The Conversion of Alvin York
I was watching one of my favorite movies the other day, Sergeant York. This movie is a biographical story of Alvin York, a man raised in the back country of Central Tennessee who became the most celebrated American hero of World War I. However, in his early days he was hardly heroic. His reputation was of a drunken hell-raiser, only good for fighting and carousing. Even though he worked hard when sober, farming a rocky patch of land on a hilltop, he would often go to the Kentucky border where he could buy liquor, and he would stay drunk for days at a time. Alvin did try to get his act together without the Lord, but inevitably he faced a crisis that shook his foundation in himself to the core and led to his conversion against his will.
Even though Alvin was a poor farmer from the hilltops as was his father and grandfather, he decided he was going to try to break the cycle of poverty and entered into a contract that gave him 60 days to come up with the money to buy a piece of bottom land. Alvin worked day and night at extremely hard labor to come up with the rest of the money, and was finally able to get it. But the seller had, in Alvin’s opinion, cheated him out of the land by selling it to another man. After an evening of heavy drinking, Alvin decided to kill both the seller and the buyer. In a drunken stupor he hopped on his mule, rifle gun in hand, with one intent – to shoot these men. As the scene unfolds, Alvin is riding past the local church in a lightning storm intent on carrying out his murderous plan. A lightning bolt hits mule and rider, knocking both unconscious. As Alvin recovers from the strike, he notices his rifle lying next to him, smoking in the mud, with the gun barrel split wide open. He then notices singing coming from the church building, where the parishioners are holding a meeting. He enters the back of the church, and with a beckoning hand the pastor encourages Alvin to come forward while the congregation continues singing. The people gather around him and encourage him forward, and Alvin York the hell-raiser gets saved.
There is a lot more to this movie than this one scene. After Alvin’s conversion he becomes a pacifist and when war is declared against Germany and the draft is instituted, Alvin claims conscientious objector status. When his status is denied, he goes to war under protest, but ends up joining the fight, capturing 132 German soldiers single-handedly and becoming a great American hero. This movie is definitely a must-see, even though you have to suffer through a lot of sketchy theology. But my main reason for writing this relates to Alvin’s conversion experience as depicted in the movie. As I watched this scene, it occurred to me that not only was Alvin York’s conversion experience an example of extraordinary intervention into the affairs of a man by a sovereign God, but his conversion was totally contrary to Alvin’s will.
The Arminian might say that, even though God set up the circumstances of Alvin’s conversion, and perhaps convicted him of his sin in the process, it was his decision to go into the church, to go forward, to pray the sinner’s prayer and accept Christ as his Lord and Savior. But I think it’s pretty obvious that the circumstances of Alvin’s conversion was a clear case of libero arbitrio interruptis, or “free will, interrupted.” Clearly, Alvin’s only intent as he was riding past that church was to kill the men he believed cheated him out of his dreams. He was so intent on this mission that he ignored a raging thunderstorm to reach his goal. The intensity of Alvin’s desire to fulfill his murderous mission reminded me of the intensity of the desires of the men of Sodom to “know” Lot’s visitors, the angels that had been sent to save Lot from the coming destruction. Even after the men of Sodom were struck blind by the angels they desired, they continued to chase their desires, and wearied themselves trying to find the door to fulfill their purpose. Genesis 19:9. The difference between the men of Sodom and Alvin was that the will of the men of Sodom was thwarted, whereas the will of Alvin York was interrupted – completely changed by the working of the Holy Spirit in Alvin’s heart. This change of heart was proven by the fact that the day after his conversion Alvin went to the two men he intended to kill seeking their forgiveness for his thoughts and actions of the day before.
More scripture will be discussed in the next post. Stay tuned!