The printing of short religious treatises and narratives for cheap or gratuitous distribution was very early practised. Indeed, prior to the introduction of printing, Wycliffe circulated his views by means of brief essays, which were transcribed and passed from hand to hand. Strype testifies to the circulation of some of Tyndale's tracts about 1530. In the 17th century there wore associations for printing and promoting the sale of religious works. In 1701 the "Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge," consisting of members of the church of England, was founded to promote charity schools in all parts of England and Wales, and to disperse both at home and abroad Bibles and tracts of religion. In 1742 John Wesley began the publication and distribution of tracts and books on a large scale, and in 1783 he and Dr. Coke organized the '"Society for the Distribution of Tracts among the Poor." In 1750 the "Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor" was organized in London, and was the first publishing society in which members of different religious denominations were united. In 1756 societies were established at Edinburgh and Glasgow for similar objects, and for several years circulated many religious publications; but eventually they as well as the London society declined.
In 1705 Miss Hannah More commenced at Bath a monthly series of short religious tales which she named " Cheap Repository," of which 2,000,000 (topics were. sold the first year. In it was published the widely popular story of "The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain." Mrs. Rebecca Wilkinson, of Clapham, Surrey, also wrote and published many small books and tracts. The "Philanthropic Society" printed for her in the course of a few years, commencing with 1792, 440,250 copies of books and tracts. - In 1793 the "Religious Tract Society," or as it is now called the " Religious Tract and Book Societv of Scotland," was founded in Edinburgh by the Rev. John Campbell, a missionary to Africa. In 1855 this society adopted the colportage system of the American tract society, to which it has since given a large part of its effort. In that year it sent out three colporteurs; in 1875 it sent out 234 in Scotland and 20 in the north of England. In the year ending March 31, 1875, its circulation was 2,855,000, including 55,000 copies of the Scriptures and 120,-000 other bound volumes, besides 300,000 hymn books, 1,240,000 periodicals, and 1,140,000 tracts. - The " Relirious Tract Society" of London was founded in May, 1799. It had its origin in the labors of the Rev. George Burder of Coventry, who had begun printing tracts on his own account in 1781, of a more directly religious character than those of Miss More. He continued their occasional issue in connection with some friends for several years, and then convened a meeting of ministers by whom the society was established under its present name.
Among them were the Rev. Messrs. Rowland Hill, William Newman, Matthew Wilks, and Joseph Hughes, for many years its secretary. Its entire receipts the first year were £467 7s. 4d, of which £203 10s. 8d. were from contributions, etc, and £263 16s. 8d. from sales. In 1849, when the society celebrated its jubilee, they had risen to £50,981 15s. 8d. of which £4,939 2*. 8d. were from contributions, etc, and £44,603 16s. 6d. from sales. The total receipts of 50 years from contributions and legacies, up to 1849, were £152,552 3s.,#from sales £1,023,215 13s. 1d., making with other items £1,202,242 13s. 8r7. By the expenditure of this sum the society had published 5,148 different works in 110 languages and dialects, of which it had issued over 500,000,000 copies. It now keeps on its catalogue about 10,000 different publications. It issued during the year ending March 31, 1875, 303 new volumes and 167 new tracts. The total circulation from the home depositories during the year was 46,536,057, including about 23,000,000 tracts. The issues in foreign depositories in Europe, India, China, Africa, and elsewhere were about 10,000.000 more. The entire number of issues since the formation of the society was about 1.595,000.-000, of 13,023 different publications in 120 different languages and dialects.
Its grants of books, tracts, etc, for the year amounted to £28,328 7s. 7d. This society owns no presses or bindery. It maintains three depositories in London, one at Brighton, one at Manchester, and others in the principal cities of continental Europe, in Constantinople, Beyrout, and different cities of India, China, and Japan; and there are auxiliary and cooperating societies in Great Britain, Canada, and Australia. During the year it made grants of books and tracts to the colporteurs in the north of England from the religious tract and book society of Scotland, and a grant amounting to £400 to the negroes of the southern United States. There are several other societies in Great Britain for the circulation and distribution of religious books and tracts, each of the principal religious denominations having one or more. - The most important of the tract societies of continental Europe is the Hamburg tract society, organized in 1830, which issued from April 1, 1872, to Nov. 1, 1874, 2,648,000 copies of its publications in German, Danish, and Lettish; and it has issued since its organization 27,000,000 tracts in seven languages. The Paris tract society has issued 005,380 publications. The Toulouse book society has issued 137,129 volumes.
The evangelical society of Geneva, organized in 1831, expended in 1874 $15,000, and has issued in all 335,000 volumes and 3,000,000 tracts. The Belgian evangelical society issued 1,380 volumes and 202,000 tracts in 1874. The British American book and tract society was organized at Halifax in 1867, and has given its effort largely to colportage. In 1874 it employed 26 colporteurs at an expense of $34,629. Its total expenditure has been $169,193. - The first religious publication society in the United States was the "Methodist Book Concern," originally established in Philadelphia, which issued its first publication in 1789. It was removed to New York in 1804, and for 29 years had its depository in Crosby street. In 1822 the agents established a bindery, and in 1824 added a printing office. In 1833 it was removed to No. 200 Mulberry street, and in February, 1836, its premises were destroyed by fire, and a loss of $250,000 incurred. A new building was immediately erected on the same site, which is still occupied by the printing office and bindery. In 1869 a building for a sales house and offices was purchased in Broadway at the corner of 11th street.
The book concern has a depository in Cincinnati, which publishes periodicals and a few books; it has also depositories publishing denominational journals, and keeping full supplies of its books, at Boston, Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco; and the ministers of the denomination are agents for the sale and circulation of its journals and tracts. Its publications consist of books, periodicals, and tracts. The book concern is conducted strictly as a business house, and makes no donations. In 1874 the Methodist Episcopal tract society made donations of tracts, purchased from the book concern, to the value of $15,000, besides contributing more than $5,000 for the publications of missionary presses in foreign lands. In 1844 the division of the Methodist church led to the organization of a book concern connected with the Methodist church, South, at Nashville, Tenn., which eventually received $200,000 of the capital of the'book concern as the share of the church south. - The Rev. Dr. John Stanford published tracts in New York in 1786. In 1803 the Massachusetts "Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge" was formed by the Rev. Drs. Tappan, Holmes, and Morse, Lieutenant Governor Philips, and others.
This seems to have been the earliest undenominational tract society organized in America. Subsequently numerous local societies sprung into existence, of which the "Religious Tract Society" of New York, founded in 1812, and the "New England Tract Society" at Andover, in 1814, seem to have been the most efficient. The latter grew rapidly, and in 1823 changed its name to the "American Tract Society," and shortly thereafter its location to Boston, great -.ly enlarging its operations. In 1825 this society had 205 auxiliaries, had issued 177 general tracts and 19 of a series for the young, had published in all over 800,000 copies, and had commenced the publication of an almanac and a monthly journal. In the spring of 1825 the "American Tract Society" was organized in New York, and was intended to unite the local societies then in existence as far as possible as auxiliaries. The Boston society became a branch of it. This union continued till May, 1859, when, in consequence of the dissatisfaction of a considerable number of the members in New England and elsewhere at the hesitation of the American tract society in New York to publish tracts or treatises on the subject of slavery, the two societies resumed their independent organizations.
In 1870 the total sales of the society at Boston amounted to $103,027 38, and the expenses of the charitable department to $7,970 95. In 1871 it simplified its plan of operation by contracting with a publishing house to print, bind, and sell its tracts, periodicals, and books. This arrangement proved efficient and economical, and enabled the society, while carrying forward its usual work, to clear off, before May, 1875, a debt of $22,493 27 incurred previous to 1871. This plan is still pursued. The American tract society in New York, owning a large building in Nassau and Spruce streets called the " Tract House," manufactures its publications, and has become one of the largest of the national benevolent societies of the country. At first only English tracts were printed, 215 the first year; the third year one volume, and tracts in Spanish, French, and German. Every succeeding year the list was enlarged, until at the end of 50 years (1875) its catalogue contained 1,133 volumes and 3,497 smaller publications.
In 1843 was commenced the "American Messenger," a monthly family paper; in 1847 the Botschafter, a German paper; in 1852 the "Child's Paper," an illustrated juvenile; in 1871 the "Morning Light," an illustrated monthly for beginners, the " Illustrated Christian Weekly," and the Yolls-freund, a similar weekly in German. The average daily issue from the tract house is 54,000 copies of publications, of which 4,000 are volumes; and the entire issue from the beginning has been 358,718,338 copies, of 8,338,141,531 pages, of which 331,683,312 copies were tracts averaging about 8 pages each, and 27,035,026 volumes, averaging about 208 pages; 36,307,806 tracts and 2,603,884 volumes were in foreign languages. The society has also expended in printing at mission stations in foreign lands $616,637 30. The entire receipts from April, 1825, to April, 1875, were $13,597,589 63, of which $8,957,-219 50 were from sales, $312,274 69 from rents, and $4,328,095 44 from donations and legacies. In 1842 the society commenced its colportage system, which it has maintained up to the present time.
The colporteur, as the term is employed by the society, is an itinerant missionary, who distributes its publications either by sale, partial sale, or gift, as may seem best in each case, from the desire to do good, and also engages as opportunity offers in the more direct missionary labors of preaching, prayer, and religious conversation; his expenses are partly defrayed by the society, and partly by the sales of books. Through this agency, for the 34 years from its establishment in 1842 to 1875, 10,503,696 volumes were sold and 2,780,066 given away. - The different religious denominations have each also their tract or publication societies, of which the most important particulars are given in the following table:
Date of Organization.
No. of publications on catalogue.
ISSUED DURING THE
Value of issue during
Tracts, pamphlets, and periodicals.
Methodist Episcopal book concern ....................................
Baptist publication society ..................................................
Presbyterian board of publication ...........................................
Protestant Episcopal evangelical knowledge society .......................
' " church book society.....................
Reformed church board of publication........................
New Church (Swedenborgian) tract and publication society___