by Arthur Klym  |  12 February 2019  |  

My earliest memories of public prayers, and hence the model I used when I learned to pray, included a phrase nearly as ubiquitous as “In Jesus name, amen.” It may sound strange to the ear of recent generations of Seventh-day Adventist youth, but to the children of the 1950’s and 1960’s, “Bless the missionaries and the colporteurs” was an indispensable part of most prayers.

By the time I came of age, the archaic term “colporteur” had been replaced with the loftier “literature evangelist.” Even though the word “colporteur” had fallen out of common use by the time I graduated from academy, the importance of those who served as colporteurs was still mentioned often. It was not unusual to hear a quote from Ellen G. White, such as this one:

Let every Seventh-day Adventist ask himself, “What can I do to proclaim the third angel’s message?” Christ came to this world to give this message to His servant to give to the churches. It is to be proclaimed to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. How are we to give it? The distribution of our literature is one means by which the message is to be proclaimed. Let every believer scatter broadcast tracts and leaflets and books containing the message for this time. Colporteurs are needed who will go forth to circulate our publications everywhere.
The Southern Watchman, January 5, 1904.

When late in my senior year at Laurelwood Academy a conference official came to campus and made a pitch for students to serve as literature evangelists, my friend, Ron, and I thought this call was for us. We signed up. Early that summer we returned to campus to be trained to serve God.

At that point in my life, my goal was to become an Adventist minister. I held church officials in the highest regard. They had been called by God to serve Him and His church. I knew I could trust them to be the highest examples of truth and integrity.

It was my experience as a literature evangelist that disabused me of that notion.

My lofty view of conference leaders suffered its first blow when we learned that we were not to identify ourselves as Seventh-day Adventists. Instead, we were workers for the Home Health Education Service, an organization I had never heard of before then. We learned that we were selling beautiful books that were very expensive. When we asked why we were asking so much for such beautifully bound books when the same books were available in paperback for pennies, the answer was, “They will respect the books and their message as more valuable if they pay a good price for them.”

We were trained in an opening spiel that went something like this: “Hello, We’re from the Home Health Education Service. We’re here in your neighborhood today taking a survey of religious attitudes. We’d like to come in and ask you a few questions and get your opinion of a service we offer.” As we made that last comment we gestured to our large briefcase, reached to pick it up and moved toward the door confidently expecting the occupant of the home to open the door. Remarkably, that often worked.

Once seated, we went through the opinion survey. We carefully recorded their answers.

When we asked our employer what we were to do with the opinion surveys, we were told to throw them away. We weren’t there to be poll takers. We were there to sell books. Wasn’t it dishonest not to tell them that? No. We weren’t being dishonest. After all, we had told them we wanted their opinion on a service we offer. That service was selling books.

The main book we were selling was The Desire of Ages. We offered a package deal that included Your Bible and You. If the person was willing to buy that day, we could also include a large white family Bible for no additional cost. We were instructed to tell our prospective customers that the family Bible could only be had for free if they bought that day. (It wasn’t really a requirement—it was a pressure tactic.)

Virtually none of the buyers could afford to pay cash for these expensive books. Fortunately for them, the Home Health Education Service also offered financing. We had the forms for a retail installment contract that we were trained to properly complete for the customer’s signature.

During our pitch we used a notebook with plastic pages with beautifully illustrated pages. It was like a Powerpoint presentation without a computer. We held the notebook so the customer could read it as we recited the contents of the page. One page had a quote from the then very popular FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover: “Every home should have these books.” What we didn’t tell them was that the quote from Director Hoover was about The Bible Story, a set of ten books by Arthur Maxwell. We weren’t selling those books.

We were trained to deflect questions about our true identity. When we were asked, “Are those books from any particular denomination,” we were taught to respond, “No. These books are for people of every denomination.”

Ron and I sold very few books. We lacked the aggressive closing skills of good salesmen.

Perhaps that’s why the Home Health Education Service brought in a couple of seasoned literature evangelists to show us how it was done.

I particularly recall one young mother who my mentor cajoled and bullied into signing a contract. She told us that she needed to talk to her husband before she made such a large purchase. He persuaded her by telling her how important her child’s soul was and what a positive influence the message in these books would be to her child’s salvation. He told her that the beautiful family Bible was not available to her unless she signed now. He overcame every objection and got her signature. (Those were the days when one could not cancel a sale made by door-to-door salesmen.) Rather than feeling elated, I left that home feeling dirty. It was obvious to me that this young woman’s husband would be upset to learn of the large expenditure she had made. Rather than sow the love of Jesus, we sowed discord.

Ron and I spent many hours praying for success in bringing the message of Jesus to the people of Beaverton, Oregon. We asked the Lord to help us do our part in finishing His work.

But we didn’t even finish the summer.

This is not just a story about my failure as a book salesman. This experience had far-reaching effects in my life.

First, my senior academy annual listed my ambition as “minister.” That had been my dream since I was a boy. At Walla Walla College that fall I decided to be a history major rather than a theology major, which led me to a legal education and career.

Second, it began a questioning and steady erosion of my faith. I continue to love and respect many close friends who are Seventh-day Adventists, including my canvassing partner, Ron, and the executive editor of Adventist Today. But I am not an active believer myself.

Third, and most importantly, it raises for me questions that I challenge my Christian friends to contend with. Is it ever ethical or moral to mislead or deceive another in the name of the Lord? Shouldn’t purveyors of literature containing the gospel of Jesus, for example, demonstrate a higher ethical standard than secular sales people? There are problems with this kind of selling, or at least there are to me. I hope they don’t still do this.

But let’s go beyond selling books, to basic question of selling the gospel. What methods can you ethically use to bring people to the Lord? Does the end justify the means?

An extreme example of the latter is the Children of God cult, which used female converts as prostitutes to win male converts to the movement. The leader, Moses David, was famous for saying that when you meet people in heaven, they aren’t going to quibble about how they were deceived into accepting Christ—they would just thank you that they made it.

I don’t mean to make an unfair comparison, but when my mentor talked a woman into buying books she couldn’t afford, and without her husband’s consent, by raising questions about her child’s salvation, it seemed to me that his justification was that the end justifies the means. I’ve heard of similar arm-twisting tactics used by evangelists. Even an altar call, where “every eye is closed” and the choir is singing softly raises some questions for me: could this be emotional coercion?

Let’s go a step farther. What can you ethically promise people? Is it honest to promise them happiness in this life if they follow Jesus? Preachers like Joel Osteen and others regularly guarantee their followers success and prosperity. It has worked for the preachers, but it isn’t at all clear it works for their followers. Can you even promise people life in the hereafter when that expectation is based on faith?

This discussion opens up a world of complicated questions—more than we can cover here. Is it ethical for an organization to make claims or demands on followers in the name of God? (The third commandment, as Jesus explained it, would seem to address this.) What about the implication that you must be part of our group to be saved? Or claiming Divine authority for expelling people from the group for their honest differences with us? For that matter, what about the arrogance of saying one’s own interpretation of the Bible is the only right one, when there are clearly many different and presumably plausible interpretations? 

All of these are difficult questions, and I don’t mean to accuse sincere believers by raising them. But I think it would do Christians much good to study them more deeply. It is a heavy responsibility to speak and act in the name of God, as I learned during my summer as a literature evangelist, and if salvation depends even partially on moral behavior and honest words, as Christians believe it does, wouldn’t you agree that believers should be very cautious about their methods and claims?

Arthur Klym practices law in Richland, Washington. He graduated in 1974 from Walla Walla College, and in 1977 from Willamette University College of Law. He has been in private practice for more than forty years.

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