I had an epiphany the first time I visited the Free Tract Society, in a large storefront on York Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Highland Park. Two 20-foot-long tables were weighed down with neatly stacked piles of fliers blaring lurid headlines that dealt with some of my favorite subjects: witchcraft, easy money, homosexuality and communism. Behind a worn Formica counter, an offset press churned out additional tracts almost continuously -- modest, mostly two-color, pamphlets and one-sheets. A quiet man in khaki work clothing welcomed me to take anything I might find appealing. It seemed I’d stumbled into some underground, punk rock, DIY distro fantasy. I was ready to sign up and join whatever revolution was getting underway. Then I looked up and saw the paintings of Jesus.
This was not hipster kitsch; it was the real deal. This explosion of wacky illustrations and funky type styles was all about spreading the word. And not just any word, but The Word. Combining artwork, narratives, sermons and quotations from the Bible, these religious tracts were eye-catching, instructional and inspirational; they went by the pound to believers who aimed to save souls by sharing their faith. There was something for everyone: 500 different tracts, in more than 20 languages and dialects, including at least 100 in Spanish. Thinking about the mark of the beast? Read “Beware 666.” Concerned about addiction? Pick up “How I Overcame a Drunkard’s Death.” Jewish? For you, there’s “4 things God Wants the Jew to Know.” Can’t decide what to do come November? “Vote Jesus.”
Of course, religious tracts have long been crafted to communicate to sinners, which is doubtless why I found them so appealing. Their basic message has nearly always concerned salvation, but my revelation had less to do with content than with form. The tracts themselves led me to see the light -- modest fliers printed in abundance, written by a multitude of authors, meant to be given away. Indeed, the very existence of a place such as the Free Tract Society was an inspiration. It’s been around since 1897 and prints more than 3 million tracts a year. Staffed by volunteers and operating on a shoestring budget, the Free Tract Society aims to change the world by using the power of pamphlets. I didn’t have to embrace the message in order to fall in love with the messenger. A year later, my own distribution center, The Tract House, opened as part of an exhibition called “Cottage Industry” at Baltimore’s Contempory Museum, with 62 tracts on a variety of subjects on display.
Tracts are brilliant in their simplicity, using the absolute minimum of resources to communicate a message via the printed word. Inexpensive to produce and easy to distribute, they can be stuck under windshield wipers, left behind at restaurants, given to friends or tucked into magazines at the newsstand. Tracts are insistently physical objects in a time of electronic communication, straightforward and plain-spoken, unadorned and direct. For pennies apiece a proselytizer can put his or her message directly into the hands of a recipient. A tract may be reread, cherished or passed on.
The stripped-down aesthetic of the tracts at the Free Tract Society have everything to do with history and resources. Other tract ministries print glossy, full-color tracts, while some have switched completely to e-tracts. A few publish on newsprint. The Free Tract Society is somewhere in the middle of the tract spectrum, with their two- and three-color offerings. Everything is produced in-house, using an offset press. Some plates have been used for years, and favorite tracts are printed again and again. The decision to use thin, sometimes yellowed or nearly transparent paper is purely economic. Brother Stephen Smalley, director of the Free Tract Society, says that sometimes paper is donated to the ministry because it has already yellowed. Other tracts have yellowed over time. Tracts ebb and flow in popularity. When Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” was released in 2004, the Free Tract Society was abuzz with the frenzy of spreading the word.
Anyone can be a tract author -- that’s the beauty of the form. All you need is something to say and a compelling voice. Pastors and preachers have authored tracts, as have workaday people who told their own tales of sin and redemption. One popular tract, Smalley notes, features a cover illustration of a fluffy just-hatched chick, clearly depicting the process of being born and inspiring people to become born again. Another, “The Big Question,” touches on this explicitly, asking readers if they’ve been born again, and then addressing the issue in several sections, each headlined with a catchy phrase in red ink, using a lot of capital letters and exclamation points.
My favorites are the scary ones, those with hellfire and damnation themes. One small, folded pamphlet features a cover that reads: “What you miss by being a Christian.” Inside, it declares, simply, “HELL” in giant, red capital letters.
I also like tracts composed in antiquated language, with awkwardly combined type styles and graphics. “Simple Plan of Salvation” by evangelist Alton Smith shows the author, a white-haired man in a tie and heavy, black-rimmed glasses, collaged next to an agonized, open-mouthed Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. Both figures stand out against a Bible open to the first page of Exodus. The caption? “ASK JESUS TO SAVE YOU HERE AND NOW.” The interior pages use seven different type styles (including Hebrew lettering) and offer a list of promises, a plan, a contract and finally a list of 50 necessary beliefs.
New tracts are designed and printed all the time, replacing outdated themes and bringing modernized language to Scripture. Some are retired on account of global politics. From a musty box in storage comes a stack of fragile newsprint tracts inherited from a ministry in North Carolina. Titled “Are Christians Sleeping While the Communists Plan to Take Over?,” the cover shows a man with a bulging sack labeled “communist literature,” smiling as he generously blankets the countryside. Expressing a fear of communist propaganda, the tract includes quotes about the medium and its persuasive power: “Voltaire, the French infidel said, ‘Twenty-volume folios will never make a revolution. It is the little pocket pamphlets that are to be feared.’ ”
THERE’S SOMETHING refreshing, sentimental and perhaps even slightly mystical about holding a short text that aims to be life-changing. I agree with Voltaire about the potential of pamphlets, that these collectible sound bites can sway public opinion more widely than prolix treatises. Once I decided to start my own tract revolution, I invited friends, acquaintances and strangers to submit ideas, manifestoes, illustrations and rants and employed a graphic designer, Roman Jaster, to create pages that were beautiful and readable.
The 62 tracts that resulted -- currently distributed by the Tract House -- offer a collection of concerns, solutions, stories, tactics, rule, and questions on subjects ranging from heirloom vegetables to capitalist pigs. Susan Lutz’s short story about Sunday dinner aims to persuade readers to get together once a week with friends and family for a meal. Jen Hofer writes passionately about the Keeper, a latex cup that eliminates the need for disposable tampons or pads. Federico Tobon’s “This Is Our Sword” presents the bicycle as “the ideal weapon for the transnational citizen.” Frau Fiber asks us to repair threadbare clothing instead of replacing it, while Dana Winrow tells us to eat raw food. Jeni McKenna’s “The Rules” implore, “Overdo it, don’t under do it, your life depends on this.”
Months after first visiting the Free Tract Society, I brought Brother Smalley a small stack of my own tracts. He looked at my collection as I had first looked at his -- as persuasive vehicles for the dissemination of ideas, with exciting headlines and catchy graphics. Before coming to work with the Free Tract Society, he’d had a career as a commercial printer. He smiled at some of the clip art as he politely flipped through the pile.
We shared an interest in the elegant efficiency of the printed word, in the romance of distributing pamphlets, and it didn’t seem to matter that our ideas of salvation were not on the same page. *
Lisa Anne Auerbach is a Los Angeles based artist and writer. Her current project, The Tract House, is on view in Baltimore until July 31 and can be accessed online at TheTractHouse.com.