In 1900, Henry Nelson Payne, a missionary and president of Mary Holmes Seminary in West Point, Mississippi, a school for Black women, was frustrated that many Bible societies in the former Confederacy were not willing to distribute Bibles to African Americans. He wrote an article in the Bible Society Record, the official publication of the American Bible Society (ABS), titled “The Bible Among the Negroes of the South.” Payne’s article was a scathing critique of the Society’s negligence toward southern blacks and a clarion call for the ABS to meet the needs of those suffering under the poverty and discrimination of Jim Crow. The ABS had done little in the decades following Reconstruction to address the problem of racial inequality. As former slaves integrated into white society, the organization stayed true to its 1816 constitution that granted the power of Bible distribution to local, mostly racist, auxiliaries.
Payne’s article pointed out that three million (roughly one-third) of the African American population were members of Christian churches and “sincere disciples of Jesus Christ,'” but very few of them had “a knowledge of divine truth from a personal study of the Bible. “It is a sad and startling fact,” Payne wrote, “that irreligion, even infidelity, prevail among the younger and more intelligent class of negroes more than among the older ones.” He estimated that “one colored home in twenty has in it a copy of the word of God.”
The children of former slaves had not been taught to read the Bible and had little or no money to purchase one. Payne pointed to one of his female students at Mary Holmes Seminary who claimed to have been a member of a church for four years, but had never read a chapter in the Bible before arriving at the school. In another example, Payne described his experience preaching in a 200-member “colored church” in which the pulpit Bible was falling apart and the pages with the verses from which he was planning to base his sermon were lost from among the loose leaves. He claimed that he had to dash home in the middle of the service to locate the missing pages. Payne believed that the lack of Bibles among the African American population was inexcusable in a “Christian nation.” The United States, he added, makes great effort to bring foreigners “under Christian and saving influences” and affirms that Christianity is the “best antidote to socialism, anarchy, and crime,” but they have largely forgotten “this other dark-hued people, born in our midst, speaking our language and inheriting our customs ” who are “drifting out of the shoreless seas of doubt and unbelief because [they] are not anchored to the Rock of Ages, the immutable and immovable truth of God’s word.”
Bringing the Bible to the Black population involved certain challenges, and most of those challenges were explained by the racist stereotypes of white Bible agents. For example, Thomas Law, a southern Presbyterian clergymen and ABS agent, accepted the popular premise among whites that “the negro is often sadly deficient in moral stamina,” and thus, while readily embracing the salvific teachings of God’s word, “seem to make little effort or success in living up to them.” Blacks, Law believed, relied too heavily on their preachers to explain the word of God to them. Many of these preachers, he added, were more interested in promoting personal, political, and social agendas than in teaching the Bible to their people. Because of all these things, the African American community must remain “a great field for the present activity of the American Bible Society.”
Payne and Law must have struck a chord with the ABS Board of Managers, for in July 1901 they established the Agency Among the Colored People of the South. It would be based in Atlanta. The Colored Agency, as it was called, was unlike any other ABS initiative to date. It was not an auxiliary society formed and governed by local white Christians, but it was rather a direct effort to reach a specific segment of the United States population with a leadership that answered directly to the ABS home office–the Bible House–in New York. The Colored Agency was created in the hope that African Americans would meet their own Bible distribution needs. The goal was to help Blacks reach their own neighborhoods with the Bible and “awaken the interest of colored people themselves to their problem of reaching families with the Holy Scripture.” The ABS justified the opening of the Colored Agency by calling attention to the drastic rise in literacy among African Americans. At the time of its founding, the literacy rate among Blacks in America had climbed over fifty percent and by 1930 it had reached nearly eighty-four percent. The ABS wanted to bring Bibles to this newly literate sector of the Black population in the hope that the scriptures would inspire them to enter positions of leadership in the African American community. The “Negro problem,” the ABS believed, “cannot be solved except on the basis of an open Bible.” In essence, the ABS was trying to fulfill its historic mission of Bible distribution, while at the same time endorsing the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that said Black institution should be “separate but equal.”
The catalyst behind the Colored Agency was ABS General Secretary Willian Ingraham Haven. He was the son of Gilbert Haven, a Methodist Episcopal Bishop who ministered to Union soldiers during the Civil War and continued his ministry to freedmen during Reconstruction. Haven’s brother-in-law was the president of Gamon Seminary in Atlanta, a school dedicated to the training of African American ministers and Haven himself spent a year teaching at Claffin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, a Black college founded by New England missionaries in 1869. He chose John Percy Wragg to direct the Colored Agency. Wragg was a seminary-trained Atlanta pastor and a presiding elder in the Savannah and Atlanta Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He would lead lead this new agency for twenty-eight years.
Wragg focused initially on African Americans living and working in urban areas of the New South. Too many Blacks, he believed, had “drifted” into the cities, where they became “lost in the great sea of city sins.” The message of salvation found in the scriptures was the only way of saving this generation. Wragg immediately hired six African American colporteurs to serve in six states–Georgia, Alabama Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, and South Carolina. By 1920, he had expanded that number to sixteen colporteurs in thirteen different southern states. Wragg found it difficult to hire colporteurs because the agency could not afford to pay them more money than the hourly rate of a common worker. He solved this problem by hiring women. Because of the scarcity of jobs available for Black women in the South, they were often willing to work for low wages. In 1911, Wragg hired S.E. Evans, a student at Atlanta University, as his first female colporteur. Upon graduation from college, she moved to Mississippi and worked as a full-time, salaried Bible saleswoman for the ABS.
Most of the colporteurs working for the Colored Agency traveled door-to-door selling Bibles. Wragg occasionally sent them to Sunday schools, church services, and various conferences, conventions, and denominational gatherings. In the countryside colporteurs traveled long distances to make their sales pitches. Many illiterate rural Blacks asked colporteurs to read the Bible aloud or conduct Sunday worship services. One woman was so thrilled to see a colporteur from the Colored Agency that she invited him into her home with a round of clapping and signing, joyfully announcing: “I am so glad you came here to bring this Bible. No agents of the Gospel ever come here.”
Wragg’s wife Jesse joined in the work. The ABS was well aware of the success of Jesse C. Wragg’s labors among African American women in the South and often invited her to write articles for the Bible Society Record. Jessie was a natural storyteller. In one article she wrote how she was awakened early in the morning at her Atlanta home by a ringing doorbell. Concerned that her visitor was experiencing some type of distress, Jessie rushed to the door and found a “women thinly clad” with a piece of paper in her hand that read “American Bible Society, South Atlanta, GA.” The woman was poor, but she had promised her daughter that she would buy her a Bible as a Christmas gift. The daughter, realizing that her mother could not afford a “fine Bible,” had passed along the slip of paper given to her several months earlier by a colporteur working for the Colored Agency. This colporteur had told the daughter that she could purchase a Bible from the ABS for a mere $1.20. Now the mother had stopped at the Wragg’s house on her way to work in order to take that colporteur up on his offer. Jessie brought a Bible to the woman and encouraged her to read it with her daughter. The woman’s eyes filled with tears. She did not know how to read, but assured Jessie that she would ask her daughter to read it to her every night before they went to bed.
The Colored Agency had its share of difficulties in the first several decades of its existence. Many African Americans in the South could not afford to purchase Bibles from Wragg and his colporteurs. Some distributors in the rural parts of the South were willing to exchange Bibles for eggs and chickens in order to meet the spiritual of needs of Blacks “very anxious for the Word.” In 1906, Wragg’s Atlanta home was damaged by fire. After a distribution trip John arrived at the house to find Jessie in the street and the room where he stored ABS Bibles in flames. Wragg’s library, which included many letters from the Colored Society colporteurs, was also consumed by the fire. Later in the year, shortly following the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906 ,the Wraggs were driven from their home again–this time a gunpoint by police officers who thought they were somehow involved in the riots.
But most of the difficulties stemmed from the racial politics of the Jim Crow South. Black colporteurs found it hard to find places to spend the night during their travels. They were denied boarding rooms and occasionally slept on city streets. One colporteur wrote of sleeping “in the open air under the shelter of a tree in the summer, and of brushing the snow from about his bed on a winter morning!” It was common for local officials to force these Bible salesmen to buy a license in order to continue their work. Since most colporteurs were just as poor as their customers, they would often have to rely on local African American ministers to help them pay these fees or intercede on their behalf.
In 1943 a volunteer distributor, known only as “Aunt Sue,” took a bus from Charlotte to Winston-Salem, North Carolina in the hopes of selling some Bibles along the way. When she attempted to board in Charlotte, the driver explained to her that the bus was already full and “there was no seat available for Negroes.” Undeterred, and carrying Bibles, Aunt Sue stood in the aisle and began to explain to the white riders that the books she had in her hand will make “de white folks” love “de black folks, and vice-versa.” She distributed a Bible portion (John’s Gospel) to everyone on the bus. Later, one of the travelers who claimed he was “converted by Aunt Sue on that bus”,” bought two hundred additional scripture portions. The lesson that the Colored Agency wanted its constituency, and the entire constituency of the ABS, to learn from this story was that the Bible could break down racial barriers, even when it was preached by a “humble, unknown, and unlettered…Christian Negro woman.”
Wragg often complained about the “dreadful crimes” and ignorance of Blacks in the South, but he hoped that by placing the word of God in their hands they would not only become “good Christians,” but good American citizens.” Wragg probably agreed with Thomas Law, his white colleague in the Bible distribution business, who described Blacks as “deficient in moral stamina” with a weak “sense of obligation” and a “defective sense of obedience to the law.” These were Wragg’s people, and they needed moral improvement. His colporteurs addressed the problems of drunkenness in the African American community by teaching young Blacks what “the Book said about strong drink.” And when the Colored Agency noticed a dip in donations and Bible sales during World War I, Wragg did not fret. He encouraged his staff to wear buttons displaying the American flag in order to “show their loyalty to their country.”
In the end, the ABS approach to race relations was generally a conservative one. Wragg worked closely with African American children in public schools and Sunday schools, teaching them the message of the Bible alongside a message of “thrift, industry, morality, and Christian thinking.” By the 1930s, the Colored Agency reported that the “American Negro is becoming more and more race conscious” and defined by a “general sense of restlessness” brought on by a combination of Jim Crow and the Great Depression. Because of this “restlessness,” Blacks were easy prey for political and economic organizers fighting for the “advantages” that were “rightly due” to the African American community in the wake of slavery and segregation. While the agency did not deny that the acquisition of these rights were important, its leaders also remained concerned that those fighting for civil rights were “selfish and radical agitators” who did not have the “highest interest” of the Negro “at heart.” Of course, they argued, it was the Bible societies, and the Christian church as whole, that did have the “highest interest” of African Americans in the United States at heart. The ABS said that the churches were not neglecting the battle over civil rights, but urged that those engaged in the struggle to balance their activism with the “moral ideals and spiritual values” that came from the scriptures. For the ABS and its Colored Agency, these Christian ideals and values were meant to temper, rather than encourage, the quest for Black rights in Jim Crow America.
In the first two decades (1901-1920) the Colored Agency distributed 625,000 Bibles in the South, mostly through house canvassing and church visits. But as more and more Blacks migrated north in search of new jobs–a movement of African Americans described by historians at the Great Migration–Wragg asked the ABS for permission to expand the Colored Agency to include the entire United States as its mission field. The ABS Board of Managers approved, and in 1920 it announced that the Colored Agency would now be called the Agency of the Colored People of the United States. The Board gave Wragg authority to distribute Bibles to Blacks throughout the country as long as he did not interfere with the work of other ABS agents. He moved the Colored Agency’s headquarters to New York so he could work more closely with ABS leadership. This expansion enabled the Colored Agency to reach African Americans working in industrial plants and coal mines in addition to cotton and tobacco fields. The newly revamped Colored Agency created five administrative centers in Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Houston, and Memphis. At the time of his retirement in 1929, Wragg had facilitated the distribution of over 1.7 million Bibles to African Americans. He requested that the agency be renamed the William Ingraham Haven Agency in honor of the late ABS General Secretary who created it. The Colored Agency lasted until 1959. After the Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown v .Board of Education (1954), it no longer made sense for the ABS to have a “separate but equal” agency specifically designed for the distribution of Bibles to Blacks.
This essay draws heavily from my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).