Alvin York.
York felled 17 Germans with 17 shots. After that, a group of Germans charged at his unit and York shot 8 more with only 8 more shots. It was a remarkable show of marksmanship. Following that he led his small unit back to the Allied base and captured as many as 132 German Prisoners along the way (although numbers vary). York received The Distinguished Service Cross, the Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor from France, the Croce de Guerra from Italy, The War Medal of Montenegro, and the United States Medal of Honor. He received a Heroes welcome home from the war and a ticker tape parade in New York City. That day in Europe made York famous. A few years later, Gary Cooper won an Oscar portraying him on the big screen.
That heroic day was not however the day that Sergeant York would point to as the most significant day in his life. That day actually took place a few years earlier.
As the third of 11 kids on a small farm in Tennessee, York grew up dirt poor and a little rowdy. The family farm was too far away from school and chores had to be done, so he wasn’t well educated. When his father died young it hit him hard. He developed quite a reputation for drinking too much moonshine and getting into too many fights. He also was known to be a bit of a gambler. When he was 27 years old most thought Alvin York would “never amount to anything.”
On January 1, 1915 he attended a church revival meeting. At that meeting York’s poverty, nor his temper, nor his drunkenness, nor his gambling, nor his lack of education, kept him from committing his life to Christ.
York described the events at the revival of feeling like he was hit by lightning. He gave up all the habits that had been keeping him in trouble. He got involved in a local church became a deacon, Sunday school teacher, and even led worship.
His faith went so deep it almost kept him from ever becoming a hero. The congregation he was part of was staunchly pacifist; they held firm to the tenant, "Blessed are the Peacemakers." When York was drafted he originally replied that he was a conscientious objector, but his case was rejected and he was sent to boot camp.
It took a lot of soul searching before he was able to reconcile his patriotism and his faith. He truly wanted to defend his country but did not want to fight. Through a lot of prayer and Bible study he finally came to accept that by fighting he could help make peace.
The faith he found that night at the revival sustained him throughout his experiences in World War I and gave him a new perspective on his life. No longer was he concerned about his own well-being. His heart was now fixed on helping other people.
Alvin York could have used his hero status to better himself. He could have cashed in. He knew God didn’t choose him because he was a hero. God made him a hero and opened his heart to others. He could have done anything. He had countless offers. He had the world in the palm of his hand, but his heart led him back to Tennessee.
In the Tennessee hills was the “girl who had waited” as well as generations of youth that he wanted to make sure had a better opportunities than he did. He also returned to his role at the church. York worked tirelessly to improve things for his local community. He fought for roads, employment, and mostly education. His biggest dream was to provide a high quality education to those like himself who were not going to receive it at the far away city school.
Maintaining a family farm and giving every other penny he had to church or towards the school made life tough financially. Through the sacrifice, York first was able to offer some classes at the York Agricultural Institute in the mid-1920s. During the Great Depression and the subsequent lead up to World War II, York’s dream seemed destined not to ever be fulfilled. That’s why he agreed to allow Hollywood to tell his story.
The money he made from the movie went to finish and better the school that was now known as The York Institute. Despite his status as a war hero and despite that the funds were used for a school; the nice people at the IRS decided York hadn’t paid enough taxes. They charged him with tax evasion claiming he underpaid by over $80,000. The IRS being the awesome organization they are also added $80,000 more in penalties.
In the late stages of his life York was partially paralyzed, blind, and practically penniless. Not the life you would imagine for one of America’s greatest warriors.
He saw the horrors of war, he struggled financially, his health failed him, but through all of it, Alvin York clung to the faith he found January 1, 1915.
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ. - Philippians 3:7-8
Most people who recognize his name remember him for his great exploits that will live on in history books and maybe Red Box, through Gary Cooper’s performance. In rural Tennessee he is better known for his faith and for the school that is still open and educating young people today.
Despite that he was born into poverty, despite that he turned his back on his parent’s religion, despite the fact he had little education and some would say “nothing to offer” God still chose to use Alvin York. None of those things defined Alvin York. Neither did that one day in The Battle of Argonne.
God sought Alvin York out where he was and put him where he needed to be.
Christ isn’t looking for us because we are heroes. He will make us heroes flaws and all. The grace he gives out will far surpass anything we could ever gain without him