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Tracts are little pamphlets purchased in bulk and passed out by Christian fundamentalists, or left in phone booths and on car windshields. Their purpose is so you, the sinner, will have a quick-'n'-easy presentation of the salvation message you can read in your spare time.
Those who pass these out are usually the sort who are too embarrassed of their faith or too shy to try to engage anyone in conversation, so they let the little booklets do the talking for them. That, or they see tracts as a way to get the Gospel out quickly to hundreds of people with little effort. This is probably a good thing, because the ones who do try to engage you in conversation can be far worse pests than the ones who just hand you a tract.
One group of high-church Anglicans in the mid-19th century became known as the Tractarians because of their wide use of tracts to promote their message. Today, this form of evangelism is particularly favored by Independent Baptist and Mennonite groups, whose tracts can be found all over the place in the Bible Belt and in the Midwestern Mennonite/Amish country respectively. The most famous, in terms of popular culture influence, are the outrageous cartoon tracts of Jack Chick, whose style has since been copied (and, in some cases, parodied) by other publishers. Places where you are most likely to find fundamentalist tracts for your ever-growing collection include laundromats, truck stops, phone booths, county fairs, public bulletin boards, the "tract racks" in churches, places where free literature is left on college campuses, etc.
Always goes something like this:
- You are a sinner. Don't deny it, admit it to yourself. A sinner, that's what you are.
- You need salvation. Because of your sin, you cannot go to heaven.
- Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins.
- All you have to do is accept Jesus as your personal savior and you will be reconciled with God.
- If you do not accept Jesus as your personal savior, you will spend eternity burning in hell.
- Did you accept Jesus as your personal savior? (yes/no, check one.)
- If yes, good! Now read the Bible daily and find a good church, and send $111.56 to Bob Larson.
- If no, YAAAAAH!
That's it. This, you see, is supposed to substitute for friendship, charity, and serious spiritual seeking and theological study.
Never mind that you've already heard this pitch hundreds of times in your life. Those who hand out tracts are convinced that everybody in the world is a lost soul desperately searching for the meaning of life who just hasn't heard the gospel message yet, and voila, a little 8 page booklet will set them on the path to righteousness. They think they have probably gotten thousands converted to Christ, when in fact all they have done is spent a lot of money and wasted a lot of paper.
Notable tract publishers
- Mark Cahill, who encourages supporters to stuff his tracts inside beer and soft drink containers at the grocery store
- Jack Chick, perhaps the most notorious tract publisher.
- Campus Crusade for Christ is the source of the "Four Spiritual Laws" tract.
- The Navigators are the source of the "Bridge to Life" tract.
- John R. Rice's tracts are still in circulation.
- American Tract Society has been wasting paper for Jesus since 1825.
- A bunch of smaller publishers: Fellowship Tract League, Free Tract Society, Gospel Tract & Bible Society, etc. The ones published by Baptist evangelist Oliver B. Greene are almost Chick-like in their presentation.
- Moneytract, a defunct publisher printing
counterfeitcurrency tracts. Very frequently left as "tips" at restaurants, or used to pay for groceries. Best used for donations to the church collection basket of the groups that send them out.
Tract publishers use a fascinating marketing technique. Many tracts provide the new convert with a list of things a Christian should do: read the Bible, join a good church, and share the Gospel with others. They further suggest the best way to share the gospel with others is to order bulk copies of the same tract and pass it out. This sort of works like viral marketing, or a pyramid scheme.
Tract is also a term for a part of the Roman Catholic liturgy sung during Lent.