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Colporter during 19th century

Colportage is the distribution of publications, books, and religious tracts by carriers called "colporteurs". The term does not necessarily refer to religious book peddling.


The term is an alteration of French comporter, "to peddle", as a portmanteau or pun with the word col (Latin collum, "neck"), with the resulting meaning "to carry on one's neck". Porter is from Latin portare, "to carry".


Maine (1905) and Vermont (1907) Baptist Colportage Wagons, with Colporter.

Colportage became common in Europe with the distribution of contending religious tracts and books during the religious controversies of the Reformation. In addition to controversial works the itinerant, book-peddling colporteurs also spread widely cheap editions of the popular works of the day to an increasingly literate rural population which had little access to the book shops of the cities.

The American Tract Society, an evangelical organization established in 1825 to distribute Christian literature, reported in its 24th annual report in 1849 "Colportage including 106 students from 23 different colleges or seminaries for their vacations.... [T]he colporters have visited 341,071 families...[and] sold 377,258 books."

In Christ in the Camp: or, Religion in Lee's Army (1887), Dr. John William Jones refers to the chaplains carrying bibles and tracts during the American Civil War as colporteurs. In addition to public preaching, distributing literature was a large part of the work of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The American Bible Society and the American Tract Society were among the largest organizations involved in colportage in the United States.

D. L. Moody founded the "Bible Institute Colportage Association" in 1894 to distribute tracts and books. Now known as Moody Publishers, they continue to publish religious materials with proceeds supporting the Moody Bible Institute.[1]

The Seventh-day Adventist Church calls their book distributors "literature evangelists", but until about 1980, the term "colporteur" was used to describe SDA literature evangelists.

Jehovah's Witnesses who were active in the full-time ministry were called colporteurs until 1931. Today, those participating in the full-time ministry are called "pioneers".

Bible Institute Colportage Association (BICA)[edit]

Moody, D. L., Pleasure and Profit in Bible Study, Colportage Library Vol.1 No.3, 1st Edition: 142 pp, 16mo, 4 7/8 x 7 1/4 inches. Stapled (2) with paper wraps.

D. L. Moody founded the Bible Institute Colportage Association (BICA) in 1894 to provide a source for inexpensive Christian literature. Moody's son-in-law, A. P. Fitt, managed BICA operations. Publishing was contracted to Moody's brother-in-law, Fleming Revell, and his upstart publishing company.[2] In 1895 the Colportage Library began the publication at regular intervals of books which met five specific criteria: 1. A popular readable style; 2. Well known authors or books of existing reputation; 3. Strictly evangelical and nondenominational works; 4. Good workmanship, and; 5. Low price.[3]

Volume 1, Number 1, "All of Grace," by C. H. Spurgeon, issued March 15, 1895 and sold for 10 cents directly from a colporter. Library subscription price, "$2.25 per annum, postpaid; single numbers 15 cents each, postpaid."[4]

Moody, D. L., Verborgene Kraft, Colportage Library Vol.2 No.39, 1st Edition, 1896.

In 1906 the Institute reported, “[t]he volume of business transacted was $76,855.33 as compared with $49,484.23 in 1905. The sale of Colportage Library books was 192,308 copies as compared with 192,490 copies in 1905. The vitality of this series is shown by the constant demand for even the earliest numbers, there being 196,509 reprints in all during 1906. 236,877 copies of the Emphasized Gospel of John were published during 1906. Retail mail order business amounted to $10,839.50 as compared with $8,221.11 in 1905. 100 colporters (about) at work at any one time. Fifteen regular employees at Association's headquarters in Chicago. Twenty-two depots of supply for the Association's colporters in the United States and elsewhere.”[5]

By January 1, 1917, 126 titles had issued totaling 6,718,313 copies printed. Foreign language editions included German, Danish-Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, Italian and Bohemian publications, with requests for translations in Polish, Dutch, French, and other languages.[6]

In 1941, after more than 12 million books in this series had been sold, BICA became Moody Press.[7] By the 1960s almost 500 (possibly more) titles had issued under the Colportage Library banner.[8]


  1. ^ "About Moody Collective". Retrieved January 21, 2015. 
  2. ^ Fisher, Allan. "D. L. Moody's Contribution to Christian Publishing." Christian History & Biography., 1990. Web. 16 Dec. 2015. <>.
  3. ^ "Preaching the Gospel in Print." Christian Workers Magazine. 1916: Vol 17, pp 496-97. <>
  4. ^ Moody, D. L., Pleasure and Profit in Bible Study, Vol. 1, No. 3, First Edition, April 15, 1895 (Vol.1 Nos.1-20 advertised on rear wrap.)
  5. ^ "From the Annual Reports." The Institute Tie. 1906: Vol 7, pg 300. <>
  6. ^ "Preaching the Gospel in Print." Christian Workers Magazine. 1916: Vol 17, pp 496-97. <>
  7. ^ Fisher, Allan. "D. L. Moody's Contribution to Christian Publishing." Christian History & Biography., 1990. Web. 16 Dec. 2015. <>
  8. ^ Baughman, Ray E., Bible History Visualized. Colportage Library No. 490, 1963.