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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. 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. 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.
Its governing committee consisted of the Reverends Richard Hill (Assistant Chaplain, Anglican), John Dunmore Lang (Presbyterian), Benjamin Carvosso (Wesleyan), William Cowper (Secretary, Anglican) and three laymen James Chandler, Alexander Kenneth Mackenzie (Treasurer) with George Williams as Collector and Depositary. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.