The Weakness of Handing Out Free Tracts

The following is from a missionary from over 100 years ago in China.  In his book, A VOICE IN THE DARKNESS:  LESSONS FROM 60 YEARS IN ANCIENT CHINA, Griffith John shares the challenges of handing out free tracts, as well as his solution. 

This article is taken directly from a chapter in his book, A VOICE IN DARKNESS: 


All our tracts are sold.

In the early days of the missions in China, Christian books, both Scriptures and tracts, were given away gratuitously, but that system was abandoned many years ago.

The payment, however, represents only a part of the cost, and there is a loss on almost every tract. Some of our publications are self-supporting, and some bring in a slight profit, but they are very few. Still the payment amounts to a very substantial sum. In 1904, it was nearly £1,000.

Our goal is to have a depot well stocked with the best Christian and educational literature to be found in the Chinese language. I should like to answer two or three questions which are often asked with regard to tractwork in China.

In the first place, is there not much waste? You scatter your publications over the land by the millions and tens of millions, but is there not much waste?

Yes, there may be some waste, as men count waste, but to get satisfactory results in a vast country like China you must work on a large scale.

Moreover, in every department of Christian work there must be a good deal of what is called ‘apparent waste.’ It is not every sermon that results in conversion. If missionaries were to limit their sermons to one per week, or so, the work of conversion would make but little progress in China. To bring one soul to God, scores of sermons may have to be preached, nay, hundreds, and yet when one soul is saved no one speaks of the long and continuous preaching as waste.

The abundant preaching does bring forth fruit, and so it is with book circulation. In Central China, the missionary work is carried on on a magnificent scale, and we have abundant reason to rejoice in the fact. The daily preaching at a large number of chapels, and that for hours every day at each; the great healing work that is going on incessantly at the hospitals and dispensaries; the constant teaching in the schools; and the mighty stream of Christian literature which the Central China Religious Tract Society and the National Bible Society of Scotland have been pouring forth for so many years—these are the means employed in Central China for the evangelisation of the people.

The second question is this: Is it true that the missionary literature in China is practically worthless?

Is It true that it consists of works badly translated, carelessly written, and altogether unedited?

This is one of the charges brought against our Christian literature China. But I am glad to be able to say that it is not true. That there are worthless productions among the Christian publications in China, just as there are among those of this country and every other country, I am willing to admit. But that our Christian literature as a whole is worthless I most emphatically deny.

All the Tract Societies in China are anxious to turn out the best possible work, both as regards matter and style.

As to the Central China Tract Society, I can speak with authority. The greatest care is taken to secure perfection in both substance and form. We have an Examining Committee consisting of the most experienced missionaries in Central China. Every tract or book proposed for publication is sent to each member of the committee, and it cannot be adopted till it has been considered at a meeting called for the express purpose of discussing its merits and correcting its faults. No tract or book can be published with the Society’s funds which has not been examined and endorsed by the Examining Committee.

This will give our friends an idea of the importance we attach to the quality of our publications.

One of the best proofs I can give of the value of our tracts is the general esteem in which they are held by the missionaries themselves.

Our tracts are free from all denominational or sectarian traits, so that among our purchasers there are to be found missionaries of all nationalities, denominations, and societies. The testimonies to their value which we are constantly receiving from the missionaries from all parts of China are simply innumerable. But the best testimony from the missionaries is the generous help they have been giving us in the shape of subscriptions and the noble way they have come to our rescue in times of difficulty and distress. Among our best annual subscribers are the missionaries.

In 1892, a great fire broke out in the neighbourhood of our depot and converted our stock of books into ashes. No sooner did our loss become known, than the subscriptions began to pour in from all parts of China. The amount reached $2,725 before the end of the year, and nearly the whole of it came from the pockets of the missionaries; that is, from the pockets of the men who knew the character of the books and the good they were doing.

The third question is this: Is it not true that all Christian books in China, whether Scripture or tracts, are destroyed when they fall into the hands of the heathen? Is it not true that they are converted into soles for Chinese shoes, or consumed in the furnaces specially set up for burning lettered paper?

There are men in this country who say that they have been to China and that they can vouch for the fact that such is the fate of all missionary literature.

Well, I have been to China, too, and I can vouch for the fact that such is not the case.

In the early days of missions in China, Scriptures and tracts were given away gratuitously, and I am afraid that many of them were in those days committed to the furnace or destroyed in other ways. It is not at all likely that any of them were turned into soles for Chinese shoes. The reverence of the Chinese for printed paper would prevent that. But whatever may have been the fate of the Christian books and tracts in the early days, in the days of free distribution, we are perfectly sure that there is no wholesale destruction now.

The system of payment has produced a great change in this respect, and the gradual awakening of China during the past ten or twenty years has produced a still greater change. Some of our Scriptures and tracts are, no doubt, destroyed still, but very few, I think.

The Chinese will not readily destroy what they have given money for, and the day to treat foreign literature with contempt is gone.

We know that one governor applied, some time ago, for hundreds of copies of the New Testament to be distributed among the officials of his province in order that they might acquaint themselves with the facts and principles of the Christian religion. And we hear of one of the greatest viceroys in the Empire ordering the use of the New Testament in the Government schools.

The fact is, our Scriptures and tracts are now to be found everywhere and are generally respected and appreciated. Were the missionaries banished from the country tomorrow, our books would still be found in the homes of the people, ever testifying for Christ and leading men to God.

Let me now give two or three instances in connection with tract distribution, which will serve as illustrations and proofs of the fact that our Christian literature is being read, understood, and appreciated, and that in many instances it is blessed to the salvation of men.

One day, I was walking up and down the streets in China with some Gospels and tracts in my hands. I was stopped by a respectable-looking man who wanted to know if I had any new books. I showed him the books I had, one by one, and I had a great variety. Said he: “I have all these. Have you any new books?”

“Wait a bit,” I said; “here is an interesting little book, I don’t think you have read this.”

He looked at it and said, with a smile: “Yes, I have, I know all about it. It is a very good book.”

“What does it talk about?” I asked.

“Oh,” said he, “it talks about this,” pointing to his tongue. And he was right, for the little book was no other than a translation of Mark Guy Pearse’s “Terrible Red Dwarf.

That is a typical case. Such cases are frequently met with at the chapels and elsewhere.

More than twenty years ago a tract found its way into the basket of a waste-paper collector and was being carried away along with other written paper, to be consigned to the furnace.

A shopkeeper of the place, Mr. Chang, caught sight of it and rescued it from destruction. He took it home and read it carefully. Mr. Chang already possessed a New Testament which he had purchased some time before, but finding he could not understand it, he laid it aside.

The reading of the tract, however, threw an entirely new light on the Word of God, and led to his conversion. He joined the church connected with the Wesleyan Mission at Tehngan in 1886. In 1889, he had the joy of seeing nine persons baptised in his own house, four of them being members of his own family, and all of them brought to the Lord through his instrumentality.

He became an earnest worker for Christ.

For several years he was employed by the mission as an evangelist, and it was his great desire at one time to go to the Province of Hunan and devote himself to the evangelisation of that hostile province. He died a few years ago, a ripe Christian, highly esteemed, and greatly beloved by all who knew him.

A man named Tang, in the county of Tan-lin, in the Province of Sichuan, came sometime in the year 1885 into possession of a portion of the Scriptures and two tracts, one of which was the “Christian Trimetrical Classic.”

The books were casually looked at for a long time without light coming. At length Mr. Tang, who was then fifty years of age, set himself to learn the Trimetrical Classic by heart. At last the light came, and he and his wife began to worship God as best they could. In due time, both husband and wife were baptised. They then began to work for God with great earnestness.

Very soon, a little church sprang up around them, and for many years a large and flourishing work has been going on at the place, and all as the result of reading our Scriptures and tracts. I know that as early as March 1894, there were more than sixty members on the church roll at Tan-lin.

In 1893, a Confucian scholar named Yang Pao-Keng expressed a desire to have an interview with me. Of course, I gave him a cordial invitation. In the course of a most interesting conversation the following dialogue passed between us.

Q.—” You have been reading some of our Christian books, I am told?”

A.—” Yes, I have read quite a number of them.”

Q.—”What do you think of their teachings respecting God as compared with the teachings of the Sung Dynasty philosophers?”

A.—”The difference is very great. They speak of God as Law. You speak of God as a Being—personal, spiritual, and eternal.”

Q.—”Who is right?”

A.—”You are right, of course. There can be no law without a law-giver. What they call law is simply the order of the universe—the thought of God as manifested in nature. But where a thought is there a thinker must be.”

Q.—”You are a B.A. in the Confucian school and reverence the great Sage of China. Will you tell me what you think of Jesus as compared with Confucius?”

A.—”The difference is very great. Confucius was a mere man. Jesus is God. Confucius had no method of salvation. He taught men the duties of life and exhorted men to be virtuous. But he had no method of salvation, no way by which he might save men from sin and its consequences.”

Q.—”Will you tell me what you conceive the method of Jesus to be?”

A.—”In Christianity there are two doctrines of which Confucianism knows nothing—the doctrine of atonement and the doctrine of regeneration. Jesus saves by atoning for the sins of man and by changing the hearts of men. These are doctrines of which Confucianism knows nothing.”

Our conversation turned on other points of great interest, but what I have now repeated will suffice to give some idea of its nature. I invited him to the Sunday services, and on the following Sunday I was glad to see him present.

He continued to come regularly, and after some months of probation he was received into the church.

At my suggestion he wrote a tract in three chapters—one on gambling, one on the opium vice, and one on foot-binding. It is a capital tract and has had a wide circulation.

No sooner was Mr. Yang baptised, than his faith was put to the test. He had been employed by a wealthy Cantonese as a private tutor to his sons and was receiving a very good salary. His employer objected to his Christianity and told him that he must give up his religion or give up his situation.

Mr. Yang, without a moment’s hesitation, gave up his situation.

The interesting thing about Mr. Yang is that he is a distinguished scholar, and that, when he first visited me, he owed all his knowledge of the truth and his convictions with regard to it to the reading of Christian books. Up to that date he had never attended a Christian service, never listened to a single sermon, and never spoken to a foreign missionary.

Mr. Yang is still living and is usefully employed as a writer in the preparation of Christian books.

I could give many more such instances, but I have said enough, I hope, to show that the Tract Societies in China are among the brightest lights which are now shining in the midst of the darkness which is covering that dark land.

How many there are to whom our tracts have been thus blessed, eternity alone will reveal. But that they have been instrumental in leading many souls to Christ is a fact abundantly proved.

How many there are in China today who, though not connected with any Christian Church, know the truth and believe in it, it is impossible to say. There may be thousands; there may be tens of thousands.

Go where you will in China these days and you are sure to meet with people who know the truth to some extent, and this is to be ascribed in a very great measure to the widespread dissemination of Christian literature.

You can find the full ebook in the link below, or order a physical copy from Amazon.

A Voice in the Darkness: Lessons from 60 Years in Ancient China (eBook)

Dr. Eugene Bach is a known trouble-maker with an active imagination and sinful past. He has a PhD, but is not a real doctor, so please do not call for him during a medical emergency on an airplane when someone is having a heart attack. Eugene started working for Back to Jerusalem in the year 2000 after a backroom deal involving Chinese spies, the NRA, Swiss bankers, and a small group of Apostolic Christians that only baptize in Jesus’ name. He spends most of his time in closed countries attempting to topple governments by proclaiming the name of Jesus and not taking showers. From time-to-time he pretends to be a writer. He is not good at it, but everyone around him tries to humor him.

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