Interview with Henry Vander Wal: Present-Day Colporteur
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This article was written by Prof. David Engelsma in the July 1989 issue of the Standard Bearer.
By August 1, , Henry Vander Wal will have turned over the last of his responsibilities on behalf of The Standard Bearer to others. Henry is one of the “unsung heroes” in the story of the spreading of the witness to the truth by the Protestant Reformed Churches. At the time of the Reformation of the church in the sixteen century, one of the important ways in which the Reformation made advances in Europe was the peddling of Reformation literature—books and pamphlets—by men known as colporteurs. Henry Vander Wal is a contemporary colporteur. Not only has he sent out countless issues of The Standard Bearer and innumerable copies of Reformed Free Publishing Association publications, as well as bound volumes of The SB, but he has also slipped into the mailings many pamphlets, reprints of articles that appeared in The SB, catalogues of RFPA publications, and First Church bulletins. These have gone all over the world.
The interview with Colporteur Vander Wal by the editor took place in Vander Wal’s basement (unostentatious headquarters of his work) at 1047 Alto Ave. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. With his wife, Dorothy, Henry has lived at this address and in the house across the street for 50 years.
DJE: Henry, tell us a little about your background in the PRC.
HVW: I was baptized in Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church by old Dominie Groen in the Dutch language. Dominie Hoeksema came to Eastern Avenue when I was 11 years old. In those days, there was a Dutch service in the afternoon, besides the English service in the morning and evening. I used to attend the Dutch service every Sunday afternoon with my grandmothers even though I could not understand Dutch, besides going to church in the morning and evening. My family went with Rev. Hoeksema and his consistory when they were put out by the CRC and were members of First PRC from the very beginning.
DJE: What work have you done over the years in spreading the Protestant Reformed witness?
HVW: I was business manager of The SB for some 21 years. I mailed books for the RFPA for 6 or 7 years up until a year ago. And I served with others on the Reformed Witness Hour radio committee for about 10 years.
DJE: What was involved in this work?
HVW: For the Reformed Witness Hour committee, I used to record the ministers. I did this for about 33 years, until about a year ago. Then I would take my turn in making copies from the master tape and mailing these copies to the radio stations. Mrs. Vander Wal would make coffee and cookies for the ministers.
DJE: You must have had some interesting sessions recording all the ministers.
HVW: In the years right after the split of ‘53, we recorded radio sermons in Ed Kooienga’s home. The preacher sat in the living room. I was in the basement with the recording equipment. We put the phone in the closet. Once I could not figure out why Dominie Hoeksema began speaking before I was ready. When I went upstairs to find out, I discovered that a salesman had knocked on the door. Thinking that this was his signal, Rev. Hoeksema began preaching.
DJE: Who was your favorite minister to record?
HVW: Dominie Hoeksema. After he recorded his sermon, we would go upstairs together to the radio room in the old First Church to play the sermon back. I always gave him some Dutch Master cigars. He would sit there smoking a cigar as though he were almost asleep. But all of a sudden he would say, “Watch it now, Henry, a mistake is coming up on the tape.” Once I noticed that instead of referring to Ephesians 2:8, he said, “Ephesians 3:2.” When I called this to his attention, he said, “Never mind. Nobody will ever notice it.” And nobody did.
DJE: What about your other duties?
HVW: For the RFPA book publishing committee, I mailed out all the books that people ordered and saw to it that Kregel’s Book Store had a supply of all our books to distribute to the book stores. I had to get the books from a warehouse in Grand Rapids.
DJE: What work was involved as regards The SB?
HVW: I kept all the records on subscriptions, renewals, and changes of address. I mailed out renewal notices. I made the bank deposits. I acknowledged the gifts. Often, I would enclose a bulletin in my mailing. I mailed all the copies of each issue of The SB, usually by myself at Wobbema’s (printer of The SB—DJE). This would take me from 9 o’clock in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon. And it had to be done twice a month. Also, I mailed the bound volumes.
DJE: You have seen some changes over the years, haven’t you?
HVW: When I began mailing The SB back in the late 60s it cost $9.42 for the bulk mailing of each issue. The cost of mailing a single copy in the United States was 4 cents. Now it costs 65 cents to mail a single copy. And the cost of the bulk mailing of each issue is $227. It has been a great improvement that we recently changed the method of mailing The SB. It goes much faster. I always had to address each copy by pulling the lever of the addressograph.
DJE: What work are you still doing?
HVW: Sending our renewal notices; recording changes of address; making out two cards for every new subscriber; and going to the post office for The SB mail every day except Sunday.
DJE: What was the most aggravating part of the work?
HVW: People procrastinating paying for their subscription to The SB. I have to keep sending renewal notices. This takes time. And it is costly for The SB. People should pay right away.
DJE: What work did you enjoy the most?
HVW: It was certainly not mailing the books! I think I enjoyed recording the ministers the most, although the work for The SB was interesting too.
DJE: What aspect of the work was most rewarding?
HVW: Receiving letters and gifts for The SB. Without gifts, The SB could not survive. Many send in a few dollars extra when they renew their subscription. Others send in good-sized contributions during the year.
DJE: Are there any changes that you think should be made?
HVW: We should raise the subscription rates to other countries. It costs 74 cents to mail a single copy to Canada. It costs $1.88 to air mail a single copy across the ocean. $12 per year for 21 issues is not enough. It is not enough for a subscription in the United States.
DJE: Do you look forward to being relieved of all your duties on behalf of The SB?
HVW: I am 77 years old. Some things, I am not able to do any more. I can’t do the mailing. I am willing to help yet in other ways, if necessary. I have enjoyed the work.
DJE: Henry, thank you for your work!