IN 1886, one hundred copies of Millennial Dawn, Volume I, left the Bible House in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., bound for Chicago, Illinois. Charles Taze Russell hoped to distribute the new volume in bookstores. One of the largest firms in the United States distributing books on religion had agreed to take Millennial Dawn on consignment. But two weeks later, the entire shipment came back to the Bible House.
Reportedly, a well-known evangelist had become indignant at seeing Millennial Dawn on display with his books. If the book remained on the shelf, he fumed, he and all his famous evangelical friends would take their books—and their business—elsewhere. The distributor reluctantly returned the Dawns. Additionally, advertisements had been placed in newspapers. But opponents saw to it that the advertising contracts were canceled. How, then, would this new publication reach seekers of truth?
The colporteurs, as they were called, proved to be the key.* In 1881, Zion’s Watch Tower had called for 1,000 preachers who could distribute Bible literature full-time. Although the colporteurs numbered only a few hundred, they scattered seeds of truth in printed form far and wide. By 1897, nearly one million Dawns had been distributed, largely by the colporteurs. Most of them lived on the small reimbursement they received for each Watch Tower subscription or book they placed.
Who were these intrepid colporteurs? Some started as teens, others in their later years. Many were single or married without children, but not a few families joined the ranks. Regular colporteurs worked long days, and auxiliary colporteurs put in one or two hours daily. Not everyone had the health or the circumstances to do colporteur work. But at a 1906 convention, those who could were told that they did not need to be “very learned, or very talented, or have the tongue of an angel.”
On nearly every continent, ordinary people accomplished an extraordinary work. One brother estimated that in seven years he placed 15,000 books. Yet, he said, “I did not enter the colporteur work to be a book salesman, but rather, to be a witness for Jehovah and his truth.” Wherever the colporteurs went, seeds of truth took root and groups of Bible Students began to multiply.
Clergymen scorned the colporteurs, calling them mere book peddlers. The 1892 Watch Tower commented: “Few know [them] as the Lord’s real representatives, or recognize that dignity which the Lord sees in their humility and self-sacrifice.” Indeed, the life of the colporteurs was no “flowery bed of ease,” as one of them put it. Sturdy shoes and bicycles were the primary means of transportation. Where cash was scarce, colporteurs bartered books for food. After a day in the field, tired but happy preachers returned to tents and rented rooms. Then came the Colporteur Wagon, a homemade house car that saved much time and money.*
Beginning at the 1893 Chicago Convention, the program included special colporteur sessions. These featured lively exchanges of experiences, suggested preaching techniques, and practical advice. Brother Russell once urged hardworking preachers to have a hearty breakfast, a midmorning glass of milk, and on a hot day, an ice-cream soda.
Colporteurs seeking a fellow worker, or preaching companion, wore a yellow ribbon. Newer colporteurs paired up with more experienced ones. Such training was apparently needed, for one new colporteur had nervously introduced the books by saying, “You don’t want these, do you?” Happily, the householder did, and later she became a sister.
One brother wondered, ‘Should I retain my present lucrative situation and donate $1,000 (U.S.) a year to the work, or should I become a colporteur?’ The Lord would appreciate either, he was told, but giving his time to the Lord directly would bring him greater blessings. Mary Hinds saw the colporteur work as “the best way of doing the most good for the greatest number of people.” And timid Alberta Crosby stated, “I am learning to love the Colporteur work more each day.”
Today, many fleshly and spiritual descendants of the zealous colporteurs are still holding true to their spiritual heritage. If you do not yet have a colporteur or a pioneer in your family line, why not work on starting your own family tradition? You too will learn to love the full-time preaching work more each day.
After 1931, the term “colporteur” was replaced by “pioneer.”
Details about house cars will appear in a future issue.
[Blurb on page 32]
They did not need to be “very learned, or very talented, or have the tongue of an angel”
[Picture on page 31]
Colporteur A. W. Osei in Ghana, about 1930
[Pictures on page 32]
Top: Colporteurs Edith Keen and Gertrude Morris in England, about 1918; bottom: Stanley Cossaboom and Henry Nonkes in the United States, with empty cartons that had contained the books they placed