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Looking through a musty box of family memorabilia, I recently came upon a brittle, browned letter dated September 24, 1918, sent to his parents by my grandfather, James Oliver Buswell Jr. Grandpa B’s years as president of Wheaton College and later as professor of theology at Covenant College and Seminary were well known to me, but I hadn’t heard a lot about his experience in World War I. Serving in France as chaplain of the 140thInfantry for the American Expeditionary Forces, he took part in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the war’s largest western front offensive against the German army. That offensive began on September 26, 1918.

I discovered from his journals that Grandpa B wrote this letter somewhere near Verdun, France, at the close of a “cold, foggy day” during which he had baptized more than 100 men, in a pre-battle “revival” among those in his regiment. Those were the first baptisms young preacher Buswell (then 23) had ever performed. Musing in his journal about this overwhelming response to the gospel, he wrote: “The military situation, of course, has something to do with it, but they all seem very sincere about it. When the men respond the way they have lately it makes any possible effort on my part seem cheap in proportion to the reward.” For the new converts they built a little dam in a nearby stream, to make a pool where the men could be either immersed or sprinkled, according to their wishes. “I’m afraid it will be rather muddy,” Grandpa wrote, “but it’s the best we can do.”

The brief letter home is all about the coming military offensive, which turned out to be a great Allied success but in which thousands of their troops were killed. Grandpa B’s regiment, as he later wrote, was “all shot to pieces.” He was wounded in the leg by a fragment of high explosive shell.

But the letter doesn’t anticipate all that; it focuses on the offensive about to begin, less than 48 hours after he wrote it. I take time to quote it because of its insistent theme of not retreating—-a theme that my grandfather in the letter applies unabashedly to the Christian life. We believers are so afraid of sounding militant these days—-and, in one sense, we should be. We too often treat non-believers as enemies to be defeated rather than as fellow sinners to be saved. But the Bible is full of calls to battle . . . to put on our armor . . . to fight our true enemy the Devil and his spiritual forces of evil, until the day when our victorious risen Lord appears.

Until then, it’s good to hear the call not to retreat—-generation after generation.


Sep. 24, 1918

Dear Father and Mother:

I’m writing just before what will probably be the greatest military activity the world has ever seen. There are lots of interesting things might be told, but I’ll tell you all about it when I get back home! One thing that would be very significant in religious work, and it is an order that’s scattered everywhere so every private and orderly knows it, is that anyone who at any time orders any kind of retreat or retirement, is to be shot down at once by an officer. If no officer hears it, the enlisted men must take the offender to the nearest officer to be shot.

We’re going forward, and no orders to retreat can possibly be official. Germany has repeatedly sent men into the Allied ranks perfectly disguised as Allied officers, speaking English or French perfectly, to order a retreat, just as the Devil sends the same kind of people into the church. The only way to overcome it is to have it understood that our forces never retreat!

This is going to be a great fight! But the fight for Christianity in our forces is the one which includes all other great causes. You don’t know how glad I am that I’m in that fight primarily.

Don’t worry about me even if you hear our regiment has been ‘in it.’ I’m in the Lord’s hands.

Much, much love,

Oliver

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