I recently had the privilege of visiting the hometown of one of my childhood heroes, Alvin C. York. Perpetually known as “Sgt. York” thanks to the title of the 1940 movie for which Gary Cooper won the Oscar for best actor by his portrayal of York, the real-life Alvin York is probably the most well-known foot soldier of World War I. His actions during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918 in France won him the Congressional Medal of Honor and lasting fame and recognition.
Actions in the Argonne Forest
If you’re not familiar with York’s actions during that campaign, here is the exact citation of his extraordinary act of bravery in the heat of battle:
The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Corporal Alvin Cullium York (ASN: 1910421), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 8 October 1918, while serving with Company G, 2d Battalion, 328th Infantry, 82d Division, in action at Chatel-Chehery, France. After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and three other noncommissioned officers had become casualties, Corporal York assumed command. Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring a machinegun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat the machinegun nest was taken, together with four officers and 128 men and several guns.
What makes York’s intrepid behavior all the more impressive is his initial reluctance to take part in combat at all. Being a fairly new Christian in 1917 (he underwent a radical conversion in 1915), Alvin initially sought to avoid the nationwide draft instituted by the Wilson administration. Not wanting to be placed in a position where he might have to take part in what he saw as breaking the 6th commandment by slaying enemy soldiers, York was influenced by one of his commanders, G Edward Buxton Jr., another committed Christian. Buxton challenged York with a number of biblical passages that indicated the government’s legitimate authority to use the sword when necessary, as well as scripture that seemed to normalize owning and even using weapons (Romans 13, Mark 12:17, Luke 22:36).
Buxton allowed York to mull over his quandary back home in Pall Mall for ten days and expected to defer him to non-combat duty as a conscientious objector, but to his surprise, on York’s return rather than request a deferment he opted to remain in his combat-ready company. Growing up in a very remote region of north-central Tennesee, York’s marksmanship skills were honed at a young age, shooting deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other game to feed his family. In the Argonne Forest, York used those same skills and his 1917 Enfield to kill at least 25 enemy soldiers, a feat that earned him the status of hero but caused him long-term concern over whether his actions were justified, and in the eyes of God, forgivable.
Return to Tennesee
When I was younger and first saw the film Sgt. York, I remember being confused as to why Alvin York, after having gained international notoriety, wouldn’t capitalize on his newfound fame and travel the world by living off the royalties of corporate sponsorships. Instead, York wanted to immediately return to rural Tennesee to get back to a life of farming, family, and ministry.
Something that immediately struck me was how breathtakingly beautiful his hometown is (“Pall Mall,” Tennessee), and made his desire to return there immediately make more sense. It’s an extremely serene, pleasant place. It’s quiet, the people are friendly and familiar, and it feels a million miles away from the pressing problems of the world, at least if you’re visiting from out-of-town.
The State of Tennesee built Alvin a good-sized house that had no indoor plumbing but did have another novelty of the time: electricity. Alvin was enraptured with lights that could be turned on by switch during his time in New York City and Paris. His home was the only place in the region that had any electricity, though it only worked with a gasoline generator. Only a few days after arriving home, Alvin married his childhood sweetheart, Gracie Loretta Williams with whom he had 10 children. His 5-bedroom house was nearly always bursting at the seams with guests, be they family, friends, or people just passing through.
Improving Pall Mall
Though Alvin could have easily become involved in state, national, or even international politics, his interests were laser-focused on his own community, and even when he traveled it was generally just to raise money for projects in the Wolf River Valley. He didn’t want to be remembered for his actions in the Argonne Forest, but instead for improving his home. He wanted to see schools, roads, hospitals, and other developments come to the area, and he was willing to use his own money to do so. Several times he mortgaged the house that Tennesee had provided him several times to fund various endeavors.
Perhaps his greatest passion project was York Bible School, a local institution designed not only to teach the Bible but also to help children learn useful trades that could be used to better themselves and improve the community. The school operated for 20 years, but several strokes and Alvin’s eventual death in 1964 put an end to enrollment.
Alvin York’s Legacy
Post World War I, York’s reputation was often used to forward war-hawk policies, especially around the time of World War II, and even during the Cold War. Alvin kept a portrait of Charles Lindbergh (who was seen as a Nazi party sympathizer and isolationist) above his bathroom to symbolize his disdain for the famous pilot, and at one point was quoted as saying about the use of the atomic bomb on the Soviet Union, “If they can’t find anyone else to push the button, I will.” Still, some of York’s final words were an expression of concern about his own actions of violence: “do you think God has forgiven me for killing all those Germans?” Alvin asked his son, Edward, a pastor, shortly before dying in a Veteran’s hospital in Nashville after slipping into a coma.
Alvin York’s life is incredibly instructive for the Christian that wants to know what it looks like to pursue truth and righteousness while trying to make difficult decisions. If he had been killed in France, then his story would have been instructive on its own, but his love of his own home and people also provide profound lessons on what it means to live a God-honoring life. If you’re looking for an example of a Christian that sought to balance quiet, Christian faithfulness with life in a turbulent time, Alvin York is worth your consideration.
The Old Paths
Shortly before his death, Alvin was able to celebrate his 76th birthday in Pall Mall with a large group of friends, family, and community members. Some of his last public words ring out profoundly, sharply, and even ominously as we acknowledge and honor our Nation’s fallen this Memorial Day:
If this country fails, it will fail from within. I think we’ve just got to go back to the old-time religion, shouting as though the world is on fire. Maybe people will realize we’ve gotten onto some wrong roads and return to the old paths.Alvin C. York
A visit to Pall Mall finds the town much like it was when Alvin York was still alive. The population is still tiny, the hills are still green, and the locals keep his gravesite, as well as the entire cemetery where he’s buried, in pristine condition. You will be greeted with a smile and conversation, many still follow the “old-time religion,” and you’re reminded that the quiet, peaceable life of the Christian described in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 – the one that so many have fought and died for – still exists.
May God preserve it for us.
References and Resources
Sergeant York – 1940 (Academy-Award-winning film)