*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 12th of September 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

Today’s question comes from Megan in Harlem- she notes Hamilton Heights particularly, named so because Alexander Hamilton lived there, of the Musical fame (and history, I guess). But it is not “The Heights” from which we get the other musical from Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda. But, Harlem was the home of Oscar Hammerstein I (the father of the famous Broadway lyricist).

Megan asks-

“I am in a bible study all about apologetics. In learning about different ways to evangelize, I've come across gospel tracts and have conflicting views on them. I get their significance and point of handing out (I am glad that the gospel can reach people in this way) . However, as a faithful Christian who loves the Lord, when I have received some, specifically the comic book type, I find them quite off-putting...I can't help to wonder if some of the extensive and harsh ones overwhelm non-believers and set them farther away from the faith.

I would be interested in learning more about the history of how these tracts came to be…”

Ok, you’ve come to the right place.

So, what do we mean by “tract”? These are small printed books designed to promote a simplified version of a complex idea. In our context, these “Gospel” tracts have a surprisingly long history.

But first- let’s talk about the standard understanding of “tracts.” When I think about them, unfortunately, my two modern reference points are tracts that look like money but are instead something like the four spiritual laws and are sometimes placed on a table instead of a tip for a server—Boo to this.

Secondly, there are “Chick Tracts.” “Chick Tracts”- if you don’t know… well… Jack Chick was a militant fundamentalist and conspiracy theorist. The tracts are troubling and mean-spirited…. Argh. I don’t like speaking ill of things here- so… “tracts” have an unfortunate connotation for me and others.

But- the history of the “gospel tract” is luckily much more extensive than these modern perversions- let’s break it down:

The medium of print is a recent invention (seriously, five centuries isn’t that long ago in the big picture). And the Reformation made first use of this medium- and it was, well… a lot like the tracts we see today.

The most popular tracts in Germany came to be called “flug schriften”- flying papers because these cheap and easily dispensed tracts quickly became litter. They were sometimes pretty course- one not-so-high-minded tract was of the pope and a passing peasant wind in the Pope’s direction. So...

But they became a little more sophisticated and the cheapest means to spread ideas quickly. They would have a second life in the dawning age of Protestant missions when something simple and inexpensive could be translated into a foreign language and taken with a missionary to a foreign country.

Here are my two thoughts/concerns with tracts- or “small cheaply printed books with a simplified version of the Gospel.”

My first thought is that I have no concern at all. Sure, I’ve spent the past two decades in academic circles that ask, “what’s a good book to read on that subject”- but most people don’t read that much, so a shorter and simpler version of something is valuable.

I have little time for the “dumbing down” arguments- sure, I get it, but simplifying for everyone isn’t the same as dumbing down. The Reformation worked because it simplified and used every possible medium.

So- my concern has to do with how we teach and learn. I guess the things you believe (from the big to the small stuff) were prepared and learned in the community. There was a relationship, not just a few slips of paper with good ideas. If tracts try to mass produce conversions without relationships, they seem likely to fail.

Maybe you are the seed sower- and tracts can be part of that. Part of your witness might be a life that others see and say, “I’ll have what she’s having.” And perhaps a tract, meme, TikTok, or podcast can point that person in the right direction.

This past weekend I told the story of Henrietta Mears, who influenced Jim Rayburn of Young Life with her phrase, you have to “earn the right to be heard”- essentially, evangelism comes through relationships- and that’s probably a good word to end on. Thanks, Megan, for your question.

The Last Word for today comes from the lectionary for today from Psalm 94:

Blessed is the one you discipline, Lord,
 the one you teach from your law;

13

you grant them relief from days of trouble,
 till a pit is dug for the wicked.

14

For the Lord will not reject his people;
 he will never forsake his inheritance.

15

Judgment will again be founded on righteousness,
 and all the upright in heart will follow it.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 12th of September 2022, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who fondly remembers “the Heights”- a 90210 spin-off featuring Donna’s boyfriend Ray Pruit, Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who remembers the hit song from that show- Jamie Walter’s “How Do You Talk to an Angel”- I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.