TRACT (from Lat. tractare, to treat of a matter, through Provençal tractat and Ital. trattato), in the literary signification, a work in which some particular subject, or aspect of a subject, is treated. As far as derivation is concerned, a tract is identical with a treatise, but by custom the latter word has come to be used for a lengthy monograph on a subject, dealing with it technically and authoritatively, whereas a tract is understood to be brief and rather argumentative than educational. There is, again, the rarer word tractate, which is not a tract, in the precise sense, so much as a short treatise.

The word “tract” has come to be used for brief discourses of a moral and religious character only, and in modern practice it seems to be mainly confined to serious and hortatory themes. An essay on poetry, or the description of a passage of scenery, would not be styled a tract. In the Protestant world, the tract which Luther composed in 1520, on the Babylonish captivity, has been taken more or less as the type of this species of literature, which, however, existed long before his day, both in Latin and in the vernacular tongues of western Europe. It is difficult, if not impossible, in early history, to distinguish the tract from other cognate forms of moralizing literature, but it may perhaps be said that the homilies of Ælfric (955–1025?) are the earliest specimens of this class in English literature. Four centuries later Wyclif issued a series of tracts, which were remarkable for their vigour, and exercised a strong influence on medieval theology. Bishop Reginald Pecock published many controversial tracts between 1440 and 1460. Sir Thomas More, John Fisher (d. 1535) and William Tyndale were prominent writers of controversial treatises. It was the Martin Marprelate agitation, in the reign of Elizabeth, which led from 1588 to 1591 to the most copious production of tracts in English literature; of these nearly thirty survive. On the Puritan side the principal writers were John Udall (1560–1592), Henry Barrowe (d. 1593), John Penry (1559–1593) and Job Throckmorton (1545–1601), the tracts being printed in the house of the last-mentioned; on the side of the Established Church the principal authors were Bishop Thomas Cooper (1517–1594) and the poets Lyly and Nash. An enormous collection of tracts was published between 1717 and 1720 in elucidation of what is known as the Bangorian Controversy, set in motion by a sermon of Benjamin Hoadly, bishop of Bangor, on “The Nature of the Kingdom of Christ” (1717). Convocation considered this a treatise likely to impugn and impeach the royal supremacy in religious questions. A vast number of writers took part in the dispute, and Thomas Sherlock (1678–1761) fell into disgrace through the violence of his contributions to it. Convocation was finally obliged to give way.

The most famous collection of tracts published in the course of the 19th century was that produced from 1833 onwards by Newman, Keble and E. B. Pusey, under the title of “Tracts for the Times.” Among these Pusey’s “Tract on Baptism” (1835) and his “On the Holy Eucharist” (1836) had a profound effect in leading directly to the foundation of the High Church party, so much so that the epithet “Tractarian” was barbarously coined to designate those who wished to oppose the spread of rationalism by a quickening of the Church of England. In 1841 Newman's “Tract No. XC.” was condemned by the heads of houses in Oxford, and led to the definite organization of the High Church forces.  (X.) 

Tract Societies are agencies for the production and distribution, or the distribution only, of Christian literature, more especially in tract form. They vary in importance from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (London), the Religious Tract Society (London) and the American Tract Society (New York)—all of which are publishing houses of recognized standing—to small and purely local organizations for distributing evangelistic and pastoral literature. It was not until the Evangelical Revival that tract work began to develop along its modern lines. Starting from the provision of simple evangelistic literature for home use, the enterprise grew into the provision of Christian literature, not only for home use, but also for the mission fields of the world. With this growth there proceeded another development, the production of books and magazines being added to that of tracts. The title “Tract Society” has, in fact, become misleading, as suggestive of limitations which had but a brief existence and are no longer recognized by the more important agencies. On the other hand it must not be supposed that because the work has gone beyond the provision of tracts, these are no longer widely employed. Probably their use in various forms at home was never wider than it is to-day; whilst in India, China and elsewhere the attack of the Christian tracts is being met by the circulation of vernacular tracts in defence of the non-Christian faiths.

The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, founded in 1698, though most widely known as a publishing agency, assists in a wide variety of ways the work of the Church of England. On its publication side, it is for its own Church both a Bible society and a tract society. Moreover, its publications include not only versions of the Holy Scriptures and of the Liturgy, but also theological and general literature in many forms. It has given much attention to providing good reading for children; whilst its tract catalogue is especially rich in works bearing on Christian evidences, Church seasons and the doctrines of the Anglican Church. To the foreign missions of the Church the S.P.C.K. has been a helper of the utmost value, more especially in regard to their medical missions and their use of Christian literature. In the latter case the help is given by grants of works produced either at home or by mission presses in the field. As early as 1720 it was using Arabic; but it has from time to time been of especial value in helping to found a Christian literature in languages or dialects just reduced to writing. Thus whilst recent publications for the mission field include works in Arabic, Chinese and Urdu, they also include publications in Addo, Lunyoro and Sgau Karen.

The Religious Tract Society, founded in 1799, and thus contemporary with the great missionary agencies and the Bible Society, is, like the last-named, an interdenominational organization. Its earliest publications were in English and were tracts. But it speedily undertook book publications and extended its field of operations. It began to provide tracts for China in 1813, and as early as 1817 an auxiliary tract society was founded at Bellary in India by some men of the 84th Regiment. In undertaking book publication, the society became one of the pioneers in the provision of sound and cheap literature; whilst by the issue of the Sunday at Home, the Leisure Hour, the Boy's Own Paper, the Girl's Own Paper, the Cottager and Artisan and other periodicals, it helped to lead the work in the provision of popular magazines. Like the S.P.C.K., the R.T.S. now produces general theological literature as well as tracts in a variety of forms, whilst it also gives especial attention to the provision of healthy reading matter for young people. Its grants of books and tracts are open to members of all Protestant denominations. The society aids Protestant communities on the Continent by maintaining depôts at Madrid, Barcelona, Lisbon, Vienna, Budapest and Warsaw; whilst it also assists. by grants, publication work in France, Italy, Russia, Turkey and Scandinavia. In the mission field it works mainly through subsidiary tract societies locally organized. The chief of these tract and book societies are in India carried on at Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Bangalore, Allahabad and Lahore; in China at Peking, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Canton, Hankow, Chung-king and Mukden; and in Japan at Tokio. The literature produced by these organizations ranges from commentaries on the Holy Scriptures to the simplest tracts and leaflets. In 1908 the society opened a special fund in aid of its Chinese work, and by this means the provision of Christian literature in book and tract form for Chinese readers has been greatly extended. Much literature for various foreign fields is also produced in Great Britain and distributed from the society's headquarters. As with the S.P.C.K., the R.T.S. has been of great service in providing (next to the Holy Scriptures) the earliest literature for some languages. Thus it has helped to provide tracts for the Miaos of west China and for the Baganda, together with the Pilgrim's Progress in Bemba and in Ewé, two little-known African tongues. The languages in which works produced or aided by the society have appeared number about 300. In the distribution of its grants of tracts for home work nearly all the great evangelical organizations have a share. In the administration of a subsidiary tract society all the evangelical agencies at work in its field are as a rule represented.

In addition to the work of these societies, the production and distribution of tracts at home is carried on by The Stirling Tract Enterprise, which also sends grants of its publications to India, Ceylon and Africa; by The Children's Special Service Mission, which also issues publications in Chinese, Japanese and some Indian languages; and by The Scripture Gift Mission, which sends its publications into China and the East generally. In the mission field The Christian Literature Society for India (formerly the Christian Vernacular Educational Society), established in 1858, has its headquarters in London with auxiliary committees in India and Ceylon. It will always be associated with the name of Dr John Murdoch (d. Aug. 10, 1904), its secretary for nearly half a century. It works on similar lines to the tract societies, but includes a wider range of educational literature, in the provision of which it has been especially helpful to the mission schools of India.

The Christian Literature Society for China (formerly the Society for the Diffusion of Literature and General Knowledge among the Chinese) is incorporated (1909) in Shanghai, but has an advisory committee and an executive committee in London. It has been of great service in approaching the official and upper classes of China by its magazines and books, as well as by the diffusion of more popular literature.

The American Tract Society (New York) works, both in regard to domestic and foreign enterprises, upon similar lines to those of the Religious Tract Society. Upper Canada has its tract society also and similar organizations exist on the continent of Europe.

 (A. R. B.)