Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Tract Societies

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2737899Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition — Tract Societies

TRACT SOCIETIES are associations for publishing or circulating religious treatises or books. The circulation of short treatises for the promotion of Christian know ledge is older than the invention of printing. Wickliffe, for instance, was a great writer and circulator of tracts, employing his Oxford friends and pupils to multiply copies. So was Luther in his day, with the help by that time of printer and bookseller. In later times John Wesley was a busy worker in this way; and Hannah More, from her own pen, produced what were known as the "Cheap Repository Tracts," highly lauded by Bishop Porteus, and widely used towards the close of the 18th century. Before this time there had been efforts of associated labour for the same object, a "book society for promoting religious knowledge among the poor" having been established in 1750. A similar society was formed at Edinburgh in 1793. But it was at the close of the century, in 1799, that there was founded in London the Religious Tract Society, an institution unparalleled in the extent and variety of its operations, and the parent of numerous societies in different parts of the empire as well as in the United States and on the continent of Europe. There are other associations with kindred objects, but in connexion with particular ecclesiastical systems. Thus the tract department of the Christian Knowledge Society is specially connected with the Church of England; and the Wesleyans, Baptists, and other denominations have their own tract societies. The Church of Rome also has now similar associations. The Religious Tract Society is alone in being confined to the diffusion of religious truth common to all Protestant Christians, to the exclusion of topics touched by ecclesiastical divisions. This catholicity is secured by the fundamental rules of the society, and by its managing committee being composed half of Churchmen and half of Nonconformists of all denominations.

A brief statement of the proceedings of the Religious Tract Society, as presented in its latest annual Report, will best serve to show the general objects and operations of all such organizations, any special or varied action elsewhere adopted being noted as we proceed. The main object of the society is the preparation and publication of religious literature. At first this consisted mostly of tracts and small treatises. After a time larger books were published, including series of reprinted works of the early Reformers and English Protestant theologians and Biblical expositors, and also books on common subjects treated in a religious spirit. The society also issues magazines for all classes. Four of these periodicals, the Leisure Hour, the Sunday at Home, the Boys Own Paper, and the Girls Own Paper, have a united circulation, including monthly parts and yearly volumes, of nearly 600,000 numbers weekly, or above 30 millions in the year. The total annual issue, including books, tracts, &c., at home and abroad, is nearly 86 millions.

The distribution of this is chiefly through the ordinary channels of trade, with the exception of the tracts, which are circulated by home and foreign missionary societies, and various agencies public and private. Almost every missionary agency is indebted to the Religious Tract Society for the work carried on through the press. Grants are made, either free or as nearly as possible at cost price; and, when it is advisable to produce publications at foreign stations, grants of paper and other material, as well as money payments, are voted. The publications are in almost every tongue, the list containing works in 174 languages and dialects.

The funds for this large and varied work come partly from donations, subscriptions, and legacies, but chiefly from the profits of the sales of the society's publications. The total missionary and evangelistic expenditure in the year ending March 31, 1886, amounted to £47,722, of which £19,019 was supplied from the trade funds, which have also borne the entire cost of management, both of the business and missionary departments. The total amount received from sales, subscriptions, and all other sources was £212,731, 11s. 8d.

The American Tract Society and some of the Continental societies undertake the distribution as well as the production of tracts and books, by means of paid colporteurs and other agents. The Continental societies produce most of their own books and tracts, aided largely by grants of money and paper from the Religious Tract Society.