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.

iStock

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.