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.

A Nellie Bly Memorial Is Being Planned for New York City’s Roosevelt Island

The infamous asylum on Blackwell's Island that Nellie Bly infiltrated in the late 1880s.
The infamous asylum on Blackwell's Island that Nellie Bly infiltrated in the late 1880s.
New York Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nellie Bly, the 19th-century journalist renowned for her six-part exposé on Blackwell’s Island’s asylum in New York City—which she infiltrated by feigning insanity—will soon be honored with a memorial on the island itself, now called Roosevelt Island.

Her 1887 investigation, Smithsonian.com reports, uncovered cruel conditions for the female "lunatic" patients, like freezing baths, violence, and solitary confinement in rooms overrun with vermin. Its publication resulted in a series of improvements including increased funding, translator assistance for immigrants, termination of abusive staff, and more. It also facilitated a national discussion about the stigma of mental illness, especially for women.

All we know about the monument so far is that it’ll be some kind of statue—maybe a traditional sculpture, something more modern or even digital—and construction will take place between March and May of next year with a budget of about $500,000. The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) announced an open call for artists to submit their designs, and by August 2, it will choose five finalists who will then create conceptual proposals for the memorial.

The monument’s precise location is still up in the air, too. It could be around the Octagon, the only remaining portion of the asylum building that now forms the entrance to a luxury apartment complex on the northern half of the island, or in Lighthouse Park, a 3.78-acre space at the island’s northern tip.

Portrait of Nellie Bly
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Until the mid-20th century, Roosevelt Island, located in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, was a rather undesirable place to visit. Along with the women’s asylum, it housed a prison, a charity hospital, a smallpox hospital, and a workhouse, The New York Times reports.

The city changed the name of the island (originally called Blackwell’s after the family who farmed there for generations) to Welfare Island in 1921. In 1935, it relocated the prison to Rikers Island (where it remains today). And in 1971, the city established a middle-income residential community on the island, renaming it Roosevelt Island, after Franklin Roosevelt.

Though Bly’s work in the island’s asylum may be her most famous, it was far from her only contribution to the worlds of journalism and industry. She also sailed around the world in 72 days, investigated baby trafficking, and ran her late husband’s manufacturing company. You can read more about her here.

“She’s one of our local heroes,” RIOC president Susan Rosenthal told The City about the choice to honor Bly. “The combination of who she was, the importance of investigative journalism and the fact that it happened here just made it perfect for the island.”

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

10 Fascinating Facts About Anne Boleyn

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anne Boleyn was one of England’s most controversial queens. In 1533, King Henry VIII annulled his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) and was in the process of breaking with the Catholic Church to wed the charming noblewoman. But their happiness was not to last: Just three years later, Anne was executed. It’s a compelling story, one that’s been dramatized in plays, novels, movies, and TV shows. But today, we’re setting the pop culture depictions aside to take a look at the real Anne Boleyn.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s formative years were spent in France and Belgium.

Born in the early 16th century (possibly in 1501 or 1507), Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, an English diplomat. As a child, she went abroad to study in Margaret of Austria’s court, located in present-day Belgium, and later continued her education as a member of Mary Tudor’s elegant household in Paris. By the time she returned to her native England in the early 1520s, Boleyn had mastered the French language—and she carried herself like a Parisian, too. “No one,” wrote one of Boleyn’s contemporaries, “would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but [instead] a native-born Frenchwoman."

  1. Anne Boleyn played the lute.

Even Boleyn’s harshest critics had to admit that she was a good dancer. She was also fond of music, and reportedly played the lute (a guitar-like instrument popular at Tudor gatherings) quite well. A songbook that bears her inscription can be found at London’s Royal College of Music. It’s unclear if Boleyn ever owned this book, but its selection of tunes is historically significant.

  1. Anne Boleyn almost married someone other than King Henry VIII.

In 1522, Thomas Boleyn and his cousin, Sir Piers Butler, were both trying to claim some Irish land holdings that had belonged to one of their mutual ancestors. To settle the dispute, Anne's uncle suggested marrying Anne to Butler’s son, James, so that the factions could be unified in the future. By the time Anne returned to England, the marriage was already in the works. King Henry VIII—whose mistress at that time was Anne's sister Mary—supported the match, but the marriage never went through. Anne also had a romantic relationship with one Henry Percy, a future Earl of Northumberland who wound up marrying the Lady Mary Talbot.

  1. Anne Boleyn was pregnant at her coronation.

King Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was annulled on May 23, 1533. He’d been courting Anne Boleyn for years; many of his love letters survive to this day. As the king’s infatuation grew, so did his desire for a healthy male heir—which Catherine never gave him. But Pope Clement VII refused to dissolve the royal marriage. So the Archbishop of Canterbury went ahead and annulled it. Henry VIII would soon be declared “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” severing its ties with the Vatican. Boleyn was crowned queen on June 1, 1533. Her first child, Princess Elizabeth, was born a little over three months later.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s emblem was a white falcon.

The Boleyns took a white falcon from the traditional Butler family crest. For Anne’s coronation ceremony, poet Nicholas Udall wrote a ballad that likened the new queen to this elegant bird of prey. “Behold and see the Falcon White!” declared one verse. “How she beginneth her wings to spread, and for our comfort to take her flight” [PDF]. The new queen also used a white falcon badge as her personal emblem; at some point, a graffitied version of this was carved into the Tower of London.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s religious views are hard to pin down, but she appeared to sympathize with reformers.

At a time when Latin-language Bibles were the norm in Catholic Europe, Boleyn consistently supported the publication of English translations—a controversial notion at the time. As queen, she and her husband arranged for the release of Nicholas Bourbon, a French humanist whose criticisms of saint-worship and other theological matters had landed him in jail. Bourbon went to England, where he tutored Boleyn’s nephew (at her request).

  1. Anne Boleyn was the first of Henry VIII’s queens to get beheaded.

Like Catherine before her, Anne Boleyn failed to deliver Henry VIII’s long-sought male heir. In 1536, she found herself on trial, accused of high treason, adultery, and incest. (Rumors circulated that she was having an affair with her brother, George.) Though many historians dismiss these allegations, they sealed her fate nevertheless. Boleyn was beheaded on May 19, 1536. Henry VIII wed his third wife, Jane Seymour, that same month. Two spouses later, history repeated itself when the king had queen number five—Catherine Howard—decapitated in 1542.

  1. It has been claimed that Anne Boleyn had 11 fingers.

When you replace a popular monarch and spur the change of the religious fabric of an entire country, you're bound to make enemies. One of Boleyn’s detractors claimed that she had a “devilish spirit,” while another famously called her a “goggle-eyed whore.”

And then there’s Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, who wrote an unflattering description of the former queen many years after she died. According to him, Boleyn had “a large wen [wart or cyst] under her chin,” a “projecting tooth under the upper lip” and “six fingers” on her right hand. But his claims are highly suspect. There’s no proof that Sander ever laid eye on Boleyn—plus, her contemporaries didn’t mention any of these physical traits in their own writings about the queen. At worst, she might have had a second nail on one finger—which is a far cry from saying she possessed an extra digit.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, ruled England for decades.

Coronated at age 25 on January 15, 1559, Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada, promoted exploration, and foiled multiple assassination plots during her 44-year reign. She held the throne right up until her death in 1603.

  1. There’s only one surviving portrait of Anne Boleyn (that we know of).

When Henry VIII executed her, most Anne Boleyn likenesses were intentionally destroyed—and now, there's just one contemporary image of the queen known to exist: a lead disc—crafted in 1534—with Boleyn’s face etched on one side, which is held at the British Museum in London. It’s the only verified portrait of the former queen that was actually produced during her lifetime.

But there may be at least one more image of the queen out there: In 2015, facial recognition software was used to compare the image on the disc to a 16th-century painting currently housed at the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums. The picture’s subject, a young woman, has never been identified, but according to the program, the figure looks an awful lot like Boleyn’s portrait in that lead disc—though the researchers cautioned that their results were inconclusive due to insufficient data.

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