Small printed leaflets (Flugschriften) have often played an important role in the course of Christian history. They were much used by all parties in the Reformation from Luther to the Anabaptists. Many Anabaptist hymn pamphlets containing one or more martyr hymns were in effect tracts. Tracts used in modern times in England and America in religious work are however commonly very short leaflets, 2-4 pages in length, seldom longer, and small in format, for cheap production, easy distribution, and quick reading. Almost all types of religious denominations and movements in America have used and do use them. They have most widely been used for evangelistic purposes to reach the unchurched or to win adherents to a new cause.
Organizations have been set up for the specific and sole purpose of preparation and distribution of religious tracts, although these "tract societies" have not always limited themselves to the small tracts. The tract societies arose at the turn of the 18th century concomitantly with foreign mission work and Sunday schools and have been closely related to such enterprises. They also often represent lay interest and have flourished among the free churches in England and pietistic circles on the Continent and religiously aroused lay groups everywhere. Some societies only distribute tracts, while others both publish and distribute.
The first tract societies in Europe were the Tract and Colportage Society of Scotland (1793), the Edinburgh Tract Society (1796), the London Religious Tract Society (1799), the Christlicher Verein im Nördlichen Deutschland (1811), and the Wupperthaler Traktatgesellschaft (1814). The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (S.P.C.K.), founded in England in 1698 as a Christian literature society, has also included an important tract department. In the United States the American Tract Society (1825), though preceded by several local tract societies (1808, 1812, 1814), was the first national agency. It has played a very great role in American religious life especially in the 19th century; much of its literature reached Mennonites, especially in the eastern half of the United States, in both the German and English languages, often largely through the Sunday school. This society and many other tract societies have used colporteurs on a large scale to distribute Christian literature, tracts, and booklets, even books and periodicals.
The only organized Mennonite venture in the tract field has been the Mennonite Book and Tract Society, founded largely by a group of laymen in the M.C. group in 1892 and maintained for 16 years, until its work was taken over in 1908 by the newly organized Mennonite Publishing House at Scottdale. The Mennonite Publishing Company at Elkhart (John F. Funk) also had a tract series, but its output did not match the (at least) 125-tract series put out by the MBTS. The MBTS attempted the publication of a paper called Book and Tract Messenger, but only one issue appeared (September 1899), which contained a history of the society and a list of tracts. The MBTS by no means limited itself to tracts, and was in a sense a competitive Mennonite publisher to the Elkhart Mennonite Publishing Company. Its headquarters were usually the office of the treasurer, which was at Elkhart 1892-99, Scottdale 1898-1902, Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, 1902-5, and Scottdale again 1905-8.
Tract publication has been a integral part of the work of the Mennonite Publishing House throughout its history. A total of over 500 tract titles have come from its press. All tracts were distributed free for the first 30 years, subsidized by other House operations and donations. In 1908 the Tract Committee was appointed to supervise and promote this work, which served to 1951. Since 1929 there has been a tract editor giving part time to the work. The Way, a 4-page (originally 8-page) monthly paper for free distribution, essentially a tract paper, has been published since 1913, with a very large edition (in 1957 at the average rate of 240,000 monthly).
It is estimated that some 40 million copies of this paper have been distributed during its 45-year history. A corresponding paper in Spanish, El Heraldo Evangelico, has been published since 1941 (since 1946 by the Scottdale House, subsidized by the Elkhart Mission Board). The Colporteur, a promotional paper "to encourage and aid tract distributors," was published 1942-50 for a total of 17 issues. Total tract circulation by the House is vast, averaging more than 3 million copies yearly since 1954, with 6 million in 1953. Since about 1938 the tracts have no longer been given free but sold, although there is a free tract fund supported by donations. The House now has some 4,000 tract customers, most of whom are from non-Mennonite circles.
A number of unofficial private tract publishers (Mennonite Church) have arisen; e.g., Amos Ogburn of Woodburn, Oregon, and J. L. Stauffer of Harrisonburg, Virginia, the latter operating under the firm name of Tract Press.
Tract distribution is largely the work of individuals although it is promoted by a large number of congregations (MC) in addition to missions. Many Sunday-school classes, local Mennonite Youth Fellowships, and individuals regularly distribute tracts on Sunday afternoons and at other times, often on a house to house basis. Many congregations have racks of tracts on constant display in the lobby of the meetinghouse or elsewhere with a steady supply of current tracts. Ralph Palmer of Denbigh, Virginia, has devoted most of his time for some years to tract distribution, traveling about the country as a "tract missionary."
Until recently the content of the tracts was usually in the area of Christian nurture with major emphasis on social evils such as strong drink, tobacco, amusements, fashion, as well as distinctive Mennonite doctrines such as nonconformity and separation, although evangelistic materials giving the way of salvation were also included. More recently the emphasis is almost exclusively on evangelistic themes and Christian experience.
Tracts are also used in evangelistic and mission work of other American Mennonite groups, but no organized publication or distribution agencies have been established for this purpose. Many tracts are purchased from non-Mennonite agencies.
Hostetler, John A. God Uses Ink. Scottdale, 1958: 65-71, 147-149.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 740-741. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S. "Tracts." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 18 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/T722.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. (1959). Tracts. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/T722.html.