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Tract (literature)

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Tract (literature)

Quaker tract of 1820

A tract is a literary work, and in current usage, usually religious in nature. The notion of what constitutes a tract has changed over time. By the early part of the 21st century, these meant small pamphlets used for religious and political purposes, though far more often the former. They are often either left for someone to find or handed out. However, there have been times in history when the term implied tome-like works.


  • History 1
    • Religious tracts 1.1
    • Political tracts 1.2
  • See also 2
  • References 3
  • External links 4


The distribution of tracts pre-dates the development of the printing press, with the term being applied by scholars to religious and political works at least as early as the 13th century. They were used to disseminate the teachings of John Wycliffe in the 14th century. As a political tool, they proliferated throughout Europe during the 17th century. They were printed as persuasive religious material from the time of Gutenberg's invention.

A Gospel tract printed by the China Inland Mission

Religious tracts

As religious literature, tracts were used throughout the turbulence of the Protestant Reformation and the various upheavals of the 17th century. They came to such prominence again in the Oxford Movement for reform within the Church of England that the movement became known as "Tractarianism", after the publication in the 1830s and 1840s of a series of religious essays collectively called Tracts for the Times.

These tracts were written by a group of Anglican clergy including John Henry Newman, John Keble, Henry Edward Manning, and Edward Pusey. They were theological discourses that sought to establish the continuity between the Church of England and the patristic period of church history. They had a vast influence on Anglo-Catholicism. They were learned works and varied in length from four to over 400 pages.[1] An important center for the spreading of tracts was the London-based Religious Tract Society.[2] Tracts were used both within England - affecting the conversion of pioneer missionary to China, Hudson Taylor - as well as in the cross-cultural missions movements such as Taylor founded: the China Inland Mission. Charles Spurgeon wrote many tracts, and in addition to these evangelical writings, his "Penny Sermons" were printed weekly and distributed widely by the millions and used in a similar way - and they still are today. In America, the American Tract Society distributed vast quantities of tracts in multitudes of languages to newly arriving immigrants at Ellis Island, and sought to assist them in their struggles in their new country.[3]

Tracts are often left in places with high amounts of public traffic. This tract was left under a vehicle windshield wiper.

The publishing of tracts for religious purposes has continued unabated, with many evangelical tract ministries, in particular, existing today.[4] In the United States, the American Tract Society has continuously published literature of this type since 1825. By the late 19th century, Bible Students associated with Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society were distributing tens of millions of tracts each year;[5] by the start of World War I, they had distributed hundreds of millions of tracts in dozens of languages worldwide.[6] The Watch Tower Society continues to publish hundreds of millions of religious tracts in more than 400 languages, which are distributed by Jehovah's Witnesses.[7][8]

As evangelistic tools, tracts became prominent in the Jesus movement. One of the most widely distributed was "The Four Spiritual Laws" authored by Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ and first published in 1965. "This Was Your Life" was the first of many tracts written by Jack Chick. Later Chick tracts followed the pattern of vivid cartoon images and began to focus on issues of Fundamentalist Christianity, including vehement Anti-Catholic opinions.

In the 1980s and 1990s

  • Gospel Outreach International
  • Operation 513 Gospel Tracts
  • Fellowship Tract League

External links

  1. ^ Modern History Sourcebook: The Tracts for the Times, 1833-1841
  2. ^ traktatsällskapThe article in Nationalencyklopedin, web edition, visited 2006-11-22 (Swedish)
  3. ^ The Gospel in 30 TonguesThe New York Times, , February 24, 1907
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Kingdom Proclaimers Active in All the Earth", The Watchtower, May 1, 1994, page 15, "In 1881, just two years after the Watch Tower was first published, ... In a few years, tens of millions of tracts were being distributed annually in many languages."
  6. ^ "Witnesses to the Most Distant Part of the Earth", Jehovah's Witnesses - Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, ©1993 Watch Tower, page 421, "Before the devastation of the first world war was unleashed, an extensive witness had been given worldwide. ...Millions of books, as well as hundreds of millions of tracts and other pieces of literature in 35 languages, had been distributed by the Bible Students."
  7. ^ "Presenting the Good News—With Tracts and Handbills", Our Kingdom Ministry, January 1991, page 8, ©Watch Tower
  8. ^ "“The Silver Is Mine, and the Gold Is Mine”", The Watchtower, November 1, 2007, page 18, "Tracts, brochures, magazines, and books have been translated into 437 languages."
  9. ^
  10. ^ Biography of Jack Chick


Page from a tract by Thomas Shillitoe

See also

Tracts were used for political purposes throughout the 20th century. They were used to spread Nazi propaganda in central Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. According to Jack Chick, his impetus to design cartoon-based religious tracts was brought on by hearing of a similar promotional tool used by Communists in China to wide success.[10] In the months before the John F. Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald handed out pamphlets promoting Fidel Castro and Communist Cuba on the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Brochure-like tracts, also known as pamphlets, advocating political positions have also been used throughout history as well. They were used throughout Europe in the 17th century. In the 18th century, they featured prominently in the political unrest leading up to the American Revolution, and in the English response to the French Revolution, a "pamphlet war" known as the Revolution Controversy. A well-known example of a far-reaching tract from this era is Common Sense by Thomas Paine.

Political tracts

"Tracting" is a colloquialism commonly used by Mormon missionaries to refer to door-to-door proselytizing, whether or not actual tracts are dispensed.


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