When he attended the 1987 Carey Ministers’ Conference held at Liverpool University, John Blanchard had with him the manuscript of a proposed evangelistic booklet, provisionally titled The Ultimate Questions.
Anxious to get feedback from a trusted friend, he asked Rev. Geoff Thomas from Aberystwyth to read it and suggest any changes that might be needed. Next morning, Geoff handed it back with the words, ‘One change: drop “The” from the title’.
John Blanchard made the change and handed the manuscript to John Rubens of Evangelical Press (now EP Books) for the publisher’s consideration. (He also teases Geoff Thomas that the change of title accounts for the booklet’s subsequent track record!)
For some time, John Blanchard had been concerned about the lack of good quality, evangelistic material bridging the gap between small tracts and books of one hundred pages and more that Christians would hesitate to use in quantity and many non-Christians would find too long to read.
In giving his manuscript to the publishers he outlined his vision – to produce a booklet of not more than thirty-two pages in A5 format, printed on good quality paper, illustrated with over twenty high resolution colour pictures – and available cheaply.
The publishers understood his vision and passion, but explained that this would not be viable without external funding, as the origination costs (particularly the photographs) would cost in all around £7000.
Unless this money was forthcoming the project would have to be scaled down. John accepted their explanation and set about raising the necessary funds. Within a very short time, friends had provided these. To help speed up the project, John asked a local friend, graphic artist Ken Reynolds, to help design the booklet and, just two months after the manuscript had been submitted, Ultimate Questions was published.
By a delightful coincidence, publication day was 5 March 1987, the twenty-fifth anniversary of John’s first day as a full-time evangelist.
Print runs are always teasing problems for publishers, but there was such an interest in this new approach that Evangelical Press took a deep breath and had 100,000 printed. They were sold out before the printer delivered them to the publisher’s warehouse.
An immediate reprint of 250,000 was ordered, as churches began to order them by the hundred and sometimes by the thousand. John Blanchard tells Evangelical Times that when he handed over the manuscript it had not even crossed his mind that there could be interest in Ultimate Questions being translated into a foreign language. But the publisher soon began to receive requests for this to be done, and by the end of that first year it was available in French and Portuguese.
The first East European version (Polish) followed in 1988, and soon after that it was published in Afrikaans and Welsh (1989), Russian (1990) and Albanian, Romanian and Serbian (1991).
EP Books reports that 15 million copies have now been published in over 50 languages. Farsi, Scottish Gaelic,
Malayalam and Punjabi are the most recent, and it is hoped to add Bengali, Arabic and Amharic to these in the near future.
Russia has been one of the most responsive overseas countries to Ultimate Questions, with churches and para-church organisations making wide use of it. One order alone was for nearly 400,000 copies, mostly for use in an outreach effort based on a series of evangelistic articles in a secular newspaper. This saw 45,000 people respond to an invitation to receive help.
Another remarkable venture came through the vision of a retired merchant navy captain living in Antwerp and working as an evangelist to seafarers. He had the vision of placing Ultimate Questions in every home in Holland.
All the necessary funds were raised and, in the first week in October 1997, six million copies were delivered by mail and 155,000 handed personally to people living in institutions of one kind or another.
On a smaller scale, John Blanchard arranged for a copy to be delivered to every home in the two islands that have meant most to him – Guernsey, where he was born; and Islay in Scotland, where he spent most of the Second World War as an evacuee.
In Islay the work was undertaken by the island’s tiny Baptist church. When the pastor, Jon Magee, took a copy to the owner of Islay House, by far the island’s best-known and largest residence, he told her that the author of Ultimate Questions would soon be visiting the island to speak at a number of meetings.
To his amazement, she offered to host a meeting in Islay House, and on 28 October 1987 John spoke to 80 people (a large number for the island) in the house’s splendid entrance hall.
At the end of Ultimate Questions there is an invitation for anyone who has come to faith while reading it to send for a free copy of Read Mark Learn – John Blanchard’s book of 45 Bible readings for those beginning the Christian life. Thousands have done so over the years, and countless others have written asking for help on spiritual issues.
These are all carefully answered, most by a small team of helpers who relieve John of a task he would never be able to fit into his schedule. The replies often include the gift of another of his books judged as likely to be suitable.
In addition, five groups of supporters now make it possible to send free books worldwide, many to pastors in third world or undeveloped countries and a great number to colleges, libraries and prisons. Some of the correspondents receive free material on a regular basis as part of a developing follow-up programme.
Only the tiniest of changes had been made to Ultimate Questions over the years, and almost none to the text. But, earlier this year, EP Books decided to re-vamp the booklet by replacing all the pictures with digitally generated images.
For 21 years Ultimate Questions was printed in Singapore, but the new editions in English and all foreign languages are now being printed in England. This means that when an edition runs out (and this sometimes happens more than once a year) a reprint can be produced very quickly.