Author Tags: Publishing, Religion

"Spirituality is like sex. If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Ralph Milton

Ralph Milton is co-founder of Wood Lake Books, a company that grew from a kitchen table business to an enterprise with over 30 fulltime employees. With partners in both the USA and Australia, and sales worldwide, Wood Lake Books is Canada’s largest and most active Protestant religious publisher, having evolved into an employee-owned imprint called Northstone. Known as a “step-down transformer,” because of his ability to communicate social theory and religious thought in plain language, Milton is a liberal theologian whose style is down-to-earth. He edits an e-zine called Rumors which uses humour and story to communicate Christian faith.

Born in Altona, Manitoba in 1934, Milton grew up hearing stories from his Russian Mennonite forebears in southern Manitoba, absorbing their satirical humour. Too liberal, his parents were 'kicked out' of the Mennonite church. Milton rarely saw the inside of a church until his older sister's wedding. His father, Henry, was a progressive school teacher. After high school, Ralph Milton himself taught school for one year. He entered a contest and won a temporary job as a radio announcer due to the quality of his voice. "The problem was," he has recalled, "I couldn't read two words in sequence without falling all over myself." As a young man, he worked as a DJ, open-line radio host, and news commentator at various radio stations in Saskatoon, Calgary, Lethbridge and Trail, B.C. In Trail he met his wife-to-be Beverly Ingledew. Milton's involvement with the church began after his wife was unable to teach her Sunday school class due to morning sickness, and he was forced to serve as her replacement. "It meant heading to the furnace room of the church with a group of nine-year-old boys to teach matters of faith when I wasn't sure I had any myself."

Milton's media interests and his involvements in the church took him to the Philippines where he spent five years training broadcasters from various countries in Asia. He wrote the text a textbook, Radio Programming for Developing Nations', which he has described as a 'dreadfully dull thing'. Nonetheless that book on radio, published in London, became an internationally used textbook on developmental broadcasting and went into 27 printings. That work led to an appointment in New York where Ralph worked as a media consultant to development groups in the Third World, mostly Africa, under the aegis of the World Association of Christian Communications.

Returning to Canada, Ralph began television work in Calgary, developing the Celebration series of religious programming along with the nationally syndicated radio series, Live-Love. He and his wife moved to Winfield, B.C. when his wife, a United Church minister, accepted a church in nearby Winfield. When a United Church bookstore wanted 3,000 copies of his The Gift of Story, based on his notion that the stories we tell review more of what we believe than formal theology, he decided to publish the book himself. Soon thereafter, Jim Taylor, who wrote for the United Church Observer, was seeking to publish a collection of his newspaper columns. A partnership arose and Wood Lake Books came into being. Thereafter Lois Wilson, the first female moderator of the United Church, brought her book to Wood Lake in 1981. The imprint took off with the remarkable success of a 130-song hymnal called Songs for a Gospel People, first printed in 1987, which sold more than 200,000 copies. Wood Lake Books also successfully launched a three-year curriculum called The Whole People of God. “We became the only company in the world with,” says Milton, “with its head office in Winfield and its branch office in Toronto.”I've always thought of myself as a snotty-nosed Mennonite boy from a little town called Horndean, Manitoba that only had one [grain] elevator," he said in 1988. During 1995-96 Ralph Milton served as President of the British Columbia Conference of the United Church of Canada. He has been awarded a Doctorate in Sacred Letters from St. Stephen’s College. He lives with his wife, Beverley, now retired from her ministry, in Kelowna.

Ralph Milton is also the author of a popular children’s book, The Family Story Bible, a book on biblical storytelling, Is This Your Idea of a Good Time, God? and God for Beginners. Written in a decidedly humorous vein, Angels in Red Suspenders has received critical acclaim and found its way onto some bestseller lists. Julian's Cell was his first work of fiction [See below]. He has subsequently translated Mother Julian’s book into an accessible, condensed and paraphrased version called The Essence of Julian. Based on his Family Story Bible and illustrated by Margaret Kyle, his Lectionary Story Bible (year A) (Wood Lake, 2007) contains new and engaging stories from both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures. It was followed by Lectionary Story Bible (year B) (Wood Lake, 2008, with art by Margaret Kyle.

[Also see Michael Schwartzentruber entry]

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2008] "Religion" "Publishing"

Julian’s Cell: The Earthy Story of Julian of Norwich (Northstone $21.95)

Reputed to be the first woman to write in the English language, ‘Julian of Norwich’ was born in 1342, the same year as Geoffrey Chaucer. The daughter of a stern and bitter mother, she married at 16 to a man named Walter, then lost her husband and children to a plague called the ‘Black Death in Norwich.’ Historians agree she later wrote Revelations of Divine Love in a small room in a Norwich backstreet. Her given name remains unknown, but as told in Ralph Milton’s historical novel, Julian’s Cell: The Earthy Story of Julian of Norwich (Northstone $21.95), the bereaved widow and mother had visions of the passion of Christ and became an ‘anchorite’ in the medieval mode of Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena and Clare of Assisi. As an ‘anchorite’ she was symbolically ‘buried alive’ in a cell attached to St. Julian’s church. There for the rest of her life she elaborated on the visions she had received at age 30. She made possible the first radical equation of God with femininity.

“As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother... And so Jesus is our true Mother in nature by our first creation... I understand three ways of contemplating motherhood in God.”

Monica Furlong, the author of Visions and Longings: Medieval Women Mystics, has suggested that Julian of Norwich might not have been able to read or write, her knowledge of the Bible and other books came from hearing them read aloud or translated aloud, and that her ‘writings’ were dictated, perhaps to a priest. Furlong concludes, “Her intelligence, however, is so fine and clear, her interest in theological ideas so acute and profound, and her mind so disciplined as it sets out her experiences that if feels very unlikely that she would not have made the effort to learn [or teach herself] to read.”

With on-line Christianity and his new novel, Ralph Milton is raising awareness of “one of the greatest Christian theologians of all time.” Milton’s fascination with Julian of Norwich started four years ago when he and his wife Beverly, a retired church minister, went to England as part of a group of pilgrims led by Reverend Lynne McNaughton and Dr. Gerald Hobbs of the Vancouver School of Theology. A self-described curmudgeonly Protestant liberal, Milton recalls in his novel’s foreword how he meditated and prayed for an hour in a dreary little chapel off the church of St. Julian’s in the heart of the Norwich red light district. On that day he vowed to learn as much as possible both from, and about, the 600-years-dead mystic who spoke in a medieval English dialect. His novel is an amalgam of many theories, a fanciful exploration of character in the form of fiction, not a work of theology. Whether or not Milton’s talents as a novelist will match his success as the co-founding publisher of Wood Lake Books—a Kelowna company now co-operatively owned—Milton intends his leap of faith and imagination to be provocative. And earthy. This is cross marketing for the new Millennium.

Julia Roberts, where are you? We’ve already got Meryl’s agent on the line. 1-896836-50-X


The Family Story Bible (Northstone $19.95)

The Family Story Bible (Northstone $19.95) by Ralph Milton, who hails from a background of Mennonite storytellers, relays biblical stories using contemporary language. Illustrations are by Margaret Kyle.

[BCBCW 1997]

Songs for a Gospel People

For the second year in a row it's a book from a B.C. that has garnered top debut sales amongst Canada's publishers.

Last year The Expo Celebration was the country's runaway publishing success story. In terms of numbers, sold, The Expo Celebration has now been eclipsed by Songs for a Gospel People (Wood Lake Books, $5.95).

Songs for a Gospel People is a collection of new and old hymns from little known publishing firm in Winfield, B.C. Back in August the book pre sold its first printing of 160,000 copies in Canada alone. "We haven't begun to tap the U. S. market yet," says publisher Ralph Milton.

Realizing that United and Anglican churches were often using pirated photocopied versions of hymns such as " Amazing Grace" and "Morning Has Broken", Milton and UBC theology professor Gerald Hobbs first recognized the need for an updated hymn book over beer and pizza in 1985.

Since then, with the musical editorship of organist Darryl Nixon from St. Andrews Wesley in Vancouver, Songs of a Gospel People grew into a compilation of 130 songs. Approximately 25% of the hymns are original submissions. After the United Church Observer ran a small story about Wood Lake's intention to print some new hymns, Milton's fledgling company was swamped with 3,000 submissions.

"I'm a bathroom baritone," says Milton, "I'm not a musician. We eventually had to get together a dozen people from across the country to test out the best of the new songs."

Milton pre-sold the collection of hymns by promising 1/3 off to congregations that agreed to invest an advance dollar for each book they wanted. When the denominational bookstores heard about Wood Lake selling directly to congregations, they preordered 55,000.

"The whole thing just grew on its own," says Milton, who originally hoped to simply bring out a supplement to the standard 1971 United Church hymn book for B.C., "Now Wood Lake is the only company in the world with its head office in Winfield, B.C. and its branch office in Toronto."

Milton and his Toronto partner Jim Taylor started the company after they realized the sale of Ryerson Press, now owned by an American corporation, meant manuscripts on religious matters could no longer find a home in Canada. Milton began by self-publishing his own book, The Gift of Story, a collection based on his premise that, "the yams we tell over the back fence define what we really believe."

Wood Lake has no official connection to any church. Milton says his company caters to 'the liberal Christian constituency.' He has published 45 titles, including a collection of religious humour and a cookbook, Those Marvelous Church Suppers, featuring recipes supplied by the likes of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Bishop Remi De Roo and the late Margaret Laurence.

[BCBW Spring 1987]