All About Seventh-day Adventist Colporteurs
The Seventh-day Adventist Church uses a variety of methods to spread the hope of the gospel to the world. One of these ways is through colporteuring, also called “canvassing” or “literature evangelism.”
As you can probably guess, the basics of this ministry method involves church members visiting people at their homes or businesses to share the gospel through books and other forms of literature or media.
Sometimes the literature is free, or sometimes it’s for sale. Sometimes it’s left up to the recipient if they’d like to have it for free or provide a donation of their chosen amount.
You might have even encountered one of them who knocked at your door or stopped by at your place of work.
Here’s your chance to learn all you need to know about Adventist colporteurs, and how this became an important ministry within the denomination.
- What is colporteuring?
- What is an Adventist colporteur like?
- History of door-to-door ministry in Adventism
- Why the emphasis on a print-media ministry in a digital age?
- Why is it relevant—even today?
- Benefits of being a colporteur
- How does someone become a canvasser?
Let’s start by further defining a colporteur.
What is colporteuring?
“Colporteur” is a French word meaning “a peddler.” So originally, a colporteur was your typical traveling salesperson.
But in the 19th-century, the word came to be used in North America mainly for those who sold religious books and periodicals by going door-to-door.1
This practice started all the way from the Reformation era, when the reformers would have colporteurs circulate literature containing their teachings.2
So, through the centuries, the word “colporteur” came to mean door-to-door sellers or distributors of literature, and primarily of religious topics. And it has remained that way to date.
What is an Adventist colporteur like?
In Adventism, a colporteur is someone who regularly sells or distributes denominational books, magazines, and other forms of literature to the public—at homes, businesses, parks, or wherever interested people might be.
Nowadays, they’re more commonly referred to as canvassers or literature evangelists (or L.E.’s for short).
Literature evangelism is one of the many ways of sharing the gospel and pointing toward the hope of Jesus’ second coming. And a canvasser is considered by the Adventist Church as a gospel minister in his own right, just like a pastor or evangelist.5 Such a worker coordinates their efforts with that of other church members in evangelism.
When you really think about it, a literature evangelist does the work of a minister, a teacher, and a salesperson, all at once.
For Tiago Procópio, a colportering director of the Associação Sul Rio-grandense in Brazil, “the work of an effective literature evangelist is similar to the work of the Vaudois, sowing seeds of truth and preparing people for the return of Jesus.”6
(The Vaudois were a group of people in the Middle Ages who remained faithful to the truths of the Bible and shared the gospel with people wherever they went.)
The colporteur ministry is coordinated under the publishing department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. And colporteur evangelists work as individuals, families, or groups in local churches or conferences. They sell books written by Adventists and published by Adventist publishing houses, that share the beautiful message of Jesus Christ as our Savior.
But how did literature evangelism come to have such an integral part in Adventist evangelism in the first place? Let’s look at a brief history of colportuering in the Adventist Church.
History of door-to-door ministry in Adventism
The first record of Adventist literature evangelism was in Europe in the 1860s. This was before the denomination began to officially promote and sponsor literature evangelism.
But in 1879, an influential co-founder of Seventh-day Adventism named Ellen G. White began urging the two main Adventist publishing houses to sell doctrinal books to the public through house-to-house canvassers. These publishing houses were the Review and Herald Publishing Association and the Pacific Press Publishing Association.
Up to this time, denominational literature was mostly sold to other Adventists who wanted to learn more about the Bible and the truths Adventists were discovering within its pages. This literature was typically distributed through subscriptions, as well as during camp meetings and other events. So canvassing opened doors to a more missionary-minded approach, focusing on sharing the gospel through literature.
Then a Canadian man named George A. King brought things to a whole new level in 1880.
King wanted to be a preacher. But soon it became evident to him (and others) that preaching in public was not his gift. He was advised to try being a “home missionary” or a “fireside preacher.” Essentially, he was advised that his strengths may serve well in selling Adventist publications while visiting and teaching people in their homes.
Turns out, that was indeed the case. His colporteur ministry was a huge success.
So in 1881 he asked for an opportunity to implement Ellen White’s plan of evangelistic bookselling.
He began with Thoughts on Daniel and the Revelation, a book by Adventist cofounder Uriah Smith, published by Review and Herald. And soon, the Adventist Church began training many other literature evangelists to go ahead of any evangelistic effort to prepare the way for the preachers. Just like many businesses do just before a big event comes to town.
Church leaders like Ellen White provided counsel and guidance in the development of this ministry, and encouraged many to work as canvassers:
“Those who at this time take up the canvassing work with earnestness and consecration will be greatly blessed. You have no time to lose. Give yourselves willingly and unselfishly to the doing of this work. Remember that it is evangelistic in its nature, and that it helps to give a warning which is greatly needed.”8
She urged church members to embrace the work as an effective way of working toward the fulfillment of its mission, saying:
“When church members realize the importance of the circulation of our literature, they will devote more time to this work. Papers, tracts, and books will be placed in the homes of the people, to preach the gospel in their several lines. … The church must give her attention to the canvassing work.”9
In showing the significance of literature ministry, she said that “if there was one work more important than the other, it is that of getting our publications before the public, thus leading them to search the Scriptures.”10
And that’s how Adventist colporteuring ministry began—as a branch of the publishing work.
From very humble beginnings in North America, it spread to every part of the world that Adventism went to.
The publishing department of the General Conference was organized in 1902.
And with Adventist publishing houses all over the world producing publications in different languages, literature evangelism played a significant role in the Seventh-day Adventist global mission.
This continues even today as tens of thousands of L.E.’s, through different programs, distribute literature and pray with millions of people in their homes, or wherever they meet them.
Adventist canvassing programs
Today, Adventist colporteurs work in various programs such as:
Full-time and part-time career literature evangelists
These literature evangelists work as individuals or as a group organized by the local church or conference office.
It may be part of their gospel ministry as Bible workers, or they may be doing it as their full-time work in ministry.
As needs, trends, and society change, these types of full-time workers are becoming fewer in recent years, unlike previously when there were “colporteur pastors” who did this as their primary position.
But we still have denominational leaders that coordinate many highly-successful canvassing programs.
Student canvassers and other temporary participants
Student canvassing programs usually involve high school and college students on scholarship programs.
Some canvass part-time during the school term, while many do this work primarily during school breaks. In the US, there are programs during winter break (a month in December) or the whole summer (about 10 weeks between June and August).
The students stay together the whole time at a church or an Adventist institution, under the supervision of several canvassing leaders selected by the conference offices.
Examples of well-known student canvassing programs include:
Here’s an example of what a day looks like at a student canvassing program.
Volunteers for door-to-door initiatives
These projects could be gathering people to pass out literature that’s not for sale, but rather for public awareness.
This information might talk about various church events or programs, so the volunteers visit neighborhoods distributing brochures. They may also poll for Bible study interests and community needs.
Others distribute helpful Christian literature, like books on healthy living, children’s books, devotionals, the Sabbath School quarterly, or Adventist books like The Great Controversy and Steps to Christ. You might even be able to find some that carry documentary DVDs on Christian history, apologetics, prophecy, etc.
But with today’s world turning to all things digital, you may wonder why the emphasis on such a ministry?
Why the emphasis on a print-media ministry in a digital age?
Adventists emphasize door-to-door book distribution because it offers the opportunity for personal interaction—something people are needing more and more these days.
While there are many other means for reaching people in this digital era, canvassing remains effective. Adventist colporteurs frequently report meeting people who ask for prayer, Bible studies, or to send them more and more books about God and to come see them again!
While so many people do everything digitally these days—even their social interactions—those that don’t prefer digital interaction often get left out.
And, when you allow people to talk with you in the comfort of their own home, where they remain in control of when the interaction ends, it can be easier to talk in a more personal way.
And as literature evangelists meet with individuals or families at their doors to present books that meet the needs of the people, it provides an excellent opportunity for meaningful conversations. And it’s a way to point people to Jesus.
An example is one young man’s encounter with a lady who shared that she had just lost her brother. So he prayed for her, and shared a book that could help her find peace and comfort in Jesus in that difficult time.
She liked it so much that she bought 15 other copies to share with other family members!
So through that visit, this young man named Samuel was God’s messenger of comfort to that whole family.
And that’s what canvassing is all about—being that channel of God’s love and care for His people, and leading them to Him through books filled with the truths of the Bible.
Also, an L.E. may meet people who may not take books, but who may be interested in learning more about the Bible or even how to improve their health. And they can be referred to other helpful programs or events at the local Adventist Church.
Someone interested in healthy living may be referred to a healthy cooking class or a natural remedies seminar, etc.
Those interested in learning about the Bible may be connected to Bible study groups or guides, or referred to a Bible prophecy seminar.
Or if someone is thinking of visiting a church, they may be connected to a pastor or volunteer at a church nearby. An example is Amy’s story—she started going to church after meeting a canvasser at a parking lot.
Thus by providing a listening ear, and providing useful resources and referrals for the needs of the people, canvassers work just as Jesus did—meeting them at their points of need.
So canvassers are an important part of spreading the gospel, since they can present these beautiful truths to people a church pastor might never have had the chance to meet.
They are one of the ways God can bring truth to a soul longing for it, but not knowing where to look.
As Ellen White wrote:
“All over the world men and women are looking wistfully to heaven. Prayers and tears and inquiries go up from souls longing for light, for grace, for the Holy Spirit. Many are on the verge of the kingdom, waiting only to be gathered in.”12
And there are countless testimonies of how a canvasser’s visit was an answer to prayer. Or how a knock on the door came just at the nick of time, when it was needed most.
So that’s why we still see significant value in canvassing—distributing physical books even in today’s digitized world—and why we believe the work is needed today more than ever.
4 Reasons literature evangelism is still relevant—even in today’s digitized world
Though many would argue that door-to-door sales is an old-fashioned (or even unwelcome) method of evangelism in the 21st century, we can’t ignore the evidence that it still has an important place in sharing the gospel.
After all, different forms of outreach exist because different people prefer connecting in different ways. Not everyone will buy a book, just like not everyone will attend a Bible seminar. But to those that do…they’re sure glad those methods of outreach existed!
And, even if there are plenty of people out there who don’t want to talk to someone who comes to their door…they don’t have to! If an Adventist colporteur knocks on the door of a person who doesn’t answer, they’ll move right along. Even if they get a door shut in their face, they’ll just know that door-to-door interaction isn’t the way to that person’s heart.
But let’s look at the specific reasons literature evangelism is still so effective.
1. People still buy and read print books
According to Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers’ Association in the UK, despite the rapid developments in digital technology, people still prefer reading physical books over e-books.
This is supported by the fact that US book publishers in 2019 brought in almost $26 billion in total revenue, and up to $22.6 billion of that amount came from print books.13
Additionally, print book sales have seen a steady rise in the US since the year 2019, while e-book sales have been on the decline.
In 2020, there was an 8.2% increase in print books bought compared to 2019 (757.9 million copies compared to 693.7 million). And 2021 saw another rise at 8.9% more books than 2021 (825.7 million copies compared to 757.9 million), with most of the buyers being millennials and younger.14
On the other hand, e-books have had a 25% decline in sales in 2021 compared to 2020.15
So though print books are old, they are not old-fashioned!
2. People mostly buy books for self-education/self-help
50% of all print books sold are for educational purposes and science.16
And this is the category of books sold by Adventist colporteurs. They distribute books that answer some of life’s toughest questions, books on healthy living backed by scientific research, and children’s books that educate both the intellect and morals.
That’s why Ellen White’s slogan for the Adventist literature ministry was, “Educate, educate, educate.”17
3. Jesus and Paul used the door-to-door strategy
When Jesus Himself sent His disciples on mission trips, He asked them to go to people’s homes. And the apostle Paul also taught people from house to house (Matthew 10:12,13; Luke 9:4; Acts 5: 42; Acts 20:20).
So while they didn’t use books as we do today (since their literature wasn’t exactly in “book” form yet), the principle is the same—to educate the public in the truth by meeting them where they are.
4. Books serve as “silent preachers” that can’t be silenced
While content online can be censored and taken down, that’s a lot less likely to happen to books in people’s homes.
Sure, there used to be stories about books being banned, like Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451. But in our world today, digital content is much more vulnerable to censorship. And, since digital media platforms are often owned by other entities, digital content can be changed and re-published, making it more at risk for manipulation.
Books, however, are like silent preachers that can always speak whenever opened.
Even if someone gets a book and places it on the shelf, forgetting about it…it’s still there. And the time might indeed come that they’ll pick it up and read it when they’re ready.18
Also, while a person may not be open to talking about faith with someone they just met, they may be open to reading a book. And the Holy Spirit will help them understand the new concepts they encounter.
Books can be profoundly effective in reaching such people because it puts them in control. It doesn’t put them in a situation of vulnerability.
They can choose to look at the book when they want, without someone looking over their shoulder or trying to talk to them.
This way, they can draw their own conclusions as they develop their beliefs.
There will always be people out there who will prefer (and even appreciate) this kind of method. And the Holy Spirit will always be there to help them.
Benefits of being a canvasser
Apart from effectiveness in evangelism, canvassers have a lot to gain from the experience. Here are some ways canvassing can be beneficial for the participant.
1. Good for training leaders, gaining confidence, and developing character
Canvassing programs are organized to promote discipline, personal responsibility, and continuous training and growth.
A canvasser’s day involves several responsibilities that teach them in a real-world way to manage their time and finances, plan their daily tasks, work as a team, and lead others.
As you can imagine, canvassing work itself is not easy. It takes perseverance and dedication, and often you have to make split-second decisions about the way you answer questions and respond to people.
There’s also the risk of encountering hostile homeowners or big scary dogs. Not to mention that many days canvassers have to work under the hot sun or in biting cold, or even in the rain.
But learning to navigate these situations builds character in ways other things just can’t.
Canvassers often become resilient and wise as they deal with different people and unexpected situations. They learn to be confident salespeople and sharpen their negotiation skills even in the face of blunt rejection.
Canvassing could also be a way to get over shyness, or that familiar uneasiness you get when having to talk to strangers. The first few days are likely to be hard, but many report that it doesn’t take long to get comfortable starting conversations, introducing yourself, and going with the flow of the interaction. You learn to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading.
And not enough can be said about the social skills that come out of canvassing. You learn to stay attuned to your surroundings, and to detect and interpret the nonverbal cues of the people you talk to.
All these are invaluable skills that can also help bring success in any line of work or ministry.
That’s why Ellen White wrote that “one of the best ways in which young [people] can obtain a fitness for the ministry is by entering the canvassing field.”19
2. Spiritual growth
Canvassing can literally open doors to situations that cause your faith to grow.
Because this work is challenging, canvassers are encouraged to pray constantly. For tact and wisdom while working with the people. For the people to be receptive.
For God to bring them in contact with those who need the books. And for strength to carry on.
And as they see God answering these prayers, their faith gets stronger.
Also, interaction with other canvassers who love God can be so encouraging. A strong, like-minded community also helps toward growth.
And in order to be in a position to explain what the books are about, most canvassers read the books, enriching their lives as they seek to enrich others.
3. It can be a way to earn a living while working for God
While canvassing is first of all evangelistic, it also involves sales. And this provides the opportunity for the canvasser to earn a modest living.
There are Adventists who do this as their main job, while others do it part-time. And with the proceeds, they can support their families or students can pay their tuition.
All over the world, canvassers make more than $100 million annually in retail sales collectively.20
And the good part is that they get to earn their living while working for God.
4. The colporteur scholarship plan
Many Adventist publishing houses have partnered with canvassing programs and Adventist colleges, universities, and high schools to provide scholarships to students who are willing to go out and sell books.
Most of these programs work through fund-matching. Depending on how much the students makes, Adventist schools are willing to match that amount in scholarship money. So if you make $3000 at a summer canvassing program, your school may give you a 50% matching fund, so you end up with a total of $4500 toward your tuition.
This provides a way for many students to pay their way through school while serving God.
With all these benefits, maybe you’re curious about how to become a literature evangelist…
We’ll fill you in on that next.
How does someone become an Adventist colporteur?
You can get information on how to apply at your nearest Adventist Church. You can also visit the website of the nearest Adventist conference office, and look for information under the categories of Literature Evangelism, Publishing Ministry, or there might even be a GLOW program in your area.
Most conference-level literature directors also visit different Adventist colleges and high schools to recruit for student canvassing programs. And most schools have L.E. clubs on their campuses with canvassing coordinators, who will list their contact information.
You’ll fill out an application (mostly online), followed by an interview (often virtual). Then submit required documentation.
Once you’ve secured your spot in the program, you’ll receive a package of training materials that tell you about the literature you’ll be selling or distributing (for you to memorize), the program’s details, and information about the areas you’ll canvas.
And once the program starts, you’ll have several in person training sessions.
Then you’ll get personal on-the-job training by experienced canvassers. And soon, you’ll be out knocking on doors alone or as part of a group. And you can only get better as you keep doing it.
There’s also advanced training available to sharpen your skills. Regional L.E. meetings or workshops are held in various parts of the world for canvassers to meet, network, and encourage each other.
Another great resource is The Next Drop Off Podcast, where you can learn the ropes of canvassing. You can listen to all the intriguing experiences of fellow canvassers, and you can even submit questions.
You can also read the book Colporteur Ministry by Ellen White, which is considered the “canvassing manual” for Adventist literature evangelists.
There’s nothing quite like the realization that God just used you as His hands, feet, smile, etc. That’s why Adventist colporteurs have a common saying that, “as a canvasser, you often get to experience more miracles in ten weeks than many experience in a lifetime.”
- https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/colporteur [↵]
- https://www.europeanmission.org/blog/what-did-the-reformation-ever-do-for-mission [↵]
- https://missiology.org.uk/pdf/e-books/canton-w/history-of-bfbs-vol-3_canton.pdf [↵]
- https://news.americanbible.org/blog/entry/corporate-blog/laborers-for-the-gospel-celebrating-the-legacy-of-colporteurs [↵]
- White, Ellen G., Colporteur Ministry, p. 8. [↵]
- https://adventist.news/news/gaucho-completes-40-years-working-as-a-colporteur [↵]
- Ibid. [↵]
- White, Ellen G., Colporteur Ministry, p. 14. [↵]
- White, Letters and Manuscripts, vol. 16, 1901. [↵]
- White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, p. 390. [↵]
- Such as: https://scc.adventist.org/departments-ministries/literature-ministries, https://www.mnsda.com/ministries/literature-evangelism, https://www.rockymountainliteratureministries.com/, and many more. [↵]
- White, Evangelism, (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1946), p. 292. [↵]
- https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/19/physical-books-still-outsell-e-books-and-heres-why.html [↵]
- https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/financial-reporting/article/88225-print-book-sales-rose-8-9-in-2021.html [↵]
- https://www.lifewire.com/digital-book-sales-plummet-did-paper-books-win-5195791 [↵]
- https://www.tonerbuzz.com/blog/book-and-reading-statistics/ [↵]
- White, Colporteur Ministry, (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1953), p. 133. [↵]
- White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol 6, pp. 313-314. [↵]
- White, Gospel Workers, p. 43. [↵]
- https://ellenwhite.org/topics/244 [↵]
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