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.

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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.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

65 Years Later: 10 Fascinating Facts About the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted on February 22, 1956, by Deputy Sheriff D.H. Lackey as one of the people indicted as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Associated Press // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Montgomery bus boycott is remembered as one of the earliest mass civil rights protests in American history. It's also the event that helped to make both Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. household names when, enraged with the way Black Americans were treated, they helped organize and carry out the boycott, which lasted more than a year.

On December 1, 1955, a segregation-weary Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white rider, an action that led to her arrest. Her trial began just a few days later, on December 5, 1955, which marked the beginning of the 381-day boycott that led to the desegregation of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. On the 65th anniversary of this historic event, read on to learn more about the people behind the headlines and the unsung heroes of this revolutionary event.

1. Rosa Parks was a lifelong activist.

Rosa Parks is sometimes portrayed as someone who first stood up to power on December 1, 1955. Quite the contrary. “She was not a stranger to activism and civil rights,” Madeline Burkhardt, adult education coordinator at The Rosa Parks Museum and Library, tells Mental Floss. Parks and her husband Raymond were active in the local and state chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She had served as secretary of both branches, during which time she investigated sexual assault cases.

“She was an assertive Black woman against racism, though in a quiet way,” Dr. Dorothy Autrey, retired chair of the history department at Alabama State University, tells Mental Floss. “It’s a myth that she was physically tired that day [she was arrested on the bus], but she was tired of seeing racism against her people.”

After the Montgomery bus boycott, Parks participated in the 1963 March on Washington and went on to serve on the board of Planned Parenthood. She received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999.

2. Rosa Parks was arrested twice.

Parks was initially arrested on December 1, 1955, for violating bus segregation laws. However, this wasn’t her most photographed arrest. Her famous mugshot and those pictures of her being fingerprinted (including the one seen above) are from during her second arrest, in February 1956.

Local police issued warrants for the arrest of Parks along with 88 other boycott leaders for organizing to cause the bus company financial harm. The protests had a mighty financial impact; according to Burkhardt, the protest led to losses of approximately $3000 a day, which would be the equivalent of $28,000 a day in 2020. The organizers dressed in their Sunday best, took a photo in front of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, then turned themselves in.

3. Rosa Parks wasn’t the first—or only—person arrested for disrupting bus segregation.

On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on the bus to a white woman in Montgomery, Alabama.The Visibility Project // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Nine months before Parks made headlines, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white woman. Civil rights organizers didn’t initially hold Colvin up as a movement figurehead because the unmarried teen became pregnant shortly after her arrest. However, leaders later revisited her case, and she became one of five plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the federal court case that ultimately overturned segregation laws on Montgomery buses and ended the boycott on December 20, 1956. Parks wasn’t one of the plaintiffs, but several other local women were, including Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatta Reese (though Reese later withdrew).

4. Rosa Parks had a previous run-in with bus driver James F. Blake.

In 1943, Parks got onto a bus James F. Blake was driving and paid her fare at the front. As she began walking down the aisle of the bus to make her way to the Black seating section at the back (instead of exiting the bus and re-entering through another door as was required), the driver forced her off the bus and pulled away before she could re-board. Blake was driving the bus Parks boarded on December 1, when she refused to give up her seat.

5. Although ministers are often celebrated as the boycott’s organizers, women were behind the initial protest.

Indoors at the National Civil Rights Museum stands a recreation of the bright yellow Montgomery city bus where Rosa Parks defied the city's segregated bus transport policy. Location: Location: memphis, Tennessee (35.135° N 90.058° W) Status: Courtesy of the National Civil Rights Museum // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson caught wind of Parks’s arrest, she and the Women’s Political Council (WPC) jumped into action. A bus driver had verbally assaulted Robinson shortly after she moved to Montgomery to teach, so when she became president of the WPC, a local Black women’s professional organization that fostered civic engagement, she made bus desegregation a priority.

They hand-cranked 52,000 mimeographed political flyers in one night to advertise the planned boycott. Robinson initially asked citizens to protest for one day, Dr. Autrey says. “They weren’t sure where the boycott would lead. They had no idea it would last over a year.” However, local ministers and the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that formed to oversee the protests, took up the mantle and helped the boycott last.

6. The turnout in Montgomery was massive.

More than 45,000 people, representing 90 percent of the Black community in Montgomery at the time, participated in the boycott. “Even with social media today, I don’t think we would ever have the level of organization they were able to get from flyers and church sermons,” Burkhardt says.

7. Initially, the protestors weren't looking for Montgomery to desegregate its public transportation system.

The boycott organizers' demands didn’t require changing segregation laws—at first. Initially, the group was demanding seemingly simple courtesies, such as hiring Black drivers and having the buses stop on every corner in Black neighborhoods (just as they did in white neighborhoods). The also asked that white passengers fill the bus from the front and Black passengers from the back, so that Black passengers weren’t forced into standing-room only sections while white sections remained sparsely seated. Those goals gradually changed as the boycott continued and Browder v. Gayle moved through the federal and supreme courts.

8. Martin Luther King Jr. was only 26 when he joined the movement.

John Goodwin/Getty Images

King was a relative newcomer when he was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), an organization founded on the same Christian principles of nonviolence that guided King throughout his career. His principles were put to an early test when an unknown white supremacist bombed his home on January 30, 1956. (Fortunately, no one was harmed.) King was chosen because he was largely unknown, unlike E.D. Nixon, the local NAACP leader, who was instrumental in organizing the community, but who also had a long history of confrontations with local politicians.

9. Carpools and underground food sales helped fund the boycott.

To help people avoid taking buses, Montgomery churches organized carpools. They purchased several station wagons to help with the operation, dubbing them “rolling churches.” However, local insurance companies wouldn’t provide coverage as they didn't want to support the protests, even indirectly. Instead, King found insurance through Lloyd’s of London, which, ironically, had once insured ships that carried enslaved people during 18th- and 19th-century ocean crossings.

Funding to buy these vehicles, insurance, and gas came from across the community, including from Georgia Gilmore, a cook who organized an informal diner called the Club from Nowhere to feed boycotters and raise money.

10. Working-class Black women were instrumental in the boycott’s success.

At the time of the boycott, Rosa Parks worked was a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store, and she was hardly the only working-class woman who made the boycott a success. “Were it not for maids, cooks, and nannies, the boycott would not have succeeded,” Dr. Autrey says. “They were the primary riders, and they also received the brunt of the hostile treatment. These women were fed up and were primed to take a role in the boycott.”

Many women walked miles to work instead of riding the bus or even carpooling. When a reporter asked one such woman, Mother Pollard, if she was tired, she responded, “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”

Though the Montgomery bus boycott ended more than 60 years ago, the effects of the movement are still felt—and honored—today. Beginning this month, a new initiative—spearheaded by Steven L. Reed, Montgomery’s first Black mayor—the city will be reserving one seat on every Montgomery bus in Rosa Parks’s honor.