The John Dickins House, Nashville, Tennessee headquarters building of The United Methodist Publishing House
The United Methodist Publishing House is the oldest and largest general agency of The United Methodist Church. It was established in 1789 in Philadelphia as the Methodist Book Concern. The Nashville operation was opened in 1854 as the publishing house for the Methodist Episcopal Church South. With the unification of three branches of Methodism in 1939, Nashville was chosen as headquarters for publishing operations for the united church. With the Evangelical United Brethren-Methodist merger in 1968, it became The United Methodist Publishing House.
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From the very beginning of the Methodist movement in England, John Wesley distributed books and pamphlets. He insisted that books belonged in every home, and he told his followers to beg from the rich in order to buy books for the poor.
Prior to 1787, books for the early Methodists in the U.S. were sent from John Wesley in England. But the 1787 Conference and the Discipline said the preachers and the people recommended that books be printed here in the U.S.
So in 1789, five years after the Methodist Episcopal Church had its beginnings in the new country, a Methodist preacher named John Dickins was designated as book steward and sent to Philadelphia to start a Methodist publishing business, which was called the Book Concern.
The story is that John Dickins started the Methodist Book Concern with $600. The circuit riders who were traveling in the wilderness needed inexpensive books and pamphlets that they could leave in homes for people to read until they came around again.
With very little money and about 43,000 members out of a population of 4 million, Methodists started the publishing house so the people in the wilderness would have access to Christian materials.
On August 17, 1789, the first book was published: An Extract of the Christian's Pattern by Thomas a Kempis.
Circuit riders, who were our first sales staff and distributors, took this book and books that followed into homes as they visited.
In 1798, John Dickins died. In 1804 General Conference transferred the Book Concern to New York. The Book Concern struggled in New York for a number of reasons, including turnover in the book steward's position and the fact that only General Conference could approve publications and it met every four years—just as it does today.
In 1816, Joshua Soule became book agent and in 1816 General Conference ordered the publication of a monthly periodical, The Methodist Magazine. In a very short time it became successful, with a circulation of 10,000 when popular secular periodicals had circulations of 4000-5000.
Nathan Bangs became book agent in 1820 and served for eight years. He bought the first property, which was located in New York City, and the first press.
He started a youth publication called the Youth Instructer that was the first American Methodist Sunday school curriculum. During Bangs’ time, a branch of the book concern was opened in Cincinnati, and it was known as the Western Book Concern. Also during this time, a periodical called The Christian Advocate was started. For some time, it had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the country. Its name survives today as the publication that appears before and during the General Conference.
In 1828, a split took place and the Methodist Protestant Church was organized. The MPC established their Book Concern in Baltimore. In time, they opened a book room in Pittsburgh also.
In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split over slavery into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church South. In 1854 plans for a publishing house for the MECS were approved by General Conference, and Nashville was chosen as the headquarters. The building was originally a sugar warehouse.
As the country became more settled, preachers became pastors of established churches rather than riding the circuit. So an additional way of distributing books was needed. The Book Concern entered into agreements with other publishers—religious and secular—to make more books available. In the 1840s and 50s, the Methodist Book Concern in NY and Cincinnati published 200-page catalogs, and started a mail-order service. In its first year the publishing house of The Methodist Episcopal Church South house offered 150 titles. These programs published Sunday school materials, books for reading and instruction, religious knowledge, and biblical literature. By 1860 the Book Concern advertised titles in German, Swedish, Danish, French, and a Spanish Book of Discipline.
Two predecessor denominations of The United Methodist Church also engaged in publishing, and by this time were both located in Ohio—the Evangelical Association publishing operation was in Cleveland; the United Brethren operation in Dayton.
The Nashville and New York publishing houses excelled at manufacturing. In the 1850s, New York said it had produced a 282-page book from editor to customer in 7 days. Shortly after that, Nashville said it had produced a larger book in 5 days. Libraries contain books manufactured and published by these houses to this very day.
The first lay book agent, John M. Phillips, was elected in 1872. Phillips was serving when the Sunday school movement gained full momentum. Chautauqua, a training school for Methodist Sunday School teachers located on a lake in New York State, started a correspondence program [think online courses today]—the first such adult education program in the country. Hundreds of thousands of people enrolled in this program, which included religious, literary, and scientific materials.
This program flourished for well over 30 years. The books came from the Methodist Book Concern. The Committee on Uniform Series, a multi-denominational educational plan that outlines Sunday school materials and is still used today to develop Adult Bible Studies, Bible Lessons for Youth, and related products, was started when Methodists taught other Methodists how to teach Sunday school.
In the middle 1800s, the Book Concern, working with the Methodist Episcopal Missionary Society, assisted in the work of a Methodist publishing house in Bremen, Germany. In the early 1900s, the Methodist Publishing House South and the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church opened a publishing house in Shanghai, China.
Bookstores were popping up all over the country, although they were not known as Cokesbury stores for quite some time. In 1907, the Methodist Publishing House South moved to 810 Broadway—a building that is still at the corner of 9th & Broadway.
During the 1920s, the publishing houses decided to publish books for people of all denominations under nondenominational imprints. The Northern house called its imprint Abingdon Press; the Southern house called its imprint Cokesbury Press. The printing plant of the Methodist Publishing House South (Nashville) was enlarged and moved to Demonbreun Street in 1924; various departments of the publishing operation would be housed on this property for the next 91 years. Cokesbury Press—Good Books was successful enough to help the Southern house through the Depression.
In 1939, the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Protestant Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church South united as The Methodist Church. The various publishing interests were to be known as The Methodist Publishing House. Nashville was chosen as the site of the headquarters of The Methodist Publishing House.
One of the outstanding publishing achievements of The Methodist Publishing House was The Interpreter’s Bible. Identified as the most needed book in Christendom before work began, it was showered with praise when it was published in the 1950s and widely considered the most important religious publication of the 20th century.
In the post-World War II years, the number of Cokesbury bookstores grew. In 1957, the Publishing House moved to 201 Eighth Avenue South, adjacent to the printing plant on Demonbreun Street. In 1959, distribution was reorganized, and regional mail-order service centers were opened across the country.
In 1968, The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren united to form The United Methodist Church. At this time The Methodist Publishing House became The United Methodist Publishing House, and so we are known today.
So all along, the publishing house has existed and operated to offer materials “as are wanted” to advance the cause of Christianity. The years since we became The United Methodist Publishing House have been characterized by changes in manufacturing, delivery, customer behavior, and more—but our mission remains. Many of the stories of our history sound familiar, and we can see ourselves and our work and our future in them. Our purpose endures, and our history tells us that we will meet challenges, invent new ways, adapt, and thrive as we continue to help more people in more places . . .
As the official publisher of The United Methodist Church, the Publishing House develops, produces, and distributes materials for home, church, and office. UMPH provides official denominational church school curriculum, books, Bibles, and a wide variety of multimedia resources and supplies that speak to all who seek and would serve God.