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Mormon Tracting

By: Edje Jeter - July 21, 2008

As I understand it, when a Mormon speaks of tracting, they mean, “to travel from door to door attempting to present a message.” The OED lists ten variations for the verb tract, none of which match the Mormon version. (The one that says “to lengthen out, prolong, protract (time)…” seems related, however.) What gives? It’s not like Mormons invented the art or are the only ones currently practicing it. The earliest use of tract in the Mormon missionary sense (to my knowledge) comes—fittingly—from Dan Jones. In an 1855 Millennial Star piece, he described missionaries in Wales as having “a disposition to honour their religion…and to disseminate it by tracting and testifying from house to house.” [1]

One William Budge contributed a letter on the same page as Elder Jones in 1855 and then, twenty-five years later in June 1880, as President of the British Mission, received an Elder Charles Stayner’s report that “a tract society has lately been organized here…and a system of ‘tracting’ the town will soon be adopted.” [2] The scare quotes suggest that tracting had not established itself in the vernacular; I have identified no instances of its use between 1855 and 1880. [3] Later that same year the Millennial Star printed a farewell article from President Budge lauding “a system of ‘tracting’ with the pamphlets” and an article celebrating an Elder John Nicholson as the author of three tracts “so well known among the Saints engaged in ‘tracting.'” [4] The Deseret News picked up the Nicholson piece so, by the fall of 1880, tracting had begun appearing in the premier Mormon English-language periodicals of America and of Europe. [5]

Tracting achieved greater maturity when, in January of 1883 missionaries and leaders held a meeting in London “at which the question of Tracts & Tracting was freely discused.” [6] The Elders resolved to petition the church for tracts rather than continue paying for them themselves; the church agreed. [7] The Deseret News enthusiastically described the new program, acknowledged former President Budge’s role in developing it, and reiterated the Millennial Star‘s call for “the immediate organization of tract societies in the branches, the sisters as well as the brethren to take part, with a regular and understood system of operations.” [8]

Elder Orson F. Whitney, who attended the January meeting, described tracting as an effort “to more thoroughly utilize the wet winter months.” [9] Two years later, Apostle John H. Smith, who had presided at the meeting, described counseling with the Elders about “the best method to reach the people,” seeking permission from Salt Lake, and then implementing “a system of tract distribution” that “has been followed systematically from that day to this.” [10] A further sign of tracting’s institutional maturation came in 1890 when the Millennial Star published an editorial attempting to refocus tracting energies: [11]

Tracts have their field of usefulness, but they should not be made to take the place of the personal labors of Elders—in other words, a hobby should not be made of tracting. We fear that too much importance is attached to the number distributed, rather than to the good done by them.

Formal tracting grew out of the British Mission’s approach to approximate stasis (relative to its earlier heyday). As the number of baptisms declined, “gleaning” missionaries needed process-oriented techniques suitable for proselyting among people unlikely to immediately accept the gospel. [12] The institutionalization of tracting solidified a role for the word tracting in Mormon speech—even though alternate formulations, such distributing tracts, continued to be popular.

The first instance of tracting from a missionary outside the British Mission (that I have located) comes from an Elder Alma Greenwood in New Zealand. On 1883 Jan 27—just three weeks after the meeting in London and thus not influenced thereby—he recorded that “We tracted nearly every house in town.” [13] However, if the sample of diaries in the “Mormon Missionary Diaries” database reflects overall usage trends, tracting did not become ubiquitous until the late 1890s. [14]

The meaning of tracting has changed over the years. In present-day usage the tract has mostly disappeared from tracting; that is, though missionaries still use pamphlets, distributing them is, at best, a secondary purpose in tracting. By contrast, many of the earliest uses indicated tract distribution exclusively and distinguished it from “visiting,” “canvassing,” “giving out an appointment,” and so on. With the different denotation came different constructions. 19th century missionaries frequently specified “systematic” or “house to house” tracting, whereas both ideas are implied in the present-day usage. Further, missionaries nowadays only tract multi-dwelling entities like streets or subdivisions or apartment complexes because tracting implies going from dwelling to dwelling. Their earlier counterparts could tract a whole town or an individual house.

I don’t know when the shift in meaning occurred. I do know that when I have gone tracting I felt very, very Mormon. In a sense, tracting has come back in the form of the pass-along card distributed, as before, by both members and missionaries, and pointing to a text on the web. My great question now is, “What do the Jehovah’s Witnesses call what they do?”

____________

[1] Emphasis in original. Dan Jones, Home Correspondence,” letter to President Richards, 1855 Jul, “Udgorn Seion” Office, Swansea, Wales, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, vol. 17, no. 34 (1855 Aug 25), p. 538-539.

[2] Charles W. Stayner, letter to William Budge, “Report from Nottingham Conference,”dated 1880 Jun 18, in the “Correspondence” section, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, vol. 42, no. 26 (1880 Jun 28), p. 412-413.

[3] I used only computerized searches of the following databases: BYU’s “Mormon Publications: Nineteenth Century” (MPNC), BYU’s “Mormon Missionary Diaries” (MMD, and the University of Utah’s “Utah Digital Newspapers” (UDN). There are overlaps among the three collections. I have no quantitative estimate of the accuracy of the searches; I encountered multiple false positives and false negatives. I only searched for obvious verb forms—“tracted,” “tracting,” and their spelling variants—to avoid trying to distinguish “tract” the noun and “tract” the verb.

[4] William Budge, “A Few More Parting Words,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millenial Star, vol. 42, no. 45 (1880 Nov 08), p. 713. No author listed, “Returned Home,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millenial Star, vol. 42, no. 43 (1880 Oct 25), p. 683.

[5] No author listed, “‘Star’ Items,” Deseret News, 1880 Nov 24, p. 6. (Stored under “Editorials” in the UDN database.) Other instances followed in the Millennial Star: “Abstract of Correspondence,” vol. 43, no. 6 (1881 Feb 07), p. 90-91; George Stringfellow, “Report from Nottingham,” 1881 Jul 30, “Correspondence,” vol. 43, no. 33 (1881 Aug 15), p. 524-525; William Coleby, “Minutes of the Norwich Conference,” vol. 44, no. 18 (1882 May 01), p. 279.

[6] Ephraim Nye, diary, entry for 1883 Jan 08. Nye records that Apostle and mission president John Henry Smith, Elder Orson F. Whitney, and sixteen “Elders from Utah” were present. Elder Nye’s diary is here. It’s not clear exactly when or how Nye prepared this manuscript; the latest notations are from 1896.

[7] John Taylor, extract of letter from President John Taylor to President J.H. Smith, 1883 Feb 12, “Abstract of Correspondence,” “Distribution of Tracts Encouraged by President Taylor…,” Millennial Star, vol. 45, no. 12 (1883 Mar 19), p. 189-190: “…believing with you and the brethren who have written, that it would be a proper thing to issue a series of tracts for distribution, we have decided to grant you the privilege. The details we shall leave with you and the brethren with who you may see fit to counsel, as also we commit entirely to your good judgment.”

[8] No author listed, “The Ministry Abroad,” Deseret News, 1883 Apr 11, p. 5. The DN article responds to “The Work of the Ministry,” Millennial Star, vol. 45, no. 12 (1883 Mar 19), p. 185-187.

[9] Orson F. Whitney, “Interesting Letter from Elder O. F. Whitney,” dated 1883 Feb 24, Deseret News, 1883 Mar 28, p. 6.

[10] John Henry Smith, April 6th, 1885, Journal of Discourses, 26:174.

[11] J.E.C., “Tracting,” Millennial Star, vol., 52, no. 48 (1890 Dec 01), p. 761-762.

[12] I cite no authority for my description of the British Mission’s baptismal arc other than my own impressions—though the Orson F. Whitney piece cited above suggests obliquely that declining baptisms prompted the move to systematic tracting.

[13] Elder Greenwood’s journal is here.

[14] About 80% of missionaries with diaries in the MMD who started their mission in 1898 or later returned at least one hit for a variant of tracting for at least one of the volumes of their diary. About 40% of diarists in the MMD who started between 1880 and 1898 (not inclusive) generated at least one hit. Reasons why the MMD sample might not be reflective of actual, overall usage include diary selection bias (they were not chosen randomly), insufficient sample size, diarists saying but not writing tracting, and search errors (both false positives and false negatives). According to the “About” page, the MMD includes journals from 220 diarists in 575 volumes, written between 1832 and the 1960s. However, as of July 2008, it only provides access to 379 volumes from 115 diarists. The search engine returns a “hit” for every volume that contains the search word. There were 16 hits for “tracked” and 75 for “tracted,” along with 13 and 102 for “tracking” and “tracting,” respectively. There were no hits for trackting, trackted, trakting, or trakted. The search engine does not distinguish words split by a line break and whole words. Thus, “contracted,” written as “con-,” line break, “tracted,” will return a hit for “tracted.” I did not estimate the number of times this occurred; my impression is that it was relatively few (for example, 3 out of 34 for the 1832-1880 diaries). The diaries in the MMD are not machine-read; they were typed by students, so OCR errors are unlikely—though transcription errors are possible.



34 Comments

  1. Some of the missionaries you name are very well known — John Nicholson, especially, was a frequent speaker and publisher of mission-themed speeches after his mission. I suspect the transmission of mission slang from one generation of elders to another is the primary reason for the widespread adoption of that particular Mormonism, but I wonder whether speakers like Nicholson wouldn’t have had an influence in spreading the term to the general non-missionary Mormon population?

    In the Geneva mission we used the franglais term “porting” — “dooring” — instead of tracting.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 21, 2008 @ 8:59 am

  2. Fascinating stuff. The only thing I could add is that in my mission in the Baltic States we used the term “harvesting,” I presume to put a more positive spin on it and remind us that the field is white.

    It would be interesting to do a survey to find out what slang different missions use for tracting. I like the ring of porting, and I know that in one of my friends’ missions in Puerto Rico they called it toking.

    Comment by austin s — July 21, 2008 @ 9:33 am

  3. Here’s the second entry for “tract” from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

    “little book,” 1432, probably a shortened form of L. tractatus “a handling, treatise, treatment,” from tractare “to handle” (see treat). Not in any other language, according to OED.

    Comment by Dave — July 21, 2008 @ 9:36 am

  4. Interesting analysis, Edje. I don’t have much to contribute, other than to add that the JWs I know call their door-to-door proselytizing “canvassing.”

    Comment by Christopher — July 21, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  5. Interesting post. I have always been fascinated by the fact that in our internal, Mormon discourse we always use the word “proselyting.” In most other arenas, especially in scholarly work, the preferred term is “proselytizing.” I have no clue why this divide exists, but Edje’s post brought it to mind.

    Comment by SC Taysom — July 21, 2008 @ 11:03 am

  6. We called it “housing” in Japan. Giving out a tract was the primary event, although rather than having any doctrinal content our tracts were adverts for our English classes.

    Comment by DCL — July 21, 2008 @ 11:15 am

  7. Ardis: I wasn’t aware of Elder Nicholson’s role; Elder Greenwood seems to have fit that general pattern—he was a prominent teacher and contributed many articles to multiple newspapers.

    Christopher: Thanks for the Jehovah’s Witness report. In many of the diaries I examined, “canvassing” played the role now occupied by “tracting,” that is, as the inclusive, house-to-house proselyting catch-all, of which “tracting” was a sub-specialty.

    Comment by Edje — July 21, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  8. Was it President Hinkley who said “we are no longer a tracting church”?

    Comment by PJD — July 21, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

  9. SC Taysom: Ha! A thousand points for reading the parts of my post that were cut before I even logged on to JI. “Proselyte” and “heft” were part of an earlier draft:

    “First up: hefting. It’s not really a Mormon word, but Mormons keep it from dying since the Eight Witnesses claimed to “have seen and hefted” the gold plates. In Webster’s 1828 dictionary, heft is a noun, but the second definition includes an aside: “This use is common in popular language in America. And we sometimes hear it used as a verb, as, to heft, to lift for the purpose of feeling or judging of the weight.” Thus, early Mormons did their part as Americans to weird the language through verbing.

    “The second word is proselyte as an intransitive verb, which the OED presents as “to make, or seek to make, proselytes or religious converts; to proselytize.” Every time I’ve used it in a non-Mormon context, someone has “corrected” me, saying proselytize is preferred. The OED’s dates range from 1799 to 1996, so proselyting can’t be an exclusively Mormon sport.”

    I have been so consistently “corrected” on proselyte/proselytize that I was surprised to find two centuries worth of support for proselyte in the OED. I think I’m going to ditch the “ize.”

    Comment by Edje — July 21, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

  10. All: Non-English versions of “tracting” sounds like an interesting collection. So far we have porting (Ardis, was it used as a conjugated verb?), toking, and housing. In my corner of Brazil we “clapped” (literally, “hit palms”) since knocking on the door as in the US was considered rude. “Hitting (knocking) doors” also had some currency, despite its complete disconnect from what we actually did. Are there others?

    DCL: Thanks for sharing the info from Japan. I focused on the change in “tracting” over time but I bet the change from mission to mission would also be interesting (and would require me to modify the paragraph about what the “current” usage is).

    Comment by Edje — July 21, 2008 @ 2:41 pm

  11. PJD: I’m not familiar with that quote. There was a time in 1996 when I would have been thrilled to hear it, however.

    Comment by Edje — July 21, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

  12. Regarding other names for tracting … in Arizona, we called it “wasting time.” During my two years, I didn’t knock on a single door that hadn’t previously been knocked on by a Mormon missionary. :)

    Comment by Christopher — July 21, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  13. Edje, I can only think of it in the participle form — “let’s play missionary baseball while we’re porting” or “I’d rather live in the mission home and have to see the president every day rather than go porting one more afternoon” or “When God says he has never and will never reveal the punishment meted out to sons of perdition, he must have been speaking of porting.”

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 21, 2008 @ 3:18 pm

  14. I had a similar experience to Ardis in my French speaking misison. We never called it “tracting.”

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 21, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

  15. …I think it was a nature derivitization of the French, “porte a porte,” which means “door to door.”

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 21, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

  16. I’m searching my brain for the term used in my West German mission. We certainly did enough of it!

    I’m fairly certain we said “go door to door” (“von Tür zu Tür gehen” or simply “Tür zu Tür”, abbreviated “TzT” on the yellow missionary schedules.)

    So, in English: “Let’s tract today.”

    In German: “Heute gehen wir von Tür zu Tür.” (Today we’ll go door to door. And note that I may be using the wrong form of “zu.”)

    On the other hand, German elegantly translates the verb “to proselyte/proselytize” as “missionieren.”

    Comment by Researcher — July 21, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

  17. Bert Wilson’s article on missionary folklore mentions “self-torture” and “bonking on doors.” I’ve also heard of “toking” doors.

    Comment by Justin — July 21, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

  18. Thanks, Ardis, J., Researcher, and Justin.

    I can’t help but imagine that “bonking” and “toking” have occasionally raised eyebrows when heard out of context.

    I wonder if missionaries who spend most of their tracting at apartment building intercoms will/have already change the name to “buzzing” or other somesuch.

    Comment by Edje — July 21, 2008 @ 7:09 pm

  19. We did plenty of buzzing intercoms, but I don’t recall that we had a separate term for it. Perhaps the elders did.

    Comment by Researcher — July 21, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

  20. A plausible Germanization of the verb “to tract” is traktieren, which I heard used many times, including as part of door approaches. Unfortunately, traktieren is already a German verb, and it means “maltreat, annoy, torment.”

    Comment by Jonathan Green — July 22, 2008 @ 12:33 am

  21. Heiliger Bimbam, Batman! “Hello. We’re in your neighborhood tormenting people with a message about how families can be together forever….”

    Comment by Edje — July 22, 2008 @ 6:21 am

  22. I nominate the combination of comments 20 and 21 for a Niblet of Special Merit.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 22, 2008 @ 8:05 am

  23. A little late, perhaps, but it might be worth noting that B.H. Roberts wrote a pamphlet for missionaries called “On Tracting.” Written in 1924, it presents a systematic approach to tracting.

    Comment by Christopher — July 22, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

  24. I happen to be reading through Seymour B. Young’s diary and just came across this February 21, 1921 entry, which seems pertinent:

    …Also set in motion with the Presidency of the stake and our Seventies Quorums of Weber Stake the prosciliting movement to be carried on by the president and members of the Seventies Quorums under the direction of the Presidency of Weber Stake, for the confersion of non-members of teh church residing in the wards of that stake. This propaganda is for the non-members of the church only and does not allow of visiting the members of the church in teh capacity of the teachers. This service is to be conducted in every respect just the same as the missionary service is conducted in the foreign missions of the church. Tracts will be furnished these missionaries which they will distribute free of cost to those outsiders whom they visite in the mission labors by these missionaries.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 23, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

  25. “prosciliting”?

    Doesn’t he mean “proscilitizing”?

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 23, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

  26. Surely he does, but Seymour wasn’t the best speller in the world. There, but by the grace of God, go I.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 23, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

  27. /feeling small/ That was supposed to be funny — noting the “proselyting/proselytizing” thing we talked about the other day, as if I hadn’t noticed the misspelling … /shrinking away/

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 23, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

  28. I caught that, but went for feigned modesty…/shrinks away with you/

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 23, 2008 @ 5:50 pm

  29. Shrink not, Ardis, I caught it…I laughed silently to myself at my desk.

    Comment by Jared T — July 23, 2008 @ 5:50 pm

  30. Christopher: I saw the Roberts piece but didn’t look at it because it came so (relatively) late for the purposes of this post. I’ll have to give it a look.

    J.: Thanks for the Young quote. Is there, perchance, a comphrehensive study of missionary techniques through time and location?

    25-29: Enough with the slinking already. Rather than “not the best speller,” I prefer to of Seymour as “an innovative orthographer,” which covers his hand-writing at no extra-charge.

    Comment by Edje — July 23, 2008 @ 10:09 pm

  31. edje, The only thing I was able to find was this statement from Pres. Hinckley “the most persuasive gospel tract is the exemplary life of a faithful Latter-day Saint”
    I have a friend, however, that quoted Pres. Hinckley in a meeting where he stated “We shouldn’t be a tracting church, but one in which people see our good works and want to know more about us”

    Either way….Maybe missionaries would have better results through rendered service than tracting.

    Comment by PJD — July 25, 2008 @ 6:00 pm

  32. In Spain we said ‘toking’ a lot. It came from ‘tocando la puerta,’ i.e., knocking.

    Comment by Adam Greenwood — January 8, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

  33. You all realize that the word “tracting” is not a word at all, right? Mormons made it up and its meaning. You can call it anything you like but the reason people in other religions don’t use it is because it is not a word. Secondly, “proselyting” does not make sense in the context that Mormons are using it. Someone was wondering why people say proselytizing, its because that is the act that you are doing. Proselyte is some who has been converted so if you are proselyting you would be turning into a proselyte. The correct word to use, then, would be proselytize.

    Comment by Elder John — February 24, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

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