The following history of the origins of religious tracts, the second of three parts of the authors' discussion of the subject, from the tenth volume of their ' Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. George P. Landow scanned, formatted, and linked the text, which represents an evangelical protestant position and has particular interest because of its explanation of the role information technology — especially the printed book — in religious communities.]

Aside from the circulation of portions of the Holy Scriptures in fragmentary or tract form, the use of tracts as an agency of religious usefulness dates from the dawn of the Reformation in Europe. Long before the invention of printing, the early Reformers sent out their little tractates to awaken and instruct the people who still sat under the shadow of the Dark Ages. Wycliffe's writings were the means of extensive usefulness. He sent out more than one hundred volumes, small and great, besides his translation of the Bible. Notwithstanding many of his works were burned and people were forbidden to read them on pain of death, yet they spread far and wide. Like seeds of truth borne by the wind, they lodged on the soil of the Continent, and brought forth fruit there in after-years. Works produced by the writers of that period, although extensively useful, were greatly hindered in their circulation by the size and expensiveness of the manuscript form in which they were issued.

The invention of printing in the 15th century removed many formidable obstacles to the diffusion of truth, and greatly stimulated the literary efforts of those who were striving to reform the Church. Luther appeared, and by his powerful writings and those of his associates, millions of people were led to renounce the errors than which they previously knew nothing better. The efforts of the later Reformers are thus characterized by one of their opponents: The Gospellers of these days do fill the realm with so many of their noisome little books that they be like to the swarms of locusts which did infest the land of Egypt." Fox, the martyrologist, exults over the work and promise of the art of printing in language like this: '"God hath opened the press to preach, whose voice the pope is never able to stop with all the puissance of his triple crown. In this printing, as by the gift of tongues and as by the singular organ of the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of the Gospel soundeth to all nations and countries under heaven; and what God revealed unto one man is dispersed to many; and what is known to one nation is opened to all."

In the 17th century several traces are found of associations for promoting the printing and sale of religious works, while much good resulted from the efforts of individuals, both in England and on the Continent. At length, movements on a larger scale began to be made in the line of associated efforts for the diffusion of truth in printed form. The earlier organizations of this kind, though not strictly tract societies, were preliminary, and in some sense introductory, to the great institutions subsequently formed for the exclusive object of printing and circulating religious tracts. In 1701 the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge was established in England, In 1742 the Rev. John Wesley, in the prosecution of his evangelical work in Great Britain, commenced printing and circulating religious tracts by personal effort and the co-operation of the preachers associated with him. In 1750 the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor was organized. In 1756 societies for a similar object were commenced both in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Although the three societies named accomplished good, they did not remain permanently established. In 1782 Mr. Wesley instituted a Society for the Distribution of Religious Tracts among the Poor. In his published proposals in behalf of the society, lie said," I cannot but earnestly recommend this to all those who desire to see true scriptural Christianity spread throughout these nations. Men wholly unawakened will not take the pains to read the Bible. They have no relish for it. But a small tract may engage their attention for half an hour, and may, by the blessing of God, prepare them for going forward." Membership in the society required. the subscription of half a guinea or more, for which a quota of tracts would be delivered yearly. The publications of the society at that date were thirty in number, embracing Alleine's Alarm, Baxter's Call, Ten Short Sermons, Tokens fur Children, A Word to a Soldier, A Word to a Sailor, A Word to a Swearer, A Word to a Sabbath-breaker, A Word to a Drunkard, etc. It is not difficult to see in the above scheme, the germ of the largest tract societies now in existence. Its tenor, more especially when taken in connection with Mr. Wesley's methods of supplying religious books wherever his.societies existed or his preachers went, fully authorized the following assertion of his biographer, Richard Watson: "He was probably the first to use, on any extensive scale, this means of popular reformation." About 1790 Hannah More appeared as a writer of popular tracts. Her first tract, entitled William Chip, was published anonymously. Having been encouraged by its reception, she prepared, with the aid of her sisters, a series of small publications, entitled The Cheap Repository Tracts. In a private memorandum, published after her decease, she said, "I have devoted three years to this work. Two millions of these tracts were disposed of during the first year. God works by weak instruments to show that the glory is all his own." From that time forward the number of persons who made themselves useful by publishing and circulating tracts in various ways became considerably increased. Among them honorable mention may be made of Mrs. Rebecca Wilkinson, of Clapham; Rev. Charles Simeon, of Cambridge; and Rev. John Campbell, of Edinburgh.


M'Clintock, John, and James Strong. Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894. X, 513.

Victorian Website Overview Religion next

Last modified 29 April 2010