Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, Volume 24, Number 2, Fall 2012 Page: 32
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endeavors? Part of the answer can be found in
its beginnings in Dallas in 1899. The traditions
of the Methodist Church, begun by the founder
of the Methodist movement in the eighteenth-
century, John Wesley, were always bookish. An
Oxford-educated divine, John Wesley set out to
re-enliven the spirit of the Church of England,
especially among the under-served poor and the
laboring classes. The printed word represented
one means of doing so. Wesley wrote prolifically
throughout his life, bringing to the average
reader his own works, such as his sermons, tracts,
journal entries, letters, and his famous Notes on
the New Testament. Beyond that, Wesley sought to
publish inexpensive editions of books written by
others. For example, he produced a gloss on the
classic work of Christian formation, Thomas i
Kempis' Imitation of Christ, entitled The Christian's
Pattern, in an affordable edition in 1735. He also
branched out from theology to social work. To
improve daily living habits and protect the health
of common folk, he published multiple editions
of the Primitive Physic: or An Easy and Natural
Method of Curing Most Diseases. Yet the works
mentioned here represent only a few drops in the
flood of Wesley's publishing endeavors, described
by historian David Hempton as "a formidable
list of biographies, hymnals, commentaries,
sermons, guides, thoughts, addresses, magazines,
death narratives, and tracts."8 In short, despite its
reputation as proletariat, emotional, and heart-
oriented rather than head-oriented, Methodism
has been a very book-oriented movement from its
In the United States, a Methodist Publishing
House was established in 1789 to undertake the
work thatWesley himself had overseen in England.
By the twentieth century its various retail branches,
of which the Dallas store was the first, consistently
employed over a thousand people and posted
millions of dollars in annual sales.9 The downtown
Dallas outlet of the Methodist Publishing House
grew into a handsome establishment that dealt in
religious materials, but also sold popular, technical,
scientific, and musical works. Originally called
Barbee & Smith, or simply referred to as the
"Methodist Book Store," the store was eventually
the first of many book stores to be named
"Cokesbury" a change that came in 1937,and one
that combined the names of America's foremost
Methodist bishops, Thomas Coke and Francis
The establishment of this retail outlet in Texas
in 1899 came at a time when Methodist book
distribution in the Southwest (and elsewhere)
was relying on a system called colportage. The
textbook definition of a colporteur is a peddler
of religious books which, in the case of the
Methodists, evolved into a system whereby
circuit riding preachers performed the task of
transporting books, selling them, and collecting
the proceeds. From the earliest days of Methodism
in America, itinerant preachers served as the
purveyors of religious literature and Sunday
school materials, bridging the gap between urban
publishers and rural or frontier readers. Yet the
system proved imperfect. Some preachers failed to
follow through with these transactions, and many
did not consider bookselling a valid component
of their ministry.10 According to one Methodist
Book Agent, speaking to the church's General
Conference in 1906 about the flaws in this means
of distribution,". . . the whole Church, from the
Rio Grande to the northern borders of Maryland,
from the Illinois Conference to the Gulf of
Mexico, is strewn with the wrecks of colporteurs,
men who owe your [publishing] house today, and
will owe it forever, from $100 to $5,000 each."11
Texas in the 1890s provides a good illustration
of this problem. While steps were taken to
improve the system of furnishing people with
good reading material, these steps were halting.
With each failure, church officials fell back on
colporteurs, as before, despite their inefficiency.
Clearly, a less cumbersome system needed to be
put in place to streamline book distribution.12 In
April 1899, a trial for a new system came into
being with the establishment of a retail outlet in
downtown Dallas. While the idea to open and
operate a book store was an ambitious one that
carried substantial risk, the Methodist Episcopal
Church, South, entertained a sense of itself that
might be described as Protestant triumphalism.
Progress, uplift, and the social gospel were its
hallmarks, and the idea of a retail outlet in Dallas
was considered inspired and well worth the risk.
In these days of e-commerce, the changes that
a regional book store introduced may not be
evident, but they proved significant.
First, having a physical retail space represented
a sea-change in Methodist book selling strategy.
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner may have
famously declared that the American frontier
had closed in 1890, but West Texas and the
32 LEGACIES Fall 2012
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Dallas Historical Society. Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas, Volume 24, Number 2, Fall 2012, periodical, Autumn 2012; Dallas, Texas. (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth308998/m1/34/: accessed July 28, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Dallas Historical Society.