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Haddon Willmer shares a remarkable, moving and sobering story

18 December 2017

O boundless Salvation, the whole world redeeming

I was searching for the email address of an old friend, and I found myself in the record of Broadmead  Baptist Church, Bristol, reading a fascinating story, reprinted  from the Officer Magazine of the Salvation Army.

         A quote from William Booth who with his wife Catherine founded The Salvation Army in 1865



The remarkable story of how the Salvation Army founder’s song united Second World War enemies. Originally from the South of Germany, Günter had the figure of an athlete: blond hair and blue eyes, yet genteel and remarkably humbled. I’m Jacques Roufflet and as a student had newly joined The Salvation Army at Tailfingen, and was encouraged to go to Günter’s house by an older church member who advised, “Günter has a wonderful testimony to share. (I was conscripted in the German Army during the Second World War, but Günter had wilfully signed up). Ask him to tell you about it.”

Born into Bavarian nobility, Günter received the strict education of young men of his rank. As I attentively listened to him, my eyes stopped on a picture that filled me with fear – there, astride a black horse, Günter was wearing with pride and arrogance the uniform of an SS officer. “One November day, after my men had ransacked the Salvation Army hall, I entered the building where flags, Christian newspapers and flyers had been burnt. There was a broken bench on which I could still read ‘He can sav…’. I found some of their hymn books in French and German. The German book also had music, so being a musician I sat at the dust – and ash covered piano and started to play the melody of the first hymn I turned to. “I read the words of the hymn: ‘O boundless salvation! deep ocean of love.’ I stopped playing and thought about the place I was in – broken chairs, smashed windows and swastikas painted on the walls. A crest of The Salvation Army was smashed into pieces, cutlery and plates were scattered on the floor. ‘Where is their God?’ I thought, smirking. I put the hymn books in a box and took them with me to burn later.

I was urgently called back to Berlin the same day, so forgot about the hymn books until the following day when I discovered them along with other books. Fearful of being accused of being part of this ‘strange’ Army, I resolved to throw them in a fire located at the bottom of Landerberg Allee. As I hurried to get to the huge fire I went past a dilapidated evangelical church.To my great surprise, I heard the same melody I had been playing… I went in. Seven French prisoners of war (POWs) were laboriously singing ‘O boundless salvation!…’ and needless to say they were absolutely petrified to see me among them! They were gaunt and filthy – a pitiful sight as they played the melody by candlelight on an awfully out-of-tune piano. They were stumbling over the words of a hymn tune that they couldn’t fully recall.

‘Nicht! No, not like that,’ I said to the pianist in my bad French. I vigorously pushed him aside and started to play the tune. ‘Go on! Sing! Books, in the box there.’ They obediently took books and sheepishly began to sing the Founder’s song, which they finished confidently. “‘Stille Nacht, bitte!’ one of them asked. It was Christmas, so what could I do? I started to play the melody and they sang along in their language and I in mine. As we sang, I pictured my family around the Christmas tree, sharing meals and gifts as a sign of peace and love. As I listened to these French prisoners – my enemies – singing I had the sudden realisation that the unity Germany sought to create in Europe by force, had already been won by Christ though his selfless love and sacrifice. “Unable to contain my emotions and feeling the love of God invading me, I rushed from the church with a heavy heart and tear-filled eyes, taking with me the Salvationist hymn book. “As we sat at the table, Günter filled with barely controllable emotion. ‘Here it is,’ he said. ‘See the stamp here: This book belongs to Strasburg Salvation Army.’

 Günter continued, “Since leaving that church I hated my life, uniform and political party. With the help of trusted friends I found refuge in Switzerland, where I stayed until the end of the war, went to church and discovered the Bible. Once back in Germany, I settled in Tailfingen and joined The Salvation Army.”

I had forgotten this extraordinary conversation by the time I entered the training college in London in 1972. Two years later I married Yvonne Chislett and as lieutenants we were appointed to Montparnasse, a small corps in the middle of a Parisian quarter. By 1974, I had forgotten this extraordinary conversation with Günter. I and my wife Yvonne were now Salvation Army Ministers at Montparnasse, in Paris. One day, one of my sergeants asked me to visit her brother Jean, a soldier of the corps who was unable to worship regularly. Jean received me in his bedroom as he was bedridden, and struggling to know what to say I talked about the weather. But after a short while Jean told me his testimony. I pulled my chair close and listened to his adventure… “I’ve been a Salvationist all my life,” he said, “but there was a time when I thought I’d lose my faith, but strangely, that time proved to be a blessing. “In 1943, when as a soldier in the French Army, I was made a POW and was deported to Berlin, where the SS didn’t hesitate to beat us up, but the citizens had pity on us and treated us well. Whilst living in a squalid POW camp, and would be delighted to introduce them to me, it was reassuring to meet fellow Salvationists in the middle of this hell, but we kept our meet ings secret, because The Salvation Army had been harassed by the authorities. “Just before Christmas we were particularly discouraged and demoralised. There was no news from France and spending Christmas far from our families was tough. My friend Paul, a musician, had found an abandoned good condition,’ Paul assured us. ‘There’s even a piano. We could go tonight because the authorities are busy burning books.’” When we arrived at the church there was not much left, but fortunately it wasn’t raining because we could see the stars through the roof! There were no doors and no electricity. It was so cold that we weren’t surprised that people were singing and dancing to the heat of the book fire on Alexanderplatz. Paul had a candle with him, but without any music he wasn’t very good on the piano.

We tried to play some well-known hymns to lift our spirits. We played Christmas carols too, but in this dark and sinister place our hearts weren’t in it. Antoine suggested that as we were Salvationists singing the Founder’s song would encourage us, but after the first verse we were only able to hum the second. ‘Lord,’ I cried, ‘we’re losing faith. Give us the strength to sing for you.’ So we tried again. Paul played as best as he could and we sang O boundless salvation! deep ocean of love. “Just at that moment a young SS officer entered the hall. We froze in fear when we recognised the black uniform and cap featuring a skull. He looked at us with disdain; he could see we were only insignificant French soldiers – lost, miserable and stinky. I thought this was the end for us, but instead he threw a box on a table and took a book out if it. He pushed Paul off the piano stool and started to play the music – the first bars of the Founder’s song. We were stunned and didn’t dare sing. “‘Go on!,’ he said. ‘Go on, sing!’ He pointed to the box. Incredible! It was filled with Salvation Army song books in French and German. The first page was stamped: ‘This book belongs to Strasburg Salvation Army’. We each took a book and tremulously started to sing ‘O boundless salvation!…’ We were faltering at first, but by the end we were singing with passion and fervour: ‘And now, hallelujah! the rest of my days shall gladly be spent in promoting his praise…’ The silence that followed was only interrupted by sniffling. “Paul courageously suggested to the SS man: ‘Stille Nacht, bitte!’ We sang ‘Silent Night’ at the top of our voices, but without warning the SS officer stopped in the middle of a verse and hurriedly left the church, taking the hymn book with him. We never saw him again, but we also never forgot that moment when God revealed himself to us in this unexpected way.” As Jean told me his story his face lit up. He reached into his bedside cabinet where he took out an old Salvation Army song book. “Look Lieutenant, I kept the one I picked up.” On the first faded page could still be read: “This book belongs to Strasburg Salvation Army.” As we cried, I told Jean the incredible story of Günter and his conversion

Jean died just a few weeks later. I lead his funeral and went to the service with Colonel Wälly, a retired officer. Shortly before the service the undertaker approached me to share his embarrassment. “The family has put one of your hymn books close to Jean’s heart,” he said, “but it belongs to The Salvation Army in Strasburg.” I replied with a smile: “I know. He’ll take it with him to Heaven. In fact, he’s got an appointment with a German SS officer who has an identical book that also belongs to The Salvation Army in Strasburg. They’ll probably join together to sing O boundless salvation!…’ as we will in this service.” There weren’t many people in the cold church as Jean’s family and friends paid their last respects, but my story about the song book was occasionally interrupted by the undertakers who, heads bowed, were trying to hide their emotions. Touched to the heart, the congregation sang with faith and assurance the Founder’s song.   


Not being a Salvationist, I did not know the words of the Founder’s Song.   Here they are: 

O boundless salvation! deep ocean of love,
O fulness of mercy, Christ brought from above.
The whole world redeeming, so rich and so free,
Now flowing for all men, come, roll over me!

My sins they are many, their stains are so deep.
And bitter the tears of remorse that I weep;
But useless is weeping; thou great crimson sea,
Thy waters can cleanse me, come, roll over me.

My tempers are fitful, my passions are strong,
They bind my poor soul and they force me to wrong;
Beneath thy blest billows deliverance I see,
O come, mighty ocean, and roll over me!

Now tossed with temptation, then haunted with fears,
My life has been joyless and useless for years;
I feel something better most surely would be
If once thy pure waters would roll over me.

O ocean of mercy, oft longing I’ve stood
On the brink of thy wonderful, life-giving flood!
Once more I have reached this soul-cleansing sea,
I will not go back till it rolls over me.

The tide is now flowing, I’m touching the wave,
I hear the loud call of the mighty to save;
My faith’s growing bolder, delivered I’ll be;
I plunge ‘neath the waters, they roll over me.

And what does it sound like?   You can find many recordings on youtube; I like this one, with its near-global coverage



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