Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Colporteurs: Bringing the Bible to Black Americans

The term "colporteur" is not familiar to most people. But those who acted as colporteurs for the American Bible Society formed an essential link between the Bible and African Americans. Dating back to 1796, it comes from a French word that came to refer to those who travel to sell or distribute Bibles and religious writings.

The Bible has always played a significant role in the African American religious experience and also has been a primary source for literacy skills for many. The American Bible Society has vigorously worked to share the Word of God with the African American community since its founding in 1816. At the beginning of the 20th century the Bible Society created a new form of Scripture distribution that significantly increased the role of African Americans in providing Scriptures to their communities.

In 1900, Bible Society leaders responded to the new situations created by the Supreme Court's "separate but equal" decision and the uneven Bible distribution in the southern states by launching the "Agency Among the Colored People of the South." The creation of this Agency was a direct response to the racism that African Americans were experiencing. The new Agency's sole purpose was to distribute the Bible among African Americans in the South. In developing the Agency, the Bible Society was making a statement that all people are children of God and no one should be marginalized because of their race.

With the launching of the Agency, the leaders of the Bible Society placed the distribution of God's Word in the hands of African American colporteurs - home missionaries in the South. The door-to-door standard method of distribution was successful in rural areas and when furnishing Scriptures to blacks living in urban areas, colporteurs received significant help from black churches.

The initial group of six colporteurs worked in six states: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and South Carolina. By 1920, 16 colporteurs were at work in 13 states. Most of the colporteurs were seminary-trained members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Their outreach extended to many other traditional African American denominations, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the former Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (now Christian Methodist Episcopal Church), and the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc.

Most people received the colporteurs warmly, gathered their families together, and requested them to read selections aloud. A colporteur's arrival was a special event, which helped overcome feelings of separation and isolation for rural families. In the cities, colporteurs found established African American neighborhoods with thriving local institutions. The local African American church usually provided a focal point for introducing and carrying out the work of the Bible Society. Colporteurs also engaged in furnishing the Bible to those huddled on street corners, highways and in rail stations.

Over the years, the Agency expanded and provided spiritual refuge to families, servicemen and youth. Their work eventually led the Bible Society to reconsider its approach to sharing God's Word with African Americans who were, indeed "equal," but still segregated.

So it was in 1959 that the Bible Society visibly identified with intensified protests against segregation and moved to take part in the fight for civil rights by eliminating aspects of its operation that bore any semblance to segregation. This made the valuable, but segregated, work of the colporteurs an anachronism. An internal reorganization ended the Bible Society's special mission among African Americans in the United States.

To this day the American Bible Society has kept its commitment to building strong relationships with America's African American communities in carrying out the mission of sharing the Good News. Information about colporteurs, in addition to a wealth of information about the African American religious story, can be found in the American Bible Society's African American Jubilee Edition of the Bible. This edition contains nearly 300 pages of articles, papers and art that provide a lens through which to view the African American experience.

Founded in 1816 and headquartered in New York City, the mission of the American Bible Society is to make the Bible available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford, so that all people may experience its life-changing message. The American Bible Society Web site is

1 comment:

Shane Vander Hart said...

Interesting piece of history I knew nothing about. Thanks for sharing.