A soldier's story: 'I prayed for forgiveness and for help to give up the drink and all other evils I was addicted to. God answered'
There’s more Bible in Australia’s history than most people realise – and historian Michael Gladwin is at work to discover even more. Here’s one story he told this week.
“In 1916, an AIF (Australian Imperial Force) soldier named Bill — described only as a ‘strapping fellow’ – buttonholed an agent of the Bible Society of Victoria who was distributing free New Testaments to Australian soldiers.”
“I want to tell you something,” exclaimed Bill to the agent. “Some weeks ago you gave me a Testament; I promised to read it; I kept my promise, with the result that I am now a sound man. How do I know it? I’ll tell you. I was a drunkard, and the Book says, ‘no drunkard shall enter the kingdom of heaven,’ so I prayed for forgiveness and for help to give up the drink and all other evils I was addicted to. God answered my prayer. I know Christ is my Saviour, and I am a sober man.”
“Another man in the tent waited until Bill had finished before speaking up:
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“Twelve months ago you gave me a Testament; I did not trouble much about it when I was in camp, but on Gallipoli I saw enough to make me think, so I read my book there, and, like Bill here, I learned to pray, and soon got saved.”
This story was part of the annual lecture for the Evangelical History Association (EHA) that Gladwin presented to a Zoom channel of history buffs this week. It is one of the fruits of research for a history of Bible Society Australia that Gladwin confessed he is finding more and more engaging as he digs deeper. Bill’s story was dug out of a 1916 report for the “British and Foreign Bible Society” of which BSA was then an “auxiliary.”
As Eternity readers will know, the story of the Bible being used is the story of people meeting Jesus.
Bible societies distributed scripture “without distinction of friend or foe.”
Gladwin’s lecture was focussed on twin calamities: “The Australian Bible Society and the crisis of war and pandemic, 1914–1919.”
Behind the story of the reformed drunk soldier, Bill, was the massive Bible distribution effort. “Between August 1914 and 1919 the BFBS distributed, in its war service alone, more than nine million volumes in over 80 different languages,” Gladwin told the EHA.
The Australian auxiliaries (branches) made sure every serving Australian soldier, sailor, and airman received a copy of the New Testament. They set up new networks, sending New Testaments straight to Egypt – where the Gallipoli-bound troops were in camp from London.
But even more surprising was that the Bible societies distributed scripture “without distinction of friend or foe.” This meant, for example, that interned Germans in Australian camps received German scriptures.
“Women’s guilds and ladies committees packed testaments alongside knitted woollen socks in the billy-cans, comfort parcels, and Christmas boxes sent to soldiers,” said Gladwin.
“With the absence of many young men, women stepped up their work in leading and organising ladies committees and drawing-room meetings, and in making systematic collections in the large towns (During the nineteenth century, it had been calculated that one woman was worth ’13 and a half’ men in terms of the amounts collected ‘for charitable and religious purposes’).”
The war and pandemic made Bible work march harder. Despite pressure from London, the Australian committee kept the “penny Testaments” prices at pre-war levels, although that meant they had to cut back staff. The Sydney committee sold their horse-drawn Bible van and closed down the work of their colporteurs (Bible sellers).
‘[The Bible] was the best chum I had: for it made me understand my duty both to my God and to my fellow-man.’
Gladwin related two stories which brought the war home to Bible Society supporters. A honorary deputation agent (church visitor), Reverend T. E. Peirce – who raised money for testaments holding “open-air patriotic services” in his district – lost his son on the Western Front. Peirce’s son was a Rhodes scholar with promising scientific career who “had left it all for the sake of duty.”
And a Bible Society advisor, Reverend Everard Digges La Touche – a lecturer from Sydney’s Moore College – was killed at Lone Pine, Gallipoli, on his first day in action.
When the Spanish Flu struck, meetings were cancelled and Bible Society staff who were in the country could not return to Sydney. Branches and auxiliaries had to invent new ways to raise money – their version of COVIDnormal.
In war and pandemic, Gladwin found that the Bible Society looked beyond their present emergency.
“A strong sense of God’s providential design and care provided powerful theological ballast and intrepid optimism regarding worldwide Bible and missionary efforts,” said Gladwin.
“’These awful years,’ observed the editor of the Bible Society’s 1916 annual report, ‘are indeed appointed for the test and trial of our faith … And when we face the tumult and agony of nations in the light of the New Testament, we are utterly convinced that of all kingdoms, there is but one that has no end.”
And in crisis, the Bible was appreciated. “One Australian journalist wrote in late 1915 that ‘Many discoveries and revelations have been made since the war broke out, and one of the greatest is that the New Testament is the soldier’s book.’ Trying to force the Scriptures on soldiers was, he added, ‘a thing unknown. The men are eagerly asking for copies.'”
“Appreciation for the gift of a New Testament was almost universal among soldiers and sailors. Soldiers in the Middle Eastern campaigns, for example, especially appreciated Bibles with maps so they could trace their journeys through biblical lands — all of which were enhanced by chaplains’ immensely popular lectures on biblical events and stories, given in situ to the soldiers.”
One soldier wrote of the “Khaki Testament that had gone with him all through the fighting at Gallipoli. The leaves were doubled back, the corners turned down, the verses pencil-marked. Reading that little book, he said, had wrought a change in this heart: ‘That was the best chum I had: for it made me understand my duty both to my God and to my fellow-man.'”