Memory Lane: Selling books in Sweden


This past week my wife and I once again drove from our home in the Netherlands to Sweden. It usually takes us three days of not too strenuous driving to reach our destination. This year we combine a few weeks of vacaion with our son and our granddaughters with a few other activities–some of them church-related.

I have no idea how often I have made the trip to Sweden. My guess is that it must at least be forty or fifty times. During my years at the church headquarters of the Trans-European region, I came there quite regularly. But since then I have gone to Sweden two or three times a year. However, my Sweden trips started already when I was a student. The Adventist Church in the Netherlands had as a rule of Medes and Persians that anyone who wanted to become a pastor in the Dutch church had to do a minimum of one year’s of colporteur work with books published by the denominational publishing house. It was graciously allowed to cut this one year into four or five summer vacations. The philosophy behind this system was that this was the perfect way to learn how to meet the public. Besides, it was an evangelistic work of the highest order! It may have been a coincidence that the president of the Dutch church at the time was also the director of the denominational publishing house, and thus had a very direct interest in increasing the turnover of his institution.

The one-year canvassing rule had one fortunate loophole. It was not mandatory to do it in the Netherlands and since there was a (well-founded) rumor that it was much easier to sell books in the Swedish countryside than in the Netherlands, I was one of several students who went to Sweden and earned all the money needed for the next year at college. And thus I sold books in a number of different regions in Sweden. The last time I went together with my wife, shortly after we were married, to earn the money that would pay for a year at Andrews University in the USA to earn my masters degree.

One of the first places where I worked was the beautiful town of Gränna, situated on the shore of the long Vättern-lake in southern Sweden. One of the main highways passes Gränna and gives a fantastic view of the town and of the lake, with in the middle of the lake an island–Visingsö–where I also sold hundreds of books. Whenever I pass there–as on this Friday August 4–my colporteur experiences automatically come to mind. I must admit that at the time the economic aspect was far more dominant in my mind than the evangelistic blessings. I must also admit that I really hated the work–every day of it. But it was the only way I knew to earn enough to pay for my studies of the following year.

Colporteur work with books published by the church is an important part of Adventist history. From the beginning it was strongly promoted as one of the key methods to get the “Truth” to the people.  Actually, it was also a way to provide a living to people who had lost their job when they started to keep the seventh-day Sabbath–in a time when working on Saturdays still was the rule. And, there was also a strong economic benefit for the church!

In the Western world the colporteur work (in later times increasingly referred to with the more pleasant term: literature evangelism) became more and more difficult. Legal restrictions and the fact that door-to-door selling became more and more socially unacceptable–besides a number of other reasons–led to the rather sudden demise of this branch of church work. As a result many of the publishing house operated by the church in the western world lost a major part of their business, and many either collapsed or had to be drastically scaled down.

[Unfortunately, the world church has still not fully accepted the fact that the days of colporteur work in the western world are over. The world leaders of this department of the church, who come from parts of the world where selling books from door to door is still a booming business, feel that it is still an activity that must, in some form, be reignited, also in countries where the local leaders know it has no future. But then, this is not the only example that indicates that the folks in Silver Spring are not always sufficiently attuned to the conditions in other parts of the world.]

Tomorrow (Saturday August 5) I am scheduled to preach in the church on the grounds of the Swedish Adventist College in a service to celebrate the 90th birthday of the famous Swedish Adventist (still very active) orchestra director Herbert Blomstedt. And then, on Monday, we head North for the last 500-plus kilometers to our final destination of this trip.