Body armor. Advanced combat helmets. Steel cladding. These things keep our soldiers safe. You might find it odd, then, to suggest that a book could serve as a shield.
Marksmen have demonstrated that a hardcover tome can’t stop anything more powerful than a .22 caliber. Yet soldiers have experienced the lifesaving power of “bulletproof Bibles” on the battlefield as far back as the First English Civil War, in 1643, when a young Parliamentarian escaped a battle unscathed only to find a lead slug wedged in the 16-page pamphlet of Bible verses in his vest pocket.
The Good Book has saved lives in warfare—and Mysterious Ways has the pictures to prove it...
During the First English Civil War in 1643, before sending his Parliamentarian forces into battle, Oliver Cromwell handed each man a 16-page pocket Bible, containing selected passages relevant to the honorable and dangerous life of a soldier. According to Puritan preacher Richard Baxter, there was a depraved youth in Cromwell's army who escaped a battle unscathed, only to discover later that the thin book of scripture had caught a musket round. It penetrated as deep as an verse from Ecclesiastes: “Let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thy heart, and in the sight of thine eyes; but know those that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.” From that moment on, the young man dedicated his life to the church.
Two centuries later, another Civil War, halfway around the world, produced the earliest physical evidence we have of God’s saving grace in battle. The American Bible Society distributed copies of the New Testament to fighters on both sides, and word spread that the books would absorb the impact of a muzzle-fired bullet (detractors claimed “The Devil’s Book”—a pack of playing cards—worked just as well, but few men wanted to die with evidence of the sin of gambling on their person.) Crist, an enlisted man with the 14th Iowa Volunteer Infantry, survived one of the war’s bloodiest conflicts, the Battle of Shiloh, when his bible deflected a bullet. His bible survives today in the collection of the York County Historical Society in Pennsylvania, where Crist lived until the ripe old age of 94.
The Bible of Union soldier Charles Merrill extended his life as well, at the Battle of Chancellorsville, when it absorbed a musket ball that was headed for his heart. His family was so impressed that they sent the damaged Bible to President Lincoln. He sent back a new Bible with his signature inside. The President acknowledged the role that faith played on both sides, speaking of the North and South in his second inaugural address, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other... The prayers of both could not be answered... The Almighty has His own purposes.” Today, Merrill’s original Bible and its replacement are displayed at the Peabody Essex Museum near Merrill’s hometown of Salem, Massachusetts.
In World War I, the Battle of Gallipoli, Australia’s failed campaign against the Turks, saw at least two men attribute their lives to a Bible’s stopping power. 22-year-old Australian infantryman Griffith John Owen was standing in the trenches when something knocked him off his feet. “A bullet had penetrated my greatcoat,” Owen recorded in his diary, “To my surprise I did not feel any pain.” A fellow soldier who witnessed the event was moved to poetry, writing: “I’ve often heard a Bible has at times been known to save A soldier when in battle from a swift and early grave What doubts I had regarding same have now been set at rest On beholding how a testament today withstood the test.”
British Navy medic John Victor Salisbury was attending to injured soldiers in sickbay when a Turkish shell struck. “I was bandaging a chap with wounded wrist,” Salisbury recalled in his diary. “The shell exploded beside us. We were blown down, faces blackened with the explosion. I had just turned the chap to get a better light on his wrist, this proved the Salvation for us both. He was slightly wounded. I got a piece of shell half through the Bible in my Pocket. Which was much better than tearing through my guts at such short range.” He’d been carrying the book for a bible study with his fellow soldiers.
British bombardier George Vinall sent a battered Bible and three pieces of shrapnel home from France. His bunker had come under enemy fire, he wrote. “The shell burst outside.... We ran for a trench nearby.” Afterward, he discovered two of the shrapnel pellets embedded in the bunker he’d fled. “The third was in the pocket of my tunic, stopped by my Bible. The eighth verse of Isaiah 49, where the bullet stopped, contains these words which caught my eye, ‘I will preserve thee.’” Vinall demonstrated his gratitude after the war—by translating Bibles in Japan.
With the advent of modern weaponry, U.S. Army field Bibles were given an important upgrade—a steel cover. One of these “Heart-Shield Bibles” saved infantryman George Ferris. On April 10, 1945, he was shot by a German sniper. “The medics showed me the Bible that my oldest sister sent me.... There was a bullet hole in it,” Ferris told the 87th Infantry Division Legacy Association. “The medics said that the bullet had been slowed, and deflected so it went across my body...and out the other side instead of through my heart.”
New regulations during the Korean War prohibited soldiers from carrying anything in their shirt pockets—an order that 19-year-old Don Roush defied after receiving a Salvation Army Bible from volunteers just before shipping out. Under attack in the mountains of Inje, Korea, Don was struck by shrapnel. As he told the Salvation Army’s Priority! magazine, “I unbuttoned my jacket and found a slash in my shirt pocket... I pulled out my New Testament, which had a hole in the front cover. God’s Word stopped it. It wasn’t time for me to die.”
On March 14, 1967, infantryman Jack Fulk of Albion, Indiana, walked into an ambush near the Cambodian border. Hit four times, he could hear North Vietnamese soldiers celebrating the kill. But he wasn’t dead. He crawled to safety and made a stunning discovery. “The day before we went out, the chaplain...was handing out pocket-sized New Testaments. I had taken one and put it in my left shirt pocket, not thinking much about it,” he told his hometown paper. “When that last bullet went through my arm, it hit me right over my heart.” Fulk found the bullet—64 pages deep in his little Bible.
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