Alvin York: In the Lion's Den
By Judith Bronte
"O Daniel, servant of the living God,
is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions?
Then said Daniel unto the king, O king, live for ever. My God hath sent His angel,
and hath shut the lions' mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before
Him innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt.
Then was the king exceeding glad for him, and commanded that they should take Daniel
up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no manner of hurt was
found upon him, because he believed in his God."
~ Daniel 6:20-23 ~
lvin Cullum York was born on December 13, 1887,
in Pall Mall Tennessee. His ancestry fought in the Civil War; both of his grandfathers
joined with the Union. Their children, Mary Brooks and William York, married and
had eleven children, eight boys and three girls. Alvin was their third son. William
York loved hunting and was said to be one of the best marksman in Tennessee. He would
often take his sons hunting with him. Here, Alvin learned from the best.
In 1911, William York died. Alvin was twenty-four, and the oldest of the children
still at home. A great deal of responsibility was placed on him, and the resulting
effect was a wild and rebellious life. He remained so for about five or six years.
After many requests from Mary, (Alvin's Mother), he decided to quit drinking and
smoking. (Both habits of which he enjoyed greatly.) In his heart, he knew that what
he had been doing was sin. In 1915, Alvin York became a Christian.
"Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according
to Thy word."
~ Psalm 119:9 ~
In 1917, Alvin received a draft notice. He wrote: "My religion
and my experience...told me not to go to war, and the memory of my ancestors...told
me to get my gun and go fight. [The American Civil War had ended fifty-two years
earlier.] I didn't know what to do. I'm telling you there was a war going on inside
me, and I didn't know which side to lean to. I was a heap bothered. It is a most
awful thing when the wishes of your God and your country...get mixed up and go against
each other. One moment I would make up my mind to follow God, and the next I would
hesitate and almost make up my mind to follow Uncle Sam. Then I wouldn't know which
to follow or what to do. I wanted to follow both but I couldn't. They were opposite.
I wanted to be a good Christian and a good American too."
As "long as the records remain I will be officially known
as a conscientious objector. I was. I joined the church. I had taken its creed, and
I had taken it without what you might call reservations. I was not a Sunday Christian.
I believed in the Bible, and I tried in my own way to live up to it."
"Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God."
~ 1 John 3:21 ~
He willingly obeyed the draft, for he received assurance from God
that he would not get killed, and come back home without a scratch. "I told
them [his family] when I left-- I
was coming back, and I felt I was going to get back safely, and I
never did doubt it in the least, because I had my assurance that I would return home
Alvin York with a picture
of Mrs. Mary York, his
"little old mother".
On November 15, 1917, Alvin York was inducted into the Army. He
was plagued by homesickness. "I had never been out of the mountains before,"
he wrote, "and I'm telling you I missed them right smart. It's pretty flat and
sandy country down there in Georgia, and there ain't no strength or seasoning in
it. It sure needs hills and mountains most awful bad." Alvin longed for his
home. "I used to walk out in the night under the stars and linger on the hillside,
and I wanted to put my arms around them-there hills. They were at peace, and so was
the world, and so was I."
Alvin went as his government had commanded, even though the question of "Thou
shalt not kill," rang in his ears. In faith, he would go, but God would have
to take care of him.
"Teach me Thy way, O LORD, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies."
~ Psalm 27:11 ~
Alvin's officers, Captain Danforth and Major Buxton, were so impressed
by the honesty of his moral dilemma, that they would often have talks with him that
would last late into the night. On the last night that they spoke with him, Captain
Danforth read a passage from the thirty-third chapter of Ezekiel. "Son of man,
speak to the children of thy people, and say unto them, When I bring the sword upon
a land, if the people of the land take a man of their coasts, and set him for their
watchman: If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and
warn the people; Then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not
warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head.
He heard the sound of the trumpet, and took not warning; his blood shall be upon
him. But he that taketh warning shall deliver his soul. But if the watchman see the
sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword
come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but
his blood will I require at the watchman's hand." Upon hearing this, Alvin stood
up and announced: "All right, I'm satisfied." A great burden had been lifted.
Before going overseas, he was granted a ten-day leave to return home. It was a "...heartbreaking
time for me, as I knew I had to go to France. But I went back to my company trusting
in God and asking Him to keep me, although I had many trials and much hardship and
temptation, but then the Lord would bless me and I almost felt sure of coming back
home, for the Lord was with me."
"What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against
~ Romans 8:31 ~
On April 19, 1918, Alvin's camp started the journey that would
find them in France. He was a witness to the savagery of war. "God would never
be cruel enough to create a cyclone as terrible as that Argonne battle. Only man
would ever think of doing an awful thing like that. It looked like 'the abomination
of desolation' must look like. And all through the long night those big guns flashed
and growled just like the lightning and the thunder when it storms in the mountains
"On the morning of October 8,  Corporal York was one of a body of sixteen
men in the battle of the Argonne who were ordered to put certain enemy machine guns
out of action. The guns they were after were on the other side of a slope. To gain
their objective, the Americans were forced to climb a hill, exposed a part of the
time to enemy fire from other positions. They accomplished this without loss and
began to descend on the other side, their object being to advance upon the enemy
from the rear. Presently they found themselves in a cuplike valley among the hills
where they spied two Germans ahead of them. One of these surrendered and the other
disappeared. Anticipating battle, the detachment went into skirmish order and continued
to push forward. Arriving at a small stream, the Americans discovered on the other
side some twenty or thirty Germans, among them several officers who were apparently
holding a conference. The Americans fired, with the result that the entire body of
Germans surrendered. Just as they were on the point of departure with their prisoners,
dozens of enemy machine guns, hidden on the steep slope of the hill facing them not
over thirty yards away, [Hill 223] opened up on the American detachment. Captors
and captured immediately dropt flat on their stomachs, but not before six Americans
had been killed. Three men were wounded, among them the sergeant in command. York
and seven privates remained. Of these one had taken refuge behind a tree raked on
both sides by enemy fire so he could not get away, and the others were guarding the
German prisoners. Hence York was left to fight an entire machine-gun battalion alone."
(excerpt from 'The Literary Digest', June 14, 1919)
"You never heard such a clatter and racket in all your life." "I couldn't
see any of our boys. Early and Cutting had run along toward the left in front of
me just before the battle started, but I didn't know where they were." "If
I'd moved I'd have been killed in a second. The Germans were what saved me. [The
prisoners they had captured earlier were laying on the ground in front of Alvin.]
I kept up close to them, and so the fellers on the hill had to fire a little high
for fear of hitting their own men. The bullets were cracking just over my head and
a lot of twigs fell down." "Well, I fired a couple of clips or so — things
were moving pretty lively, so I don't know how many I did shoot — and first thing
I knew a Boche got up and flung a little bomb at me about the size of a silver dollar.
It missed and wounded one of the prisoners on the ground, and I got the Boche—got
him square." "Next thing that happened, a lieutenant rose up from near
one of them machine guns and he had seven men with him. The whole bunch came charging
down the hill at me." "I had my automatic out by then, and let them have
it. Got the lieutenant right through the stomach and he drops and screamed a lot...
Then I shot the others.... At that distance I couldn't miss." "As soon
as the Germans saw the lieutenant drop, most of them quit firing their machine guns
and the battle quieted down. I kept on shooting, but in a minute here come the major
who had surrendered with the first bunch. I reckon he had done some shooting at us
himself, because I heard firing from the prisoners and afterward I found out that
his pistol was empty." "He put his hand on my shoulder like this and said
to me in English. 'Don't shoot any more, anti I'll make them surrender.' So I said.
'All right'; and he did so, and they did so."
The German Major of the prisoners had providentially lived in Chicago for a time,
and spoke English well. Thus, Alvin was able to give demands that normally would
have required a translator. "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. 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.' So when my man said that, this German major said, 'How
many have you got?' and I said, 'I have got a-plenty,' and pointed
my pistol at him all the time."
"And the LORD said unto Gideon, The people that are with thee are too many for
me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against
me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me."
~ Judges 7:2 ~
"And it came to pass the same night, that the LORD said unto him, Arise, get
thee down unto the host; for I have delivered it into thine hand."
~ Judges 7:9 ~
Over thirty machine guns had been aimed down Hill 223, less than
thirty yards away from Corporal Alvin York. Alvin later remarked upon revisitng the
site later that day, "I noticed the bushes all around where I stood in my fight
with the machine guns were all cut down. The bullets went over my head and on either
side. But they never touched me." "So you can see here in this case of
mine where God helped me out. I had been living for God and working in the church
some time before I come to the army. So I am a witness to the fact that God did help
me out of that hard battle; for the bushes were shot up all around me and I never
got a scratch. So you can see that God will be with you if you will only trust Him;
and I say that He did save me. Now, He will save you if you will only trust Him."
"After the Armistice was signed, I was ordered to go back to the scene of my
fight with the machine guns. General Lindsey and some other generals went with me.
We went over the ground carefully. The officers spent a right smart amount of time
examining the hill and the trenches where the machine guns were, and measuring and
discussing everything. And then General Lindsey asked me to describe the fight to
him. And I did. And then he asked me to march him out just like I marched the German
major out, over the same ground and back to the American lines. Our general was very
popular. He was a natural born fighter and he could swear just as awful as he could
fight. He could swear most awful bad.
And when I marched him back to our old lines he said to me, 'York, how did you do
it?' And I answered him, '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, 'York, you are right.'
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 [Alvin
was six foot tall]. Over thirty machine guns were maintaining rapid fire at me, point-blank
from a range of about twenty-five yards."
"No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that
shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the
servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of Me, saith the LORD."
~ Isaiah 54:17 ~
The next day found twenty-eight Germans dead; just as many shots
Alvin said he had fired. Every bullet he fired had found it's target. "Practically
unassisted, he [Alvin] 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." (excerpt from
'the official report made by officers of the Eighty-Second Division to General Headquarters')
On November 1, "I was made a sergeant just as quick as I got back out of the
On April 24, at St. Silva, Marshal Foch pinned the French Croix de Guerre on him,
and called his exploit "the greatest thing accomplished by any private soldier
of all the armies of Europe." Upon talking with Alvin, Brigadier General Lindsey
said, "Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole German army." Alvin
replied modestly, "No, I only have 132."
"A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but
it shall not come nigh thee."
~ Psalm 91:7 ~
Alvin was still homesick. "I wanted all the time to get back
to the mountains where I belonged. I wanted to live the quiet life again and escape
from the mad rush of the world. We had done the job we set out to do, and now, like
all the other American soldiers, I wanted to get back home." "The little
old mother and the little mountain girl ... were waiting."
By May of 1919, Sgt. York was back home. On the seventh of June, he and Gracie, ("the
little mountain girl"), were married. However, his quiet life was interrupted
by offers for thousands of dollars to commercialize his fame. "I knew if I hadn't
been to war and hadn't been a doughboy they never would have offered me anything.
I also knew I didn't go to war to make a heap or to go on the stage or in the movies.
I went over there to help make peace. And there was peace now, so I didn't take their
thirty pieces of silver and betray that there old uniform of mine." "I
just wanted to be left alone to go back to my beginnings. The war was over. I had
done my job and I had done it the best I could. So I figured I ought to be left alone
and allowed to go back to the mountains where I belonged."
But things would never be the same again. "I knew that I had changed."
"I knew I wasn't like I used to be. The big outside world I had been in and
the things I had fought through had touched me up inside a powerful lot ... I was
sort of restless and full of dreams and wanted to be doing something and I didn't
understand. So I sat out on the hillside trying to puzzle it out. Before the war
I felt the mountains isolated us and kept us together as a God-fearing, God-loving
people. They did that, too, but they did more than that. They kept out many of the
good and worthwhile things like good roads, schools, libraries, up-to-date homes
and modern farming methods."
"I kind of figured my trials and tribulations in the war had been to prepare
me for doing just this work in the mountains. All of my suffering in having to go
and kill were to teach me the value of human lives. All the temptations I went through
were to strengthen my character."
"Though He [Jesus] were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which
~ Hebrews 5:8 ~
In 1927, Alvin felt led of God to help his people out by building
schools. So he told everyone that any future donations or gifts that would have gone
to him, would now go to the building of schools. He helped finance this work by going
on lectures. However, debt piled up, and when his health began to fail, it added
more to it. He had raised about $10,000 in the school fund. Alvin originally wanted
to create several small schools strategically placed in the mountains, but found
the goal to be unrealistic. It was decided that instead of several small schools,
one school should be created, (an institution known as the York Industrial Institute).
In 1937, (in light of Alvin's failing health), he could not undertake so great a
responsibility. So it was suggested that the school be no longer private, but state
run. Alvin liked the idea, and it was carried through.
Alvin later tried to create a Bible school, but a lack of funds and poor health hindered
it. A building was raised for this purpose, and has now been abandoned for many years.
Alvin York had seven children with Gracie: Alvin C. Junior, Edward Buxton, whom he
named after Major Buxton, for the Major had requested Alvin to name a son after him
(such was his high esteem for Sgt. York), Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson, Thomas
Jefferson, Betsy Ross and Mary Alice. World War II loomed ahead. In New York on July
31, 1941, he said, "It may sound strange for a man who fought in one dreadful
war to talk like I'm talking tonight. They told us back in 1917-18 that we were fighting
to save the world for democracy, and they had to argue me into it. Well, we did fight
for democracy, and we saved it for ourselves for 23 years. Maybe now we've got to
do it again." He gave this speech four months before Pearl Harbor. To this act
of war, he replied,"Our hands are on the plow and we dare not, cannot turn back
from our determination to rid the world of the Hitler menace. Life, not death; liberty,
not enslavement; the pursuit of happiness, not the pursuit of sorrow and misery,
will keep democracy fighting until victory is assured."
He went on the radio to encourage America to buy war bonds. "This war is everybody's
war. The sooner everybody is wholeheartedly behind it, the sooner it will be over.
It will never be finished quick as long as we put more store by our private, personal,
and selfish wants than our national liberty and democracy. And the way I see it,
liberty and democracy are prizes that come only to people who fight to win them and
then keep on fighting eternally to hold them. Though all of us may not be front line
fighters, all of us can still help with the fight. We can buy war bonds to the limit
just as those American fighting men keep fighting to the limit. Men couldn't win
with their bare hands in 1918. Men can't win with
their bare hands today."
Alvin York at the premiere of
"Sergeant York", in 1941.
"Put them in fear, O LORD: that the nations may know themselves to be but men.
~ Psalm 9:20 ~
More than twenty years after he returned home from France, Alvin
signed with Warner Bros. to tell his life's story. He acted as advisor. Gary Cooper
was to play Sgt. Alvin York, for which performance he won an Academy Award. The movie
was released in 1941.
"We will not hide them from their children, showing to the generation to come
the praises of the LORD, and His strength, and His wonderful works that He hath done."
~ Psalm 78:4 ~
Alvin was paid $169,449.84, and paid off most of his debts. A lot
of the money went towards the Bible school at Pall Mall.
In 1954, after troubles with the IRS, (not dishonest trouble), he suffered from the
last of three cerebral hemorrhages. Alvin spent the next ten years as a complete
invalid. He would pass his time in bed or in a wheelchair. He kept an interest in
the world around him. For more than ten years he had been wracked with pain and was
virtually blind. The doctors agreed that the complications which Alvin suffered would
have killed a man of lesser endurance long before they killed him. He was hospitalized
ten times, the last two years of his life. The poison gas he endured in World War
I, might be an attributing factor to his failing health. "We had a lot of big
stuff from the artillery coming over, and now and then a gas shell. We used to do
a powerful lot of ducking. But soon we realized it was no use. You never hear the
one that gets you." "The Germans threw a lot of gas shells into Norway
and we had to wear our gas masks for several hours. Many of the boys were gassed
or killed." "The Germans sent over a heavy barrage and also gas, and we
put on our gas masks and just pressed right on thought those shells..."
God always allows suffering for our good.
"It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn Thy statutes."
~ Psalm 119:71 ~
Alvin Cullum York died on September 2, 1964 at the Veteran's Hospital
in Nashville, Tennessee. He was buried a short distance from the church where he
was first saved. Before dying, Alvin asked his son, Edward Buxton York, if what he
had done on October the eighth in the Argonne Forest was right. Edward replied that
the scriptures say when you have hate in your heart, then you are a murderer. He
reminded his father that there had not been any hatred for the German soldiers in
his heart. His father only did what had to be done. Satisfied, Sgt. Alvin Cullum
York passed away a few hours later. In Alvin's Diary, under November 17, 1917, is
proof of Edward Buxton York's words: "I have got no hatred toward the Germans
and I never had."
"Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath
eternal life abiding in him. Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid
down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren."
~ 1 John 3:15-16 ~
"Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints."
~ Psalm 116:15 ~
Andrew Jackson York said of his father, "We think it very
important to remember not only what he did, but why he did it. The principles
and values by which he lived before, during and after his military service made him
a great American citizen and soldier."
Below is a letter written by Lieutenant Colonel Buxton (formerly Major Buxton) to
Gracie. This letter was a prized possession of Alvin's. It is a fitting testimony
of Alvin York's Christian example to others- something that will never die, as long
as we remember.
"Hq. 82d Div., A.P.O. 742,
American E. F., France
26 February, 1919
Miss Gracie Williams,
Pall Mall, Tenn.
My Dear Miss Williams:
It has come to my attention that you are one of the people at home who, by virtue
of friendship, is interested in Sergeant Alvin C. York, Company G, 328th Infantry.
Entirely without any suggestion on the part of my friend, Sergeant York, I should
like to tell you and his mother something of the very high esteem in which he is
held by the officers and men of this division.
Until the 82nd Division entered the fight in the Argonne, it was my privilege to
command the battalion of which Sgt. York's company was a part. During those many
trying days Sgt. York grew daily in our esteem as very efficient noncommissioned
officer and as an unusual influence for duty and good conduct among his comrades.
Not only was this record maintained during the terrible battles in the Argonne, but
on the 8th of October, 1918, Sgt. York performed acts of extreme heroism and presence
of mind which won him the Distinguished Service Cross and the personal thanks of
Major General Duncan, Major General Summerall, and General Pershing himself.
With a little detachment of men from G Company, he faced an entire German Battalion
in an isolated ravine, far from any American assistance. Nine Americans were at once
shot down, but Sgt. York fought on until the German major and 131 German officers
and men surrendered as prisoners. There were only seven Americans left besides Sgt.
York, who had himself personally borne the heaviest brunt of the fighting. This achievement
on his part came at a very critical time and unquestionably saved the lives of large
numbers of his comrades, who would have later been attacked by this captured battalion.
It will be a great satisfaction to Mrs. York and yourself to know of the respect
which all of us feel for the manly Christian Character displayed by this splendid
"When you have God behind you, you can come out on top every time."
- Alvin Cullum York
See "The Diary of Alvin
York" for more about the exploits of Alvin York.
You may republish this without permission, provided it remains
free, accredited and unaltered. Copyright © 2008 Sarah Fall (aka Judith Bronte).