From Our Archives

On the Road With the Pilgrims

“I JUST can’t go from door to door!” How many new Bible students have felt that way about the prospect of preaching to strangers! This objection, though, came from an experienced public speaker and Bible teacher called a pilgrim.

Many readers of Zion’s Watch Tower who left their churches longed for fellowship with those who shared their thirst for Bible truth. The magazine urged its readers to seek out others of like precious faith and gather regularly for Bible study. Beginning about 1894, the Watch Tower Society sent out traveling representatives to meet with groups requesting a visit. Later called pilgrims, these experienced, hardworking men were selected for having meekness, Bible knowledge, and fine speaking and teaching ability, and for demonstrating fidelity to the ransom. The typical visit lasted only one or two busy days. Many Bible Students got their first taste of field service by distributing handbills for a pilgrim’s public talk. After his evening discourse in a school, Hugo Riemer, who later became a member of the Governing Body, answered Bible questions until past midnight. Weary but happy, he declared that the meeting was “beautiful.”

The Watch Tower stated that the “chief good” of pilgrim visits was to build up “the household of faith” by means of parlor meetings in the homes of believers. Bible Students from surrounding areas came for the talks and question-and-answer sessions. Then came time for Christian hospitality. As a girl, Maude Abbott attended a morning talk, after which all gathered around a long table in the yard. “So much wonderful food—country ham, fried chicken, breads of many kinds, pie, and cake! Everybody ate all he could, and about two o’clock we assembled for another talk.” But she admits, “By then everybody was about half asleep.” Longtime pilgrim Benjamin Barton once remarked, ‘If I had eaten all the rich things offered me, I would have finished my pilgrimage long ago.’ A letter from headquarters in Brooklyn eventually advised well-meaning sisters that it would be better for all concerned to provide the pilgrim with “every-day, plain cooking” and “undisturbed sleep.”

The pilgrims excelled at teaching and using charts, models, or whatever they had at hand to make their subject come alive. R. H. Barber’s talks “were always spiritually spicy.” Fatherly W. J. Thorn spoke “like a patriarch in times of old.” One day while riding in a Model A Ford, Shield Toutjian abruptly cried out, “Stop!” He jumped out of the car, plucked some wildflowers, and gave his companions an impromptu lesson on Jehovah’s creation.

The rigors of pilgrim work brought many challenges, especially for those in or past middle age. For some, however, the biggest test proved to be a change in the focus of their work. They would now be expected to take the lead in preaching from house to house. The March 15, 1924, Watch Tower stated that “one of the chief commissions” of true Christians “is to give a witness to the kingdom. Pilgrims are sent out for this purpose.”

Certain pilgrims apparently resented the change, for they left the traveling work, some disgruntled ones even forming their own following. Robie D. Adkins recounted that one pilgrim who was an excellent speaker lamented bitterly: “All I know is how to preach from the platform. I just can’t go from door to door!” Brother Adkins recalled: “I next saw him at the 1924 convention in Columbus, Ohio. He was the most miserable looking person there, standing alone in the shade of a small tree, forlorn among thousands of joyful brothers. I never saw him again. He left the organization soon afterward.” On the other hand, “many happy brothers were passing by carrying books to their cars,” obviously eager to witness from house to house.—Acts 20:20, 21.

Many pilgrims, though perhaps as nervous as those they had been sent to train, put their heart into the work. Regarding house-to-house witnessing, German-speaking pilgrim Maxwell G. Friend (Freschel) wrote, “This part of the pilgrim work adds to the blessings of the trip.” Pilgrim John A. Bohnet reported that the brothers in general heartily approved the emphasis on Kingdom preaching. According to him, the large majority were “burning with zeal to be in the front ranks of battle.”

Throughout the years, faithful traveling brothers have been a force for good. “The value and benefit of the pilgrims was unquestionable, even as I observed as a boy,” said longtime Witness Norman Larson. “They did much to mold me in the right way.” To this very day, such self-sacrificing and loyal traveling overseers are helping fellow believers to say, “We can go from door to door!”

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It was a happy day when the pilgrim came around!

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Benjamin Barton’s 1905 itinerary had some 170 stops

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Walter J. Thorn was a pilgrim, affectionately known as Pappy because of his fatherly, Christlike disposition

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J. A. Browne was sent to Jamaica as a pilgrim in about 1902 to strengthen and encourage 14 small groups

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The pilgrim work built faith, strengthened Christian unity, and brought the brothers close to the organization