Alvin York, arguably the most celebrated American soldier in World War I, was born on December 13, 1887, in a log cabin near Pall Mall, Tennessee. York was devout, having experienced conversion through a Church of Christ in 1914. York considered declaring himself a conscientious objector, recalling, “I didn’t want to go and kill. I believed in my bible. . . . And yet Uncle Sam wanted me.” When York went to training camp, however, an officer convinced him that the Bible endorsed a Christian’s participation in a just war.

Alvin York's Conscientious Objector Claim, National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain.
Alvin York’s Conscientious Objector Claim, National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain.

At the Battle of Meuse-Argonne in 1918, York and his fellow soldiers were tasked with flanking a German machine-gun position. York’s best friend was killed in the assault, but York, an expert sharpshooter, picked the Germans off one after another with his rifle and pistol, he said, the “way we shoot wild turkeys at home.” York convinced the Germans to surrender with the assistance of a captured German officer, and brought back 132 prisoners of war. He eventually won the Medal of Honor for his heroic deeds. But York still struggled with the killings, not entirely sure that God approved of his actions.

York was reluctant to agree to multiple offers to sanction a film based on his life, but he agreed to do so in order to help him raise money for a interdenominational Bible school that would, as York put it, “prepare its pupils to live and practice a full Christian life.” So he agreed to the production of the 1941 movie Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper. Cooper won a Best Actor award for it, and the film was the highest-grossing film of 1941. Some critics interpreted the film as propaganda to encourage American intervention in World War II.

Although the film included much fictitious material, it was attentive to the religious themes in York’s life. Here are a couple of the key clips:


David D. Lee’s Sergeant York: An American Hero is a good, brief introduction to the life and American image of Alvin York.