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The Australian Religious Tract Society

The Australian Religious Tract Society (RTS) was inaugurated in Sydney, NSW, on August 13, 1823 at the suggestion of the then Governor of the colony, Sir Thomas Brisbane.[1] It appears that this was not purely a colonial initiative, however, for a few months prior to Brisbane’s suggestion the Religious Tract Society in London (RTSL) had had their attention drawn to the colony of New South Wales and to its spiritual needs. Within 30 days of the formation of the RTS, the Rev Richard Hill received an unsolicited consignment of books from the RTSL in the hope he might extend the operations of the RTSL in the colony. So, within a month of its formation and not the ten months, it would have required to obtain stock from England, the RTS could begin its work.[2] The purpose of the society was the procuring and distribution of religious tracts ‘such as to inculcate evangelic sentiments.’ More expansively, its primary object was

to afford the means of cheap, useful, and pious Reading; that the poorer Classes of the Community, and the young People more especially, who may be able to read, may obtain some of the most instructive and important Lessons of Life at a very small Expense.[3]

Its governing committee consisted of the Reverends Richard Hill (Assistant Chaplain, Anglican), John Dunmore Lang (Presbyterian), Benjamin Carvosso (Wesleyan),[4] William Cowper (Secretary, Anglican) and three laymen James Chandler, Alexander Kenneth Mackenzie (Treasurer)[5] with George Williams[6] as Collector and Depositary.[7] William Cowper was a driving force of the society being its secretary for the first 16 years of its existence only relinquishing the role of secretary in 1839 when his eyesight began to fail.[8]

By 1826, the Society had obtained the support of the Governor as Patron, its funds had increased and some 62,882 tracts had been circulated during the year. The society was the beneficiary of support from ‘home’ through grants from the Tract Societies of London, Bristol and Dublin upon which the RTS had been modelled.[9] Initially, support for the society was strong and numerous ladies attended its annual meeting and this was a sufficiently novel occurrence that their attendance, which ‘enlivened the meeting with their presence’, was especially remarked upon.[10]

Committee reports mentioned numerous responses to the receipt of various tracts by members of the public which indicate what the RTS saw as desirable outcomes from its work:

… in the course of conversation he informed me that he had been a professed Atheist until within a few months, but that the perusal of a tract – the Dairyman’s Daughter, I believe, had been instrumental in awakening him from his own vain dreams. He wished to partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and afterwards he did so.[11]

Many instances of good, resulting from the circulation of your tracts, have occurred within the last year or two. Some are now united with Christian churches, who, but for these silent messengers, might have remained dead in sin. One old woman, between eighty and ninety years of age, discovered by a tract distributor, ignorant and indifferent, is now giving evidence of a saving change wrought in her heart by the Spirit of God.[12]

The nature of the tracts was elucidated in 1840 when it was reported that the RTS circulated ‘not only tracts containing portions of the word of God and narratives of wonderful effects produced by them in converting the most abandoned sinners, but the Society also circulated vast numbers of the Scriptures, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer and all the other illustrious reformers.’[13]

Every one of the society’s publications contained a distinct view of the sinner’s road to everlasting life, so that every individual into whose hands a copy might fall would find in it a full answer to the all-important question, What must I do to be saved? These publications too were adapted to all ranks, to all capacities; to the rich as well as to the poor; to the learned as well as to the ignorant.[14]

A popular tract “The Dairyman’s Daughter” was widely circulated

Given the nature of this literature distribution, with its clearly articulated commitment to ‘justification by faith alone in the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ’,[15] it is hardly surprising that the Roman Catholic community attacked their content. This Roman critique was responded to by an RTS supporter, the Presbyterian Rev James Fullerton. Fullerton rebutted the criticisms by saying ‘As he believed the Roman Catholics to be in error, he thought it a duty incumbent on him as a Christian, to use all means in his power to remove that error, not for any private motives but purely for the spiritual welfare of his Roman Catholic brethren.’[16]

The tracts were imported from England[17] having been commissioned by the RTSL where it had commenced in 1799.[18] The tracts produced by the society were not confined to English. By 1841, they had been printed in 86 different languages,[19] by 1847, 98 languages,[20] and by 1861 the RTSL published in 1,014 languages and dialects[21] and the RTSL annually published the numbers of publications sold and distributed. From the time of the foundation of the RTSL in 1799 until 1873, a total of around 1,490 million publications had been circulated with a distribution of 50 million annually. The NSW RTS, although with distribution figures of a much smaller quantum, also reported its distribution figures which are tabulated in the table below.

­­­­The society struggled to gain local supporters which, by 1842, numbered only 8 ministers and 31 members of Christian Churches in a population of 100,000 or so.[22]  The subscriptions in the table above indicate that there was never, apart perhaps for the mid-1850s, strong financial support for the RTS. Indeed, so poor was the support for the RTS, that no annual meeting of the society was held between 1844 and 1847. This lack of support led to the society being unable to pay for its stock of tracts from England and this meant it carried a debt of £35. By 1849, it was decided to hold a joint annual meeting with the NSW Auxiliary Bible Society. This was deemed advisable ‘because of the limited extent of their operations in this colony … the small number of subscribers belonging to each and the saving of expense, particularly in the printing departments that will be effected.’ It was realised that the objects of the societies were very similar, namely

the diffusion of scriptural truth for the illumination and conversion of the world; and also because the supporters of the one were in the great majority of cases the supporters of the other, while the public advocates of both almost always consisted of the same individuals.[23]

This was not an amalgamation of the two societies, as the management and operation of each society would remain separate, but they would publish a joint annual report and hold joint annual meetings.[24] As seen in the table below for 1849, the committees were identical. This arrangement only lasted the year with the societies resuming their previous practice of separate meetings and reports.[25]

The RTS also sought to decentralise its operations and by 1850 had established small depositories in various locations: ‘Mr Nutter, Queanbeyan; Mr Thompson, Bathurst; Mr Faux, Windsor; Rev Mr Mc Intyre, Maitland; and Mr Richardson, Redfern’.[26]

In 1851, under the vigorous secretaryship of James Comrie, the RTS had begun to advertise their Sydney depository in the newspapers which resulted in increased sales. Also, following the example of the home society, it had also begun the joint employment of a colporteur with the Bible Society.[27] The colporteur travelled throughout the colony and their reports were read at the annual meeting outlining their travels and stories of encouragement to believers in remote places.[28]

During 1852, colporteurs sought to extend the RTS’s influence among the influx of population due to the discovery of gold[29]  and by 1853, there were six of them travelling throughout the bush distributing the publications of both societies.[30] Ships that entered the harbour were visited and tracts distributed. The Rev Lancelot Threlkeld said that ‘during the last ten years he had circulated 52, 200. Scarcely a ship had entered the harbour, but he had supplied with tracts.’ [31]

Reverend Lancelot Threlkeld

The RTS did not just sell tracts and books but, because of the subscriptions of members, was able to give grants of literature to people like Threlkeld for them to distribute. As it told its members in 1856,

In addition to the large number of publications sold by your society throughout the year, there have been granted during the same period 47,670 books, tracts, and handbills, in English, French, German, Dutch, Swedish, Chinese, and other foreign languages, for distribution throughout this and all the neighbouring colonies-many of the islands of the Pacific have shared in the benefits with which these silent messengers of mercy are fraught, and the seamen on board the vessels frequenting our harbour from time to time have also been extensively, and in many instances willing recipients, of the blessings  which your bounty bestows.[32]

In 1854, branch depots for the sales of publications were opened at Parramatta, Maitland and Brisbane,[33] and the society was prospering with the sales from the depositories and through colporteurs. In that year, sales had increased by 25% on the previous year but donations and subscriptions, which apart from a few years in the 1850s were quite modest, were down some 57% which indicated the business side of the society was doing well but the RTS’s support by the Christian public was somewhat muted.[34] In 1855, the Bible Society was unable to continue the colporteur arrangement and the expenses fell entirely upon the RTS and so the number of colporteurs was reduced to two.[35] By 1857, the shared arrangement with the Bible Society was reinstituted but the costs involved made it a marginal proposition and consideration was given to discontinuing the employment of colporteurs altogether.[36]

In 1856, the society promulgated a new constitution which gave the society the formal title of the New South Wales Religious Tract and Book Society. In order to stock a greater variety of publications, it was permitted to distribute, in addition to the publications of the London Tract Society, those of the American Tract Society.[37] By 1862, the RTS further increased its range of publications by allowing the appointment of a committee to recommend publications for sale by the society.[38]

Over time, the stocked publications came to include those of the London Sunday-school Union, Dublin

George A Lloyd

Tract Society, the Stirling Tract Establishment, Nelson and Son, Gall and Inglis, Nisbet and Co., the Christian World Office, The Book Society, and the circulation of periodicals such as the Cottager and Artisan, Band of Hope, British Workman, Child’s Companion, Children’s Friend, Sabbath-School Messenger, Old Jonathan, Gospel Trumpet, and the British Messenger.[39]

While the Society had prosecuted its aims with some success in the 1850s, by 1856 it was in debt to the London Tract Society for £2,000 and it appealed to the Protestant Churches for assistance to liquidate this debt. It is possible that only through the generosity of those such as GA Lloyd, who made himself responsible for £900 on the society’s account with the RTSL, that the RTS could continue to function.[40] In 1857, the Secretary could report a doubling of sales which assisted in reducing some of the debt but the debt, amounting to £1,700 in 1860, was ‘paralysing its energies and circumscribing its usefulness’ [41] and continued to be a brake on the Societies’ activities.[42] A loan of £450 by several supporters allowed the society to provide a wider stock selection and sales were strong, but the reality was that without the ‘forbearance and liberal conduct’ of the London society, to whom most of the debt was owed, they would not have been able to survive.[43] The RTS simply did not have the local financial support to exercise its ministry without the financial assistance of its parent body and it was, in its own words, ‘in debt, and in danger’.[44] By 1865, the debt had been reduced to £850 which was a considerable improvement but it was still a brake on the Societies’ operations and would continue to prove difficult to reduce.[45]

Over time, the RTS was served by numerous philanthropic and Christian men in its governance. Initially, clergy were the leading members of its governance, but as the RTS matured lay Christian business men began to assume the major role in the RTS. Some members served for very long periods of time, such as George Allen, George A Lloyd and John Fairfax, who each served for more than 30 years. Below is a table of the names of those who served 10 years or more and indicates the number of years each one served.

Bible Hall Pitt, Sydney

In 1861, the Bible Society opened Bible Hall in New Pitt-street and the RTS moved all their stock to this location, but scandal lay ahead.[46]

It is with deep regret that your committee refer to the loss which has been sustained by your society during the past year through the unfaithful conduct of their late agent. To discountenance vice, and to deter others from similar offences, your committee were reluctantly constrained to prosecute Mr Joseph Morrison who was convicted, and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in Darlinghurst gaol, with hard labour. Your committee has taken such steps as to them appeared necessary to prevent similar defalcations in future, and have resolved not to employ any agent who cannot give such security as may be sufficient to protect our society from loss.[47]

Joseph Holloway Morrison, who had been assistant Depositor for a number of years, had succeeded Samuel Goold in 1859 as Depositor.[48] Morrison was paid £50 per annum by the Tract Society and 15% on all sales over the counter and 5% on the whole sales, the whole sales being considered to be the amount of £10 and upwards. In addition, he received £75 per annum with a 10% commission on all sales for the Bible Society.[49] In 1862, he was convicted of embezzlement of Society funds, both those of the RTS and the Bible Society, of up to £600.[50] During his trial, the RTS committee received some criticism for its lack of auditing of its Depositor. From the time of Morrison’s embezzlement, the Society required a substantial bond of £ 500 from any appointed depository.[51]

Morrison was not the end of difficulties for the RTS with its appointed Depositors. The RTS annual meeting was not held in 1866 due to the need to dismiss Charles Hickes, their replacement depositor, who had served since 1862. John Mailer was appointed in 1867 and proved a success, bringing much-needed stability to the work of the RTS which was no doubt to the great relief of the Society. He remained the depository until 1874.[52] The appointment of Mailer as Depositor and Edward Rennie, who was at the time chief clerk of the government audit office, to the RTS committee[53] ushered in a phase of increased financial oversight by the society. In the year following Mailer’s appointment, the RTS reported both increased sales and subscriptions.[54] Below is the list of those who acted as Depository for the RTS. [55]

The Jubilee meeting of the RTS was held in 1874 and it was noted that the year had brought the ‘largest sales of any year in its previous history’. The RTS attributed this not to any action on their part but perhaps to the year being one of prosperity throughout the colony. The following year, John Mailer the depository resigned and new arrangements were entered into for the supply of RTS publications. There were no further reports of the meetings of the RTS beyond 1874. In 1876, the depository was relocated to the premises of C E Fuller’s Stationer’s Hall and sales were on a strictly cash basis from this point onwards.[56] Fuller remained the agent for the RTS until 1892 after which a depository ceases to exist, or it is possible the depository relocated with the Bible Society and Charles Mihell was employed as the Depositor.[57]  The publications of the RTSL remained popular, imported directly from England and available from commercial bookshops. This availability and the difficulties of the economic depression of the 1890s were probably sufficient reason for the RTS to cease its work as a separate organisation.


Dr Paul F Cooper

Research Fellow

Christ College, Sydney

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper.  The Australian Religious Tract Society Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, October 17, 2017. Available at

[1] SMH, April 3, 1851, 3. Brisbane himself generous funded the RTS providing some £250 to purchase stock. Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), May 30, 1874, 703.

[2] SMH, November 10, 1860, 8.

[3] Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney NSW), October 9, 1823, 3.

[4] Benjamin Carvosso (29 September 1789 – 2 October 1854) was the first Wesleyan Minister to preach in Australia in 1820

[5]  He was a cashier at the Bank of New South Wales

[6] George Williams and his wife Mary (Hughes) arrived in New South Wales on the Broxbornebury as free settlers in 1814 with their ten year old son Vincent and two of Mary’s children from a previous marriage, Edward and Frederick Hunt. George was initially employed in Sydney as a cryer at the Supreme Court and then as a printer. In 1823 he worked as a collector for the Australian Religious Tract Society in Sydney and in 1824 for the Auxiliary Bible Society. [accessed 17/9/2017]

[7] Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), October 9, 1823, 3.

[8] SMH, April 3, 1851, 3; Cowper indicated this in 1839. The Sydney Herald (Sydney, NSW), September 30, 1839, 2. He was replaced as joint Secretary at the 1840 annual meeting. Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), September 24, 1840, 2.

[9] Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), September 16, 1826, 3.

[10] Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), September 16, 1826, 3.

[11]  The Colonist (Sydney, NSW), November 30, 1837, 3.    William Jones, The Jubilee Memorial of the Religious Tract Society (London: Religious Tract Society, 1850), 530.

[12] Jones, The Jubilee Memorial of the Religious Tract Society, 531.

[13] Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), September 24, 1840, 2.

[14] Sydney Herald (Sydney, NSW), November 26, 1841, 2.

[15] SMH, November 28, 1842, 2.

[16] Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser, September 24, 1840, 2.

[17] In years like 1846 the reason that so few tracts were distributed was that the stock was exhausted and supply from the parent society had not arrived. SMH, January 22, 1847, 2.

[18] Samuel Gosnell Green, The Story of the Religious Tract Society for one hundred years (London, The Religious Tract Society: 1899), 5.

[19] Sydney Herald (Sydney, NSW), November 26, 1841, 2.

[20] SMH, January 22, 1847, 2.

[21] SMH, October 30, 1861, 8.

[22] SMH, November 28, 1842, 2.

[23] SMH, March 14, 1849, 2.

[24] SMH, March 14, 1849, 2.

[25] SMH, February 27, 1850, 2.

[26] SMH, February 27, 1850, 2.

[27] SMH, March 2, 1852, 2.

[28] SMH, February 22, 1854, 2.

[29] SMH, March 1, 1853, 2.

[30] SMH, February 22, 1854, 2.

[31] SMH, March 1, 1853, 2; Niel Gunson, ‘Threlkeld, Lancelot Edward (1788–1859)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 22 September 2017.

[32] SMH, February 26, 1856, 5.

[33] SMH, May 29, 1855, 5.

[34] SMH, May 29, 1855, 5.

[35] Empire (Sydney, NSW), February 26, 1856, 4.

[36] SMH, November 11, 1857, 2.

[37]  Empire (Sydney, NSW), February 26, 1856, 4.

[38] SMH, October 28, 1862, 5.

[39] Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), May 30, 1874, 703.

[40] SMH, October 28, 1856, 5.

[41] SMH, November 11, 1857, 2.

[42] SMH, November 10, 1860, 8.

[43] It would appear there was also a bank debt as well. SMH, October 28, 1863, 5.

[44] SMH, October 28, 1863, 5.

[45] SMH, November 8, 1865, 5; the debt was £600 in 1867. Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), November 9, 1867, 7.

[46] SMH, October 30, 1861, 8.

[47] SMH, October 28, 1862, 5.

[48] Empire (Sydney, NSW), September 26, 1859, 1.

[49] SMH, April 30, 1862, 5.

[50] SMH, April 29, 1862, 5; May 3, 1862, 5; July 10, 1862, 2.

[51] SMH, April 8, 1862, 1.

[52] The reasons for Hickes’ dismissal, who held the position from 1862-1866, were not given. See Sands Directory 1866, 410. Sydney Mail (Sydney, NSW), November 9, 1867, 7; Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), May 30, 1874, 703; Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW), December 26, 1874, 35.

[53] In 1846 he joined the Audit Office, was appointed chief clerk in Jan. 1856, and Auditor-General of New South Wales in July 1883.

[54] SMH, December 4, 1868, 7.

[55] The date of the commencement of Hayward is uncertain. See the speech by G A Lloyd. SMH, May 27, 1874, 3.

[56] SMH, October 5, 1876, 2.

[57] Charles C Mihell was ‘Depository’ or Agent for the Bible Society for this period and it maybe that he had the same role for the RTS as all others before him had done. This is speculative as not evidence exists to confirm this possibility. Mihell was ‘Depository’ for the Bible Society for this period and it maybe that he had the same role for the RTS as all others before him had done. This is speculative as no evidence has been uncovered to confirm this possibility. SMH, July 1, 1893, 16; August 24, 1912, 13.The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (Sydney, NSW), October 15, 1892, 863. The Bible Society, however, changed it rules and no longer retained the position of depository. SMH, May 3, 1892, 5.

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