Reminiscing on the Life and Mission of Don DeWelt
Written By: Rick Cherok
You didn’t see it on the television news and you didn’t read about it in your local newspapers. In fact, it’s doubtful if you heard about it all. But this year, College Press Publishing Company turned sixty-years old! While this may not seem like big news to some folks, we think this anniversary is well worth remembering. For sixty years, College Press has endeavored to produce true-to-the-Bible books and materials that have been used in churches, classes, Bible studies, and for individual edification. Moreover, College Press has reprinted some classics writings of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement that would otherwise be unavailable for modern readers. College Press has made it her mission to serve the church for sixty years and continues to do so today.
On May 8, 1959, Don DeWelt and his wife, Elsie (parents of Chris DeWelt, the current President of College Press), started College Press Publishing Company in the parsonage of the Carterville Christian Church. In addition to serving as a professor at Ozark Bible College (now Ozark Christian College) in 1959, DeWelt was the minister of the Carterville Christian Church in nearby Carterville, Missouri. DeWelt had already published four books, two with Old Paths Book Club (Acts Made Actual in 1943 and The Church in the Bible in 1958) and two with Baker Book House (Sacred History and Geography in 1955 and If You Want to Preach in 1957), but opening a publishing company was an act of both faith and foresight.
In his autobiography, DeWelt recounts how he asked Don Earl Boatman, the President of Ozark Bible College, if he objected to this new venture. “In essence,” DeWelt wrote, “he said ‘Go for it.’” From the beginning, College Press’ company slogan was “Every Christian a Bible Student,” and this slogan still motivates the efforts of College Press Publishing Company today. DeWelt’s autobiography also reveals that he named the company College Press so that it might travel with him if he ever moved on from Ozark Bible College to serve at another Bible College. And though he never left Ozark (until his retirement in 1984), the name DeWelt gave to the company has remained.
DeWelt began College Press Publishing Company with a book club. The “Bible Study Textbook Club” produced the well-known and widely distributed “old green commentaries” that got College Press off the ground. “How else,” DeWelt again recounts in his autobiography, “could one start a publishing company without any money?” The first volumes of the “old green commentaries” to emerge from the presses were reprints of DeWelt’s Acts Made Actual and Sacred History and Geography, as well as his fifth book, Romans Realized, and Don Earl Boatman’s Helps from Hebrews. Eventually the “Bible Study Textbook Club” published forty-three volumes that included commentaries on every book of the Bible. Interestingly, as DeWelt began the process of planning for the publication of the initial books in the series, he met a man who promised to provide $25,000 toward the project. With this promise, DeWelt moved full-speed ahead, but the promised money never materialized. Nevertheless, he wrote, “God blessed our stumbling efforts” and the “Bible Study Textbook Club” was a success. And from these humble beginnings sixty years ago, the College Press Publishing Company emerged.
Like C.S. Lewis, who believed that there was wisdom to be found in the past (Lewis referred to the uncritical acceptance of present assumptions over the past as “chronological snobbery”), DeWelt believed that there was value in keeping the writings of early leaders of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement available to modern readers. So, DeWelt wrote, “I conceived the idea of the Restoration Reprint Library” in 1965. “It was certainly one of the best ideas I had,” he went on to explain. Following in the footsteps of Old Paths Book Club, who had ceased their reprinting of Restoration Movement classics in 1966, College Press published ninety-two titles under eighty-four covers between 1966 and 1975. DeWelt noted in his autobiography that the College Press book club grew to some 5,000 people in the early years and he made his Restoration Reprint Library books available to them for the very low price of $2.50 per volume. “Upon looking back,” DeWelt wrote, “I know the price was, even for the time, far too low.” Nevertheless, he noted, “We sold over two-hundred thirty-four thousand copies of these handsome red-bound, gold-stamped books.”
Under DeWelt’s leadership, College Press also reprinted a number of source documents related to the early Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. “How I conceived of reprinting the Millennial Harbinger I do not know,” DeWelt wrote, “but [it happened] sometime in 1975 or early in 1976.” Many people told DeWelt that the reprinting of Alexander Campbell’s monthly magazine, the Millennial Harbinger, an undertaking that would require producing forty-one hard-back volumes and over 27,000 pages, was an “impossible dream” that would cost over $100,000. “I doubt that we [had] $100 on the black side of the ledger,” DeWelt wrote, and his son, Chris DeWelt, recalls that his mother feared they may have to mortgage their house to complete the project. Nevertheless, College Press did complete the project (without the DeWelts mortgaging their home) which has become a valuable resource to historians as they explore the origins of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement and the life of Alexander Campbell.
Along with the publication of the Millennial Harbinger, College Press made other source materials for the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement readily available for modern readers and scholars. In 1983, College Press produced a single-volume edition of another of Campbell’s magazines. The Christian Baptist, was a monthly magazine that Campbell published for seven years prior to his forty-year run of the Millennial Harbinger. College Press also re-printed the twelve volumes of Walter Scott’s The Evangelist, and the fourteen volumes of Barton W. Stone’s The Christian Messenger (in conjunction with Star Bible Publications). Numerous additional publications associated with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, both reprints and original publications, have made their way into the hands of the public through the efforts of College Press Publishing Company.
Between 1980 and 1989, College Press published thirty-nine volumes in their popular “What the Bible Says” series. “I really do not know how we came up with this idea,” DeWelt wrote. “Like so many other areas of College Press’ history,” he continued, “this idea just seemed to drop down from above.” The goal of the “What the Bible Says” series was to produce a definitive study of everything the Bible has to say about a particular modern subject. By the middle of 1989, following the publication of the thirty-eighth volumes in the “What the Bible Says” series, DeWelt noted that 104,533 books had been sold from this series. Following the initial run of these studies, an additional “What the Bible Says” book appeared in 1992 and eight more titles were published between 2007 and 2012.
Another important College Press publication milestone was the updating of their Bible commentary series. While the “old green commentaries” were the product of authors within the Christian Church/Church of Christ fellowship, the new commentary series reflected a developing relationship with the acapella Churches of Christ. Scholars from both fellowships were called upon to collaboratively produce “The College Press NIV Commentary” series. Between 1993 and 2000, College Press published nineteen volumes that provided solid academic commentary for every book of the New Testament. Another twenty-three volumes covering the entire Old Testament were also published between 1999 and 2009.
Amid the many books that College Press has produced over the past sixty years (far too many to even begin to list), it should also be remembered that this company has both operated as a ministry and assisted with the growth and development of many other ministries. Included among the many ministries that have had a connection, in one way or another, with College Press are:
- Peace On Earth Ministries (https://www.poeministries.org/),
- Literature And Teaching Ministries (https://latm.info/Home.aspx),
- Stone-Campbell Journal (http://www.stone-campbelljournal.com/).
Certainly the influence of College Press has been noticed throughout America and around the world.
After sixty years of publications and ministry, College Press Publishing Company is still committed to making “Every Christian a Bible Student” and producing high-quality Christian literature. If you have not recently checked out the books offered by College Press, why not help us celebrate our sixtieth anniversary by taking a few moments to browse the company’s website: https://www.collegepress.com/. Chances are you’ll find a book to read that is both interesting and edifying.
For additional information about the history of College Press Publishing Company, see the following resources:
• DeWelt, Don. Happy on my Way to Heaven: The Life Story of Don DeWelt. Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company, 1989.
• Knowles, Victor. “The Incredible Global Impact of Don DeWelt on the Restoration Movement,” One Body (Fall 2019): 6-11.