A Holy Crime: The Night Missionaries Smuggled One Million Bibles into China

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On June 18, 1981, several thousand men and women watched from a coastline near Shantou, China as a tugboat that had been christened Michael towed a massive, 137-foot barge and came to a stop just a few dozen feet from land. The observers began wading into the water, some of them up to their necks, and retrieved the waterproof boxes the boat occupants were releasing into the sea. A handful of small boats pushed out toward the barge and were able to grab several at a time.

Under the cover of night, the barge and the tugboat began receding into the distance. The recipients hid the boxes where they could, including under trees and overgrowth. Others were handed off to co-conspirators, who were waiting nearby in idling vehicles.

All the subterfuge hinted at a drug transaction. While it was true the group was dealing with contraband, it wasn't of the narcotic variety. Each of the boxes contained 90 Bibles, written in Chinese characters, which were notoriously difficult to come by under the country's Communist rule. A group of foreign missionaries had spent millions of dollars and risked their lives smuggling the Bibles into China. It was now up to the subversive citizens who had retrieved them from the water to get the books into the hands of the devout before Chinese authorities arrived—and they were coming fast.

 

Smuggling scripture was something Andrew van der Bijl had plenty of practice in. Born in 1928 in the Netherlands, Bijl, or "Brother Andrew" as he was known to many, heeded a higher calling after being wounded in the Dutch army. Traveling around the Soviet Union and other Communist-ruled areas, Bijl would obscure hundreds of Bibles in a modified Volkswagen Beetle and talk his way through border or customs checkpoints.

It was an interesting juxtaposition—a man of faith breaking man's law to facilitate God's word—and Brother Andrew achieved a degree of notoriety for it after authoring his 1967 autobiography, God's Smuggler. But having a measure of celebrity meant his days of personally delivering Bibles to oppressed areas were over. Instead, he supervised the activities of Open Doors International, a missionary effort that services countries where Christianity is discouraged or persecuted.

In 1979, Open Doors learned that Protestants and Catholics in China were voicing concern over the limited availability of Bibles in the country. Since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, many churches had been forcibly shut down and Bible production had come to a halt. Chinese officials never declared an outright ban on the religion, but they continued making empty promises of allowing more Bible distribution. By most accounts, there were simply not enough Bibles to put into the hands of the eight to 10 million Christians in China.

A Bible is open to reveal Chinese characters
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Brother Andrew and Open Doors vice president Ed Neteland began plotting an attempt to satisfy demand on a scale that missionaries had never before attempted. Their first obstacle was the ambition to distribute a Chinese Bible, which was not something easily ordered through conventional means. According to a 1981 article in The New York Times, Neteland approached Thomas Nelson Publishers and asked an executive, Thomas Harris, if he would be willing to accept a printing job under a strict veil of secrecy. When Harris agreed, Neteland placed an order for roughly 1 million Bibles to be printed from a Chinese printing plate provided by Open Doors. (Another version of the story has Open Doors talking to Thomas Nelson's president Sam Moore, who demonstrated his Bible's toughness by throwing it against a wall and leaving a shrink-wrapped box in a tub of water over a lunch break.)

Harris handled the order—for which he charged Neteland $1 per Bible—by distributing the work between two plants: a Rand McNally facility in Chicago and another press in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After two months, Thomas Nelson delivered the 232-ton order to Open Doors in California.

Neteland had used the time it took to produce the books to raise funds for the project via mail order solicitations and television advertisements. (While such public methods of fundraising may have tipped off Chinese authorities to what Open Doors was planning, they couldn’t know when—or how—the volumes would get into the country.) In addition to the cost of Bibles, there was the expense of commandeering a barge, a crew, and other necessary transportation.

The Bibles were trafficked from California to the Philippines, where 20 volunteers from the United States, Europe, and England set course for the Chinese coast. Dragging their cargo through a maze of idle Chinese navy ships, they arrived at the Shantou beach on the evening of June 18, 1981. Flashlights flickered on and off between the boat occupants and those waiting on land. A steady cascade of Bibles, poly-wrapped to avoid saturation, flowed for two hours toward the people on the shore who were seeking the freedom to pursue their chosen religion.

 

As the Open Doors missionaries departed, the books' recipients began stowing, stashing, and moving the Bibles, picking hiding places on the beach or dispensing the boxes to waiting vehicles. As expected, Chinese Army patrol authorities were quick to catch on and arrived with menacing intentions. Some of the volunteers were beaten and hauled to jail. Others watched as the Bibles were pushed back into the water, only to be recovered later by fishermen who made a tidy profit selling them.

The Bibles that had managed to leak out into the general population were also targeted for disposal. Chinese authorities once dumped a cache of them into a cesspool, believing they were soiled beyond use. Quickly, Chinese Catholics who had witnessed the vandalism hosed them off and sprayed them with perfume. Such was the hunger for these Bibles that even waterlogged and pungent copies were in high demand.

In total, Open Doors estimated that the project had likely disseminated up to 80 percent of the million Bibles shipped to China. While many lauded the effort, others—especially those living inside the Communist regime—weren't so pleased. Han Wenzao of the China Christian Council argued that these efforts made religion seem even more of a threat in the eyes of the Chinese government, with Bibles being interpreted as contraband.

For Brother Andrew, it may have been the culmination of his life's work of making scripture available to individuals living in areas that were hostile to such religious freedom. Technology has made these attempts easier; for instance, missionaries have floated helium balloons into North Korea that have flash drives containing the Bible attached to them.

Despite these innovations, finding the word of God in China can still prove problematic. In April 2018, the country banned the sale of Bibles in online marketplaces. While it's legal to print the Bible, copies can only be purchased at church bookstores.

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?

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It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2012.

11 Famous People Who Once Had Paper Routes

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fillyfolly, iStock

As publications evolve, so do their methods of distribution. Between the rise of suburbs and the fall of afternoon daily newspapers, many countries teemed with youthful paperboys and papergirls. But thanks to shifting trends, most print media deliverers are now adults. This year, October 13 is International Newspaper Carrier Day, and we're taking a look at some of the most influential people who’ve ever worked a paper route, including a vice president, an astronaut, a supermodel, and the star of Risky Business. "Read all about 'em!"

1. WALT DISNEY

American animator and producer Walt Disney in 1946.
Keystone, Getty Images

"When I was 9, my brother Roy and I were already businessmen," Walt Disney reminisced of his childhood. In July 1911, their father, Elias, acquired a sizable newspaper delivery route from the Kansas City Star. Although this route officially belonged to Roy, Elias took charge of its operation. Together, Walt, Roy, and Elias Disney were responsible for delivering the Star's afternoon and Sunday editions to over 600 customers. And that was only part of the Disney trio's workload: Every morning, they'd dole out around 700 copies of the Kansas City Times.

Disney kept distributing KC newspapers until he was 15 years old. To hit all the houses on his itinerary before school started, the animator-to-be would wake up at 3:30 a.m. and usually work until 6 a.m. He'd then retrace his steps after classes ended. "During the winter months," Disney noted, "it was always dark and bitter cold [in the morning] … many times, I had to plow through three feet of freshly fallen snow, breaking my own path as I went.”

2. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

Martin Luther King, Jr talking with someone.
Reg Lancaster, Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Growing up, King earned spending money by working as a paperboy for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He landed the gig with some help from his father and frequently used his newspaper funds to purchase books. At age 13, the future Civil Rights hero became the youngest person to assistant manage one of the AJC's delivery stations. Four years later, King—then a sophomore—wrote a passionate letter to the editor of the same publication condemning the historic mistreatment of African Americans. His father would subsequently write that he had "no intimation of [King, Jr.'s] developing greatness" until the publication of said letter, "which received widespread and favorable comment."

3. JOE BIDEN

Joe Biden giving a speech.
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

America's 47th vice president used a childhood paper route to hone his people skills—and work on his speech mechanics. Biden had a noticeable stutter as a boy (some classmates in a prep school Latin course took to calling him "Joe Impedimenta"). In 1955, his family relocated to Mayfield, Delaware, and Biden got himself a paper route shortly thereafter. The job presented him with a lingual challenge at first. "I lived in dread of Saturday mornings when I had to go collect [money] from people I was just getting to know," Biden has said. To make small talk with his assigned subscribers go smoothly, young Biden "learned to anticipate the conversation to come." Then he'd rehearse some sentences that might prove useful in the discussion.

"My next-door neighbor was a big Yankees fan, and I'd always check the Yankee box score, because I knew he'd ask, and I knew I'd have to say something [about the team] without making a fool of myself," Biden recalled in his autobiography. "I had played out the entire conversation before he opened his front door."

4. EARL "THE PEARL" MONROE

Former professional basketball player Earl 'The Pearl' Monroe in 2015.
Mike Coppola, Getty Images

Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990, Monroe was a prolific scorer who spent 13 seasons in the NBA and helped the New York Knicks win their most recent world championship in 1973. (His number, 15, has been retired by the team and now hangs in the rafters at Madison Square Garden.) A native Philadelphian, Monroe entered the newspaper carrier game with some parental help. "In junior high, I had a paper route that my mother [Rose] and I built up until it was profitable," wrote Monroe in his autobiography. On deliveries, the teen would often be accompanied by his mom. "[She] did everything to help me when I was growing up," Monroe said. "She really didn't want me being out there by myself."

5. KATHY IRELAND

Model Kathy Ireland at a fashion show in 2018.
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images for AHA

Kathy Ireland was one of the most recognizable supermodels of the 1980s, posing for Sports Illustrated on several occasions before launching what turned into a global licensing company valued at $2 billion. Her success in the business world was foreshadowed by a historic newspaper-delivering stint. Ireland was raised in Santa Barbara, California, where—at age 4—she used to sell hand-painted rocks. When she was about 10, an advertisement calling for new paperboys appeared in one of the local newspapers. "Are you the boy for the job?" it asked. Young Ireland responded by writing a pointed letter to the editor. "No, I'm not the boy for the job, I'm the girl for the job, and I can do it just as well as any boy," she declared. "I think I deserve a chance." And she got one: Ireland became Santa Barbara's first-ever papergirl. By the time she retired from that gig, the budding mogul had made 120,000 newspaper deliveries and was voted her district's carrier of the year for three consecutive years.

6. ALAN BEAN

Former astronaut Alan Bean signs his photo in 2006.
David Livingston, Getty Images

As the lunar module pilot of NASA's Apollo 12 mission, the late Alan Bean became the fourth person to walk on the moon in 1969. He also spent 59 days orbiting Earth during a 1973 Skylab excursion and had a celebrated artistic career as well. A Texan by birth, Bean spent much of his youth delivering papers for his hometown Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "My first route was in the early mornings," Bean recalled. "Every day was the same. I pulled myself out of my warm bed and pedaled up and down the dark streets on my bicycle, loaded with folded-up newspapers. It was a lonely job, too—it seemed as if there were no one else in the whole world." Poignant words coming from an astronaut …

7. BOB HOPE

Bob Hope playing golf in England, circa 1965.
Keystone, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Long before he became synonymous with Hollywood road comedies, Leslie Townes "Bob" Hope was helping to support his family as a Cleveland paperboy. He later returned to the job while struggling to break into the entertainment industry. "At 8, I had a paper route. At 12, I worked in my brother's butcher shop. At 18, I was out on the road singing and dancing and at 19, I was back on my paper route," Hope wryly noted.

Selling newspapers from street corners was another revenue stream for the aspiring performer. While working at his stand on 102nd Street in Cleveland, Hope managed to brush shoulders with the highest of high-rollers. "I had one regular customer whose name I didn't know; all I knew was that he snapped his face open and shut like a wrinkled old coin purse," explained the comedian. One day, the mystery patron needed change for a dime, so Hope ran across the street to procure some pennies from a local department store. According to Hope, "When I came back, my customer said, 'Young man, I’m going to give you some advice. If you want to succeed in business, trust nobody. Never give credit and always keep the change on hand. That way, you won't miss any customers while you're going for it."

A few moments later, a passing inspector came up to the stand and asked, "Do you know who that man was?" "No," replied Hope. "He's only the richest man in the world,'" announced the inspector. "That's John D. Rockefeller, Senior."

8. JAMES A. MICHENER

James Michener wearing a flower necklace.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The author of over 40 books which together sold upwards of 75 million copies, Michener is best remembered for Tales of the South Pacific. Inspired by his service in the United States Navy, the novel won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize and was later adapted into the popular Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. But long before his travels, a young Michener was an enthusiastic paperboy from seventh through twelfth grade. Working in his childhood home of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Michener distributed various Philadelphia-based newspapers along five different routes. "I can still remember the residents of certain entire streets that I had served the longest," he wrote in 1992. "My paper routes gave me an insight into the complexity of life in a small town that not many boys acquired."

9. TOM CRUISE

Tom Cruise leaning against a wall.
Carlo Allegri, Getty Images

Raised in a less-than-affluent household, Cruise turned to newspaper-carrying as a means of picking up extra cash. (He also raked lawns and put in some time at an ice cream parlor.) "When I was 13," the actor told Sports Illustrated, "I had a paper route and paid $50 for my first go-cart, $75 for my first motorcycle." To help meet his delivery schedule, Cruise enlisted the aid of his younger sister, Cass. "I always told her I'd pay her back. I bought her a car after Risky Business."

10. WARREN BUFFETT

Warren Buffett giving a talk.
Paul Morigi, Getty Images for Fortune/Time Inc

He's the third-richest man in the world, with an estimated net worth of $91.5 billion, and Buffett's remarkable investment acumen has earned the Nebraskan the nickname "Oracle of Omaha." But the self-made billionaire got his start distributing newspapers on behalf of the Washington Post and other publications. "You had to deliver [them] every day, including Christmas Day," Buffett has said, adding that on Christmas morning, his "family would have to wait until I had done my paper route" before the festivities could start. At age 14, Buffett filed his first tax return, which reported that in 1944 he'd earned the equivalent of $8221 in modern U.S. dollars. And, given the nature of his job, the youngster knew he was able to write off the cost of his watch and various bicycle repairs as business expenses.

11. DAVID LYNCH

David Lynch seated in a large yellow chair.
TIZIANA FABI, AFP/Getty Images

Auteur director David Lynch was so low on personal funds during the production of Eraserhead (1977) that he needed a couple of side hustles to make ends meet. In addition to working a part-time plumbing job, Lynch delivered copies of The Wall Street Journal. "I built three sheds in my back yard during that period," he claims. "They were made out of wood I found on my paper route. My route took me through two different trash areas. On trash nights, my route would take two hours instead of one because I stopped and sorted through the garbage." Hey, everyone needs a hobby.

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