The following history of the origins of religious tracts, the first 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, and especially the printed book, in religious communities.]

The term tract, although etymologically signifying something drawn out (Lat. tractus), has long been employed in the English language to designate a short or condensed treatise in print. It has primary reference to the form of publication, and is usually applied only to unbound sheets or pamphlets. Thus, a treatise on any topic may oe published either in a book or tract form, the tract being much cheaper than the book, but also much more liable to be injured or destroyed. While many political, scientific, and other tracts have been published. yet the vast majority of publications known as tracts are of a religions character. So generally is this true that the word tract used without qualification rarely suggests any other idea than that of a brief religious treatise or appeal. To some extent the idea has been employed by propagandists of error, but far more generally by lovers of truth and by persons willing to make sacrifices for its promotion. Had only miscellaneous tracts been published, or had the publication of tracts on religious. subjects only taken place in an accidental or unsystematic manner, there would have been no occasion for this article.

There has, in fact, arisen a great Christian enterprise, having for its object the publication and dissemination of religious tracts. This enterprise, like the Gospel itself and other of its auxiliaries, has from small beginnings grown to vast proportions commanding influence. Although its history is chiefly limited to the last one hundred years, it has already come to be considered one of the cardinal agencies of Christian propagandism, taking rank with the missionary and Sunday school enterprises, and serving as a powerful auxiliary to both. Although asserting no specific divine appointment, it nevertheless claims to be authorized by inspired analogies. The sacred books both of the Old and the New Testaments were issued and circulated as separate treatises or tracts; so that the Bible itself, in its most approved modern form, may be said. to be a bound volume of tracts.

The principle involved is that of giving truth a permanent and available expression in written or printed language, thus enabling it to survive the voice of the living teacher, and to reach persons and places to which. he could never have access. God, from the beginning,, appointed language as the medium of communication between himself and man, as well as between man and man. He spoke to our race, not only through the hearing of the ear, but also through the perceptions of the eve, thus consecrating both spoken and written language to the office of religious instruction. In giving a written law, he not only provided for the moral guidance of the generation to whom it was first addressed, but for all subsequent ages, while he also continued to teach. and admonish men by the voice and the pen of prophets and holy men in successive, periods. As a counterpart of the spoken language to be used in preaching, the chosen disciples of our Lord were inspired to write narratives of the life, miracles, and death of him who was» the eternal Word. together with the acts and letters of the apostles embodying the instructions which they had; personally received from the Lord himself, and which were thus handed down to those who should come after them. Spoken language has the advantage of instant readiness, wherever there is a tongue to speak and an. ear to hear. It can also be varied with circumstances,. and, adapted to the special wants and changing perceptions of those to whom it is addressed. On the other hand, written language is available at all times and in all places. It can be cheaply multiplied and scattered' on the wings of the wind. It also endures from age to" age, while living speakers die. Great as was the personal influence of the apostles through the agency of spoken language, the influence of their writings has been infinitely greater. Their voices expired with their natural life, but their written speech was immortal. It survived all persecutions. It became embodied in many languages, and was diffused in every direction. It has come down through the centuries. It has been taken up by the modern printing-press, and having been translated into hundreds of tongues and dialects, is now multiplied more rapidly than ever before for the benefit of the present and succeeding generations. By this adjustment of Providence, the apostles, though dead, yet speak, and will continue to speak to increasing millions while the world endures; and those who read their writings not only receive their teachings, but become partakers and propagators of like precious faith. They may echo the truth which has made them free in their own forms of expression and with new adaptations to the ever-changing circumstances of humanity.

A peculiarity of written language is that its dissemination challenges co-operation from many not called to the office of preaching. Copyists, printers, purchasers, and distributors may in their several spheres cooperate to bring the truth of God by means of it into contact with human hearts. The tract enterprise, in fact, employs and combines for a common purpose many and varied agencies. In order that a religions tract may be produced and started on a career of usefulness, there must first be a writer imbued with the spirit of truth and love and willing to labor with his pen, in order to express his thoughts in language at once attractive and impressive. Then there must be a pecuniary investment for the publication of the document written. The task of publication, though possible to individuals, is best performed by public institutions, like the existing tract societies, which, having a corporate existence, live on though their founders die. Such societies can develop and carry out great systems of effort, which their projectors may only live to initiate. Superadded to the publication of tracts, in order to their extended usefulness, there must be co-operative and systematic agencies for their proper and continuous dissemination among readers. When this complicated machinery of moral and spiritual influence is appropriately organized. the humblest Christian may come into working relations with it and be a helper to its highest success. Thenceforward there is a grand copartnership of results, in which those who write, who print, who circulate, and who read may rejoice together.

As an illustration of the endless stream of influences which may flow onward from a single instance of bringing religious truth in a printed form to the attention of the unconverted, the following facts are condensed from authentic documents. In the latter part of the 16th century, a good man, known as Dr. Sibbs, wrote a little book entitled The Bruised Reed. A copy of that book, sold by a poor peddler at the door of a lowly cottage in England, was the agency of the Christian awakening of Richard Baxter, who was born in 1615. "The additional reading of a little piece of Mr. Perkins's work On Repentance, borrowed from a servant," says Baxter, in a sketch of his own life, "did further inform me and confirm me; and thus, without any means but books, was God pleased to resolve me for himself." Thus brought to the knowledge and experience of the truth, Baxter became one of the most earnest preachers and prolific writers of any age. He died in 1691, having published matter enough to till twenty-three large volumes. Two of his smaller works — The Call to the Unconverted and The Saints' Everlasting Rest — have passed through countless editions both in England and America, and, doubtless, will continue to be widely read in English speaking countries while time endures. Of the full extent of their influence it is impossible to form an adequate estimate, but here and there links in the chain of sequences can be discovered. Philip Doddridge, when young, borrowed the works of Baxter, and in due time became the author of the Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, a work which led William Wilberforce to seek for pardon through the Redeemer. Wilberforce's Practical View of Christianity was the instrument employed by the Holy Spirit to lead to repentance and a true faith in Christ Legh Richmond, the writer of The Young Cottager, The Dairyman's Daughter, and various other tracts. Mr. Richmond was a laborious clergyman, and for many years a secretary of the Religious Tract Society of London. His tracts above named have been translated into many languages, and have been instrumental, under the blessing of God, in the conversion of many precious souls. Only two days before his summons to a better world, he received a letter mentioning the conversion of two persons, one of them a clergyman, by the perusal of his tract The Dairyman's Daughter. Nearly half a century has since passed away, but the tract has lived on, and, by the help of printers, donors, and distributors, has continued to do its work; while many of those converted through its influence have themselves become successful actors in starting agencies of influence, destined to work on with ever-increasing and multiplying power. Volumes might be filled with incidents illustrating the utility and power of tracts as an agency of evangelization and religious influence both in Christian and pagan lands. In fact, judging from the reports and annals of the various tract organizations, no branch of Christian activity has been more uniformly productive of the best results than tract distribution.

While the tract enterprise may thus be spoken of in its separate character, it should be borne in mind that it seldom acts or stands alone. Its most approved modes of action are in connection with Church work at home and missionary effort abroad; consequently its best fruits will doubtless be found in the great day to have been the joint product of many forms of Christian activity. It may be confidently urged that Christian work in connection with the use of religious tracts is practicable to a greater number of people of every age and circumstance in life than any other generally recognised agency of usefulness. Comparatively few are called to be ministers or missionaries. Many cannot be Sunday-school teachers. But who cannot be the bearer or sender of a bract?—who, indeed, cannot, with comparatively little sacrifice, circulate many tracts through channels of business, in public thoroughfares, through the mails, and, what is better than any other way, by personal presentation ?

The present is a reading age, and while, on the one hand, it is important to antagonize the evils resulting from bad reading in all its forms, on the other hand there is no community in which many persons may not be found who will have little, if any, good reading that is not brought to them by the hand of benevolence. He that searches them out and bestows upon them good rifts in the form of Christian tracts and books, accompanied, if need be, with other acts of kindness, will seldom fail of doing good; but he who adds to the tract earnest Christian inquiry or conversation will do still greater good, and in many instances secure an interest in such promises as these — "He which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a sou! from death" (James v, 20); "And they that turn many to righteousness [shall shine] as the stars for ever and ever" (Dan. xii, 3). Ministers of the Gospel especially should consider it a great privilege to have provided and ready to their hand a large supply of Christian truth strongly stated, neatly printed, and specially adapted to aid and render permanent the very work they are endeavoring to do by preaching and pastoral labor. In this respect the publications of the tract societies become an arsenal filled with legitimate weapons of the Christian warfare, a vast store of fixed ammunition with which to defend the citadel of Christian truth, and to assault the positions of the adversary.

In the pulpit the minister is chiefly limited to his own thoughts and expressions. In the use of tracts he nay avail himself of the best thoughts, the largest experience, and the ablest statements of the wisest men who have used their pen for the glory of God. His own spoken words may vanish with the breath which utters them. At most, they are not likely to be long remembered; but the printed pages which he scatters nay remain to be perused when the giver is dead, and nay even descend to coming generations. In preaching, the minister is limited to his own personal efforts, and can only address those who come to hear him. In its pastoral work he is at liberty to seek out the people; and often the present of a tract or a book will secure for him the friendship and the interested attention of those who would not have volunteered to enter his congregation. Besides, in the work of tract-distribution, a hundred willing hands can help him, and feet "shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace" will run for him in paths of duty farther and oftener than he with the utmost diligence can hope to go himself. Ministers should therefore enlist their people in the practical work of tract-distribution. This is too great and too good a work to be confined to a few. Specially appointed tract committees and visitors have their duties, which should neither be omitted nor excused; yet no individual should consider his or her personal responsibility relieved by the official appointment of others. The truth is, that in order to the full accomplishment of tract-distribution as a means of evangelical effort in any corn in unity, both systematic and occasional, public and individual, exertions muse be put forth. The periodical distribution of tracts through districts and towns is very important, but it has disadvantages. For instance, where the district is large there is not time for sufficient personal conversation with different characters; besides, many will not listen to the voice of a stranger. If the Christian acquaintances of such persons should give them tracts as tokens of friendship, and follow up the gift with affectionate warning and entreaty, the end would be more a effectually gained. Thus it is that individual Christians, in their several circles of acquaintance and business, have a work to do in which well-selected tracts may furnish invaluable aid.


M'Clintock, John, and James Strong. Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894. X, 511-13.

Last modified 29 April 2010