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Tract (literature)

Tract (literature)

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A tract is a literary work
Literature is the art of written works, and is not bound to published sources...

, 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
A tome is a large book, especially one volume of a multi-volume scholarly work.It may also refer to:-Places:* Tome, Miyagi, city in Japan * Tome-Adelino, New Mexico, city in New Mexico-People:...

-like works.


The distribution of tracts pre-dates the development of the printing press
Printing press
A printing press is a device for applying pressure to an inked surface resting upon a print medium , thereby transferring the ink...

, 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
John Wycliffe
John Wycliffe was an English Scholastic philosopher, theologian, lay preacher, translator, reformer and university teacher who was known as an early dissident in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th century. His followers were known as Lollards, a somewhat rebellious movement, which preached...

 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.

Religious tracts

As religious literature, tracts were used throughout the turbulence of the Protestant Reformation
Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was a 16th-century split within Western Christianity initiated by Martin Luther, John Calvin and other early Protestants. The efforts of the self-described "reformers", who objected to the doctrines, rituals and ecclesiastical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, led...

 and the various uphevals of the 17th century. They came to such prominence again in the Oxford Movement
Oxford Movement
The Oxford Movement was a movement of High Church Anglicans, eventually developing into Anglo-Catholicism. The movement, whose members were often associated with the University of Oxford, argued for the reinstatement of lost Christian traditions of faith and their inclusion into Anglican liturgy...

 for reform within the Church of England
Church of England
The Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England and the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The church considers itself within the tradition of Western Christianity and dates its formal establishment principally to the mission to England by St...

 that the movement became known as "Tractarianism", after the publication in the 1830s and 1840s of a series of religious essay
An essay is a piece of writing which is often written from an author's personal point of view. Essays can consist of a number of elements, including: literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author. The definition...

s collectively called Tracts for the Times
Tracts for the Times
The Tracts for the Times were a series of 90 theological publications, varying in length from a few pages to book-length, produced by members of the English Oxford Movement, an Anglo-Catholic revival group, from 1833 to 1841...


These tracts were written by a group of Anglican clergy
Clergy is the generic term used to describe the formal religious leadership within a given religion. A clergyman, churchman or cleric is a member of the clergy, especially one who is a priest, preacher, pastor, or other religious professional....

 including John Henry Newman, John Keble
John Keble
John Keble was an English churchman and poet, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, and gave his name to Keble College, Oxford.-Early life:...

, Henry Edward Manning, and Edward Pusey. They were theological
Theology is the systematic and rational study of religion and its influences and of the nature of religious truths, or the learned profession acquired by completing specialized training in religious studies, usually at a university or school of divinity or seminary.-Definition:Augustine of Hippo...

 discourses that sought to establish the continuity between the Church of England and the patristic period of church history
History of Christianity
The history of Christianity concerns the Christian religion, its followers and the Church with its various denominations, from the first century to the present. Christianity was founded in the 1st century by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth who they believed to be the Christ or chosen one of God...

. They had a vast influence on Anglo-Catholicism
The terms Anglo-Catholic and Anglo-Catholicism describe people, beliefs and practices within Anglicanism that affirm the Catholic, rather than Protestant, heritage and identity of the Anglican churches....

. They were learned works and varied in length from four to over 400 pages. An important center for the spreading of tracts was the London-based Religious Tract Society
Religious Tract Society
The Religious Tract Society, founded 1799, 56 Paternoster Row and 65 St. Paul's Chuchyard, was the original name of a major British publisher of Christian literature intended initially for evangelism, and including literature aimed at children, women, and the poor.The RTS is also notable for being...

. Tracts were used both within England - affecting the conversion of pioneer missionary to China, Hudson Taylor
Hudson Taylor
James Hudson Taylor , was a British Protestant Christian missionary to China, and founder of the China Inland Mission . Taylor spent 51 years in China...

 - as well as in the cross-cultural missions movements such as Taylor founded: the China Inland Mission
China Inland Mission
OMF International is an interdenominational Protestant Christian missionary society, founded in Britain by Hudson Taylor on 25 June 1865.-Overview:...

. Charles Spurgeon
Charles Spurgeon
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was a large British Particular Baptist preacher who remains highly influential among Christians of different denominations, among whom he is still known as the "Prince of Preachers"...

 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
Ellis Island
Ellis Island in New York Harbor was the gateway for millions of immigrants to the United States. It was the nation's busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954. The island was greatly expanded with landfill between 1892 and 1934. Before that, the much smaller original island was the...

, and sought to assist them in their struggles in their new country.

The publishing of tracts for religious purposes has continued unabated, with many evangelical tract ministries, in particular, existing today. In the United States, the American Tract Society
American Tract Society
The American Tract Society is a nonprofit, nonsectarian but evangelical organization founded on May 11, 1825 in New York City for the purpose of publishing and disseminating Christian literature. ATS traces its lineage back through the New York Tract Society and the New England Tract Society to...

 has continuously published literature of this type since 1825. By the late 19th century, Bible Students associated with Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania is a non-stock, not-for-profit organization headquartered in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, United States. It is the main legal entity used worldwide by Jehovah's Witnesses to direct, administer and develop doctrines for the religion...

were distributing tens of millions of tracts each year; by the start of World War I, they had distributed hundreds of millions of tracts in dozens of languages worldwide. 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
Jehovah's Witnesses
Jehovah's Witnesses is a millenarian restorationist Christian denomination with nontrinitarian beliefs distinct from mainstream Christianity. The religion reports worldwide membership of over 7 million adherents involved in evangelism, convention attendance of over 12 million, and annual...


As evangelistic tools, tracts became prominent in the Jesus movement
Jesus movement
The Jesus movement was a movement in Christianity beginning on the West Coast of the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s and spreading primarily through North America and Europe, before dying out by the early 1980s. It was the major Christian element within the hippie counterculture,...

. One of the most widely distributed was "The Four Spiritual Laws
The Four Spiritual Laws
The Four Spiritual Laws is an evangelistic Christian tract created in 1952 by Bill Bright , founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, the world's largest Christian ministry...

" authored by Bill Bright
Bill Bright
William R. "Bill" Bright was an American evangelist. The founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, he wrote The Four Spiritual Laws in 1952 and produced the Jesus Film in 1979.-Early life:...

 of Campus Crusade for Christ
Campus Crusade for Christ
Campus Crusade for Christ is an interdenominational Christian organization that promotes evangelism and discipleship in more than 190 countries...

 and first published in 1965. "This Was Your Life" was the first of many tracts written by Jack Chick
Jack Chick
Jack Thomas Chick is an American publisher, writer, and comic book artist of fundamentalist Christian tracts and comic books...

. Later Chick tract
Chick tract
Chick tracts are short evangelical-themed tracts created by American publisher Jack Chick. Chick tracts use a comic book format. They are often controversial for their enthusiastic endorsement of fundamentalist Christianity and condemnation of ecumenical, liberal, and prosperity Christians, the...

s followed the pattern vivid cartoon
A cartoon is a form of two-dimensional illustrated visual art. While the specific definition has changed over time, modern usage refers to a typically non-realistic or semi-realistic drawing or painting intended for satire, caricature, or humor, or to the artistic style of such works...

 images and began to focus on issues of Fundamentalist Christianity
Fundamentalist Christianity
Christian fundamentalism, also known as Fundamentalist Christianity, or Fundamentalism, arose out of British and American Protestantism in the late 19th century and early 20th century among evangelical Christians...

, including vehement Anti-Catholic opinions.

In the 1980s and 1990s Last Days Ministries reprinted articles in the Last Days Newsletter by Keith Green
Keith Green
Keith Gordon Green was an American gospel singer, songwriter, musician, and Contemporary Christian Music artist originally from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, New York. Beyond his music, Green is best known for his strong devotion to Christian evangelism and challenging others to the same...

 and other contemporary and historic writers including David Wilkerson
David Wilkerson
David Ray Wilkerson was an American Christian evangelist, best known for his book The Cross and the Switchblade...

, Leonard Ravenhill
Leonard Ravenhill
Leonard Ravenhill was an English Christian evangelist and author who focused on the subjects of prayer and revival. He is best known for challenging the modern church to compare itself to the early Christian Church as chronicled in the Book of Acts...

, Winkie Pratney
Winkie Pratney
Winkie Pratney is a youth communicator, Christian apologist, evangelist, and writer from Auckland, New Zealand. With a mostly teenaged audience, Pratney speaks world wide to over 500,000 annually in churches, universities, high-schools, and Christian-oriented festivals.Pratney's leadership...

, Charles Finney, John Wesley
John Wesley
John Wesley was a Church of England cleric and Christian theologian. Wesley is largely credited, along with his brother Charles Wesley, as founding the Methodist movement which began when he took to open-air preaching in a similar manner to George Whitefield...

, and William Booth
William Booth
William Booth was a British Methodist preacher who founded The Salvation Army and became its first General...

. More recently Living Waters Publications prints tracts such as "The Atheist Test" or "Are You Good Enough to Go to Heaven?", as well as tracts which feature attention-getting illusions or gags. These include the "Million Dollar Bill", which caused a legal controversy in June 2006. Most Christian tract ministries operate as non-profit "faith" organizations, some to the degree that they do not require a fee for their tracts. One of the most productive among these is Fellowship Tract League, which has printed 3.5 billion Gospel tracts since 1978, available in over 70 different languages, and have been distributed into more than 200 countries.

"Tracting" is a colloquialism commonly used by Mormons
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints traces its current dispensation beginnings to Joseph Smith, Jr. on April 6, 1830 in Western New York. Initial converts were drawn to the church in part because of the newly published Book of Mormon, a self-described chronicle of indigenous American...

 to refer to door-to-door proselytizing, whether or not actual tracts are dispensed.

Political tracts

Brochure-like tracts, also known as pamphlet
A pamphlet is an unbound booklet . It may consist of a single sheet of paper that is printed on both sides and folded in half, in thirds, or in fourths , or it may consist of a few pages that are folded in half and saddle stapled at the crease to make a simple book...

s, 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
American Revolution
The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which thirteen colonies in North America joined together to break free from the British Empire, combining to become the United States of America...

, and in the English response to the French revolution
French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

, a "pamphlet war" known as the Revolution Controversy
Revolution Controversy
The Revolution Controversy was a British debate over the French Revolution, lasting from 1789 through 1795. A pamphlet war began in earnest after the publication of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France , which surprisingly supported the French aristocracy...

. A well-known example of a far-reaching tract from this era is Common Sense
Common Sense (pamphlet)
Common Sense is a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine. It was first published anonymously on January 10, 1776, during the American Revolution. Common Sense, signed "Written by an Englishman", became an immediate success. In relation to the population of the Colonies at that time, it had the largest...

 by Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine
Thomas "Tom" Paine was an English author, pamphleteer, radical, inventor, intellectual, revolutionary, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States...


Tracts were used for political purposes throughout the 20th century. They were used to spread Nazi propaganda in central Europe
Central Europe
Central Europe or alternatively Middle Europe is a region of the European continent lying between the variously defined areas of Eastern and Western 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
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 to wide success. In the months before the John F. Kennedy assassination
John F. Kennedy assassination
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty-fifth President of the United States, was assassinated at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time on Friday, November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas...

, Lee Harvey Oswald
Lee Harvey Oswald
Lee Harvey Oswald was, according to four government investigations,These were investigations by: the Federal Bureau of Investigation , the Warren Commission , the House Select Committee on Assassinations , and the Dallas Police Department. the sniper who assassinated John F...

 handed out pamphlets promoting Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz is a Cuban revolutionary and politician, having held the position of Prime Minister of Cuba from 1959 to 1976, and then President from 1976 to 2008. He also served as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba from the party's foundation in 1961 until 2011...

 and Communist
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

The Republic of Cuba is an island nation in the Caribbean. The nation of Cuba consists of the main island of Cuba, the Isla de la Juventud, and several archipelagos. Havana is the largest city in Cuba and the country's capital. Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city...

 on the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans is a major United States port and the largest city and metropolitan area in the state of Louisiana. The New Orleans metropolitan area has a population of 1,235,650 as of 2009, the 46th largest in the USA. The New Orleans – Metairie – Bogalusa combined statistical area has a population...


See also

  • Marprelate Controversy
    Marprelate Controversy
    The Marprelate Controversy was a war of pamphlets waged in England and Wales in 1588 and 1589, between a puritan writer who employed the pseudonym Martin Marprelate, and defenders of the Established Church....

  • Minor Tractates
  • Nezikin
    For Jewish law on damages, see Damages Nezikin or Seder Nezikin is the fourth Order of the Mishna...

  • Pamphlet
    A pamphlet is an unbound booklet . It may consist of a single sheet of paper that is printed on both sides and folded in half, in thirds, or in fourths , or it may consist of a few pages that are folded in half and saddle stapled at the crease to make a simple book...

  • Tractatus
    Tractatus may refer to:* Tractatus de amore by Andreas Capellanus* Tractatus Astrologico Magicus, also known as the Aldaraia and the Book of Soyga, a 16th century Latin treatise on magic...