The following history of the origins of religious tracts, the third 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.]
The Religious Tract Society of London was initiated in May, 1799. Rev. George Burder, Rowland Hill, Matthew Wilks, Joseph Hughes, and others were among its organizers. A rule of the society, like that of Mr. Wesley before noted, provided that its membership "consist of persons subscribing half a guinea or upwards annually." The society was placed upon a basis of broad catholicity. Its object was defined to be the publication of "those grand doctrinal and practical truths which have in every age been mighty through God in converting, sanctifying, and comforting souls, and by the influence of which men may have been enabled, while they lived, to live to the Lord, and when they died to die unto the Lord." It is impossible to give in this article a detailed history of any of the societies enumerated; brief and general notices must suffice. But in the briefest notice of the Religious Tract Society of London, it is not too much to say that in the eighty years of its existence it has well and faithfully illustrated the catholic and evangelical principles announced by its founders in the beginning. In so doing it has accomplished its objects on a grand scale and to an unforeseen extent. An incidental event of the most interesting character grew out of the operations of the Religious Tract Society in the third year of its existence. It was no less than the preliminary step towards the organization of the British and Foreign Bible Society — the parent Bible Society of the world.
For a score of years the business of the Religious Tract Society was of such a moderate extent that a small hired depository sufficed for its transaction. From 1820 the business so expanded as to require the occupation of enlarged premises in Paternoster Row, where, in 1843-44, its present commodious buildings were erected. The design of the society contemplated the double purpose of sales at or near cost, and gratuitous distribution. Both phases of its work were therefore limited to its supply of funds. Its only income, at first, was from the annual subscriptions of its members. But by degrees, and as necessity required, additions were made from other sources, such as congregational collections, auxiliary societies, life-memberships, legacies:, and special donations. As the operations , of the society increased, new and varied forms of action I were developed, including not only sales through depositories, but by hawkers or peddlers throughout the provinces. Donations were made not only of tracts, but of assorted libraries to soldiers' barracks, to sea-going vessels, 1 to emigrant and convict-ships, to workhouses, to coastguard stations, to missionaries' families, to clergymen, to schoolmasters, and city missionaries, to be used for looming to persons in destitute circumstances. During the first five years of the society's existence, it published only sixty-six different tracts in the ordinary form. Subsequently it began to enlarge the variety as well as the number of its publications. Broadsheets, handbills, childrens' books, periodicals adapted to different ages and classes, monthly volumes, standard works, and even commentaries on the Scriptures came in turn to be regularly and constantly issued under the imprint of the society. From active work in different parts of Great Britain, the society was led to extend its work into foreign fields. Such an extension had not been originally contemplated, but nevertheless took place in the order of Providence, and became a striking illustration of the expansive nature of true Christian benevolence. The circumstance which first led to the preparation of tracts in foreign languages was the obvious duty of giving religious instruction to a number of prisoners-of-war confined in England, and the first foreign languages in which the society's tracts were published were the French and the Dutch. As was to have been expected, the foreign prisoners, when released, carried more or less of the tracts they had received to their own countries, and thus, to some extent, created a demand for more and similar publications in those countries. About the same time, a correspondence sprang up between the society and representative evangelical Christians in most of the nations of Europe. Soon afterwards the enterprise of foreign missions' began to be extended to various pagan nations. By similar processes, the work of the Religious Tract Society has been expanding and enlarging ever since, with a prospect of continuous expansion and usefulness in time to come.
The Reports of the society from year to year have been replete with interesting details, not only of progress, but also of results; and yet it may safely be inferred that the good which has been directly and indirectly accomplished through its instrumentality has not half been told. Eternity only can reveal the full extent of influences that have been so far-reaching, and in many instances so remote from ordinary human observation. A few items, condensed from the society's official documents, may serve as partial indications of the magnitude to which, from the small beginnings noted above, its operations have grown. The society has printed important tracts and books in one hundred and twenty different languages and dialects. Its present annual issues from its own depositories and those of foreign societies, through which it' acts, are about sixty-three millions, and its aggregate issues during eighty years past have been-about two thousand .millions. It has co-operated with every Protestant Christian mission in the world. It has assailed popery on the Continent of Europe, Molammedanism in the East, and paganism of various 'orms in heathen lands. It has given a Christian literature to nations just emerging from barbarism. Its publications have passed the wall of China, and have entered the palace of the Celestial emperor. They have instructed the princes of Burmah, and opened the selfsealed lips of the devotee in India. They have gone to [he sons of Africa to teach them, in their bondage, the liberty of the Gospel. They have preached Christ crucified to the Jew and also to the Greek; while in the home land they have continued to offer the truths and consolations of religion to soldiers, to sailors, to prisoners, to the inmates of hospitals, and, in short, to rich and poor in every circumstance of life. In the year 1849, the Religious Tract Society celebrated its semi-centennial jubilee. In connection with that interesting event, a large jubilee fund was raised to increase the usefulness :)f the society. A jubilee memorial volume was also published, setting forth in an able and interesting manner the history of its first fifty years of work and progress. When, in the year 1899, the society shall celebrate its centennial, a still grander showing of results may be expected.
The additional tract societies of Great Britain, aside from merely local organizations, are not numerous. The following are the principal: The Religious Tract and Book Society of Scotland (Edinburgh). The primary organization of this society dates back to 1793. It is not a publishing society, and for many years had a feeble existence. About 1856 it adopted a system of colportage similar to that of the American Tract Society, and, since , that period, has greatly multiplied its influence and usefulness. It embraces branch societies at Glasgow and Aberdeen, and employs some two hundred colporteurs. The Stirling Tract Enterprise, founded in 1848, is chiefly a publishing institution, issuing both tracts and periodicals. The Dublin Tract Society issues tracts in large numbers. The Monthly Tract Society, London, was instituted in 1837.
In passing from Great Britain to other countries, the number of tract societies is found to be very great. For the most part, they combine publication with distribution, receiving aid from the Religious Tract Society of London to enable them to publish tracts and books in their several localities. It is therefore deemed sufficient to give the title and date of organization, omitting details of history and statistics, although in many instances of great interest.
M'Clintock, John, and James Strong. Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894. X, 513-14.
Last modified 29 April 2010