A tract has come to be distinguished from its cognate tractate because of its brevity, its religious, moral, and/or political character, its hortatory, often highly emotional style— calculated to win converts rather than to stimulate discussion or analysis—and its suitability for widespread distribution. The American Tract Society (ATS) in 1824 proclaimed that “a plain didactic essay on a religious subject may be read by a Christian with much pleasure,” but warned that those for whom tracts are designed “will fall asleep over it. There must be something to allure the listless to read, and this can only be done by blending entertainment with instruction.” Copying the style, if not the content, of increasingly popular novels, romances, and adventure stories, tract writers employed brisk pacing, sprightly dialogue, and narrative situations that the reader, imagined as lower-class and poorly educated, either would be likely to face or might fantasize about facing. Thanks to this formula, coupled with modern printing and distribution techniques, the ATS has estimated that from 1800 to 1825 100 million copies of tracts were published worldwide, with titles such as “Stop That Thought,” “The Blaspheming Sailor Reclaimed,” and “Twenty-Two Reasons for Not Being a Roman Catholic.”
While Evangelicals strove to convey a simple creed to a mass audience, a group of Anglo-Catholic reformers led by John Henry Newman employed tracts differently.
Although these members of the so-called Oxford Movement became known as Tractarians because of their Tracts for the Times (1833–41), only Newman wrote tracts in the narrow sense, possibly because he was an avid reader of them. The others, including John Keble and Edward Pusey, instead wrote learned treatises. In any case, what the Tractarians sought was a “middle way” in the Church of England between the extremes of Protestantism and Catholicism. In the last and most famous of the series, Tract 90, Newman tried to remove all obstacles blocking the recognition that Anglican teaching was apostolic and Catholic in nature. The tract was censored by the Church, and Newman became a Roman Catholic a few years later.
Somewhat paradoxically, given the response to Tract 90 and the virulent anti- Catholicism of the evangelical tracts, the Catholic Homilies (wr. c. 985–95) of Abbot Ælfric are perhaps the earliest specimens of the genre in English literature. Ælfic used these vernacular homilies both to embolden the English, who were facing renewed onslaughts from the Vikings, and to educate those in the clergy who did not know Latin well enough to understand basic Christian theology. John Wycliffe greatly influenced medieval theology with tracts known as the Summa de ente (wr. c. 1370; Treatise on being), which challenged the dominant philosophical nominalism of the 14th century.
Religion and politics merged in the tracts of Martin Luther, including De captivitate Babylonica (The Babylonian captivity of the Church) and An den Christlichen Adel deutscher Nation (An address to the Christian nobility of the German nation), both of 1520, the latter of which alleged wickedness and corruption in the Catholic Church and proposed reforms in Church and nation. Other 16th-century writers who tackled theological and political issues in tracts include Sir Thomas More, John Fisher, and William Tyndale. The anonymous author or authors who took the name “Martin Marprelate” wrote a rollicking series of tracts (1588–89), which have been called the best prose satires of the Elizabethan age; such noted writers as John Lyly and Thomas Nashe responded with tracts attacking Marprelate’s rough handling of England’s bishops. Tracts poured from the press during the English Civil War and subsequent Commonwealth era (1642–60). Bookseller George Thomason collected some 23,000 items, mostly tracts, which are now bound and housed at the British Library. One of the most prolific tract writers was John Milton, whose Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England (1641), among others, attacked the English bishops. Milton’s early tracts shed considerable light on his later, more famous writings, as is the case with Jonathan Swift in the early 18th century.
In the last decade of the 18th century, as England began to be flooded with revolutionary pamphlets such as Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791–92) as well as penny pamphlets and ballads, socialite-turned-evangelical writer Hannah More was asked by the Bishop of London to undertake countermeasures. “To teach the poor to read, without providing them with safe books,” she wrote at the time, “has always appeared to me an improper measure.” She began contributing to, and overseeing, the Cheap Repository of Moral and Religious Tracts (1795–98). Two million copies of these thricemonthly tracts were distributed in the first year, largely among the poor and needy by wealthy people who purchased subscriptions. Contributors besides More included Henry Thornton, John Newton, and William Mason. The tracts have been derided as banal and stuffed with mindless reactionary politics, but careful study by Susan Pedersen (1986) has shown that most of the tracts attack general evils, from drunkenness to slavery, and “defy a simple political explanation.”
Largely because of the project’s success, the London Religious Tract Society was formed in 1799, and one year later the first organized distribution of tracts began in America. Over time, employees of the American Tract Society began going from house to house furnishing tracts to anyone unable to buy them. This activity and related practices quickly spread around the world. David Sonenschein (1982) calculated that there were 4000 tracts in circulation from 43 known tract publishers, with total printings well into the billions. Despite this success, and the fact that Hannah More as much as anyone else made the written word accessible to new readers, the reputation of the tract has undergone serious erosion since her time. For instance, while 19th-century tracts promoted such commendable causes as the abolition of slavery, in the 20th century the genre is often associated with intolerance and bigotry, as in the outpourings of such racist groups as the Citizens’ Councils during the American Civil Rights movement. At its best, though, as A.G.Newell wrote (1966), the tract “elevated a species of ephemeral journalism into a genuine kind of creative literature.”
See also Religious Essay
The Marprelate Tracts 1588, 1589, edited by William Pierce, London: Clarke, 1911
Tracts on Liberty of Conscience and Persecution, 1614–1661, New York: Franklin, 1966 (original edition, 1846)
The American Tract Society Documents, 1824–1925, New York: Arno Press, 1972
Brown, Ford K., Fathers of the Victorians: The Age of Wilberforce, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961
Carlson, Leland H., “Martin Marprelate: His Identity and His Satire,” in English Satire: Papers Read at a Clark Library Seminar, January 15, 1972, edited by Leland and Ronald Paulson, Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1972:1–53
Cook, Richard I., Jonathan Swift as a Tory Pamphleteer, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967
Ffinch, Michael, Cardinal Newman: The Second Spring, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, and London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991
Jay, Elisabeth, editor, The Evangelical and Oxford Movements, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983
Lindholt, Paul J., “The Significance of the Colonial Promotion Tract,” in Early American Literature and Culture: Essays Honoring Harrison T.Meserole, edited by K.Z.Derounian Stodola, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992
Myers, Mitzi, “Hannah More’s Tracts for the Times: Social Fiction and Female Ideology,” in Fetter’d or Free? British Women Novelists, 1670–1815, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1986:264–84
Newell, A.G., “Early Evangelical Fiction,” Evangelical Quarterly 38 (1966):3–21
Nord, David Paul, The Evangelical Origins of Mass Media in America, 1815–1835,
Columbia, South Carolina: Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, 1984
Nord, David Paul, “Systematic Benevolence: Religious Publishing and the Marketplace in Early Nineteenth-century America,” in Communication and Change in American Religious History, edited by Leonard I.Sweet, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1993:239–69
Pedersen, Susan, “Hannah More Meets Simple Simon: Tracts, Chapbooks, and Popular Culture in Late Eighteenth-century England,” Journal of British Studies 25 (1986):84– 113
Poole, Kristen, “Saints Alive! Falstaff, Martin Marprelate, and the Staging of Puritanism,” Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995): 47–75
Sales, Roger, English Literature in History, 1780–1830: Pastoral and Politics, London: Hutchinson, 1983: especially Chapter 1, “The Propaganda of the Victors”
Sonenschein, David, “Sharing the Good News: The Evangelical Tract,” Journal of American Culture 5 (1982):107–21
Spinney, G.H., “Cheap Repository Tracts: Hazard and Marshall Edition,” Library 20 (1939):295–340
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