Mormon Etymology: Tracting

It is perhaps well known that we sometimes use language that isn’t readily comprehended by those outside of our faith. Some of that results from anachronism. For example, while some other Christians during the Second Great Awakening called the Lord’s Supper “the Sacrament” and called sacraments “ordinances” they generally outgrew the practice while we kept the terms. So too with words like “proselyting,” though now I think it is generally viewed as incorrect (proselytize is the correct verb). One curious example of Mormon vocabulary is the verb “to tract,” by which we mean to knock on people’s doors in order to proselytize.

Back in the day though, we actually meant to go out and leave religious tracts with people, after which the missionaries would return for a follow-up conversation. In the early twentieth century, the Church started sending young people on missions. It is clear that Church leaders were perennially frustrated with the lack of competency of these new adepts, however, their preferred evangalists—married dudes—were becoming harder and harder to come by. Long before the Church centralized mission training, a couple of regional mission presidents created a number of Missionary handbooks, perhaps to compensate.

These handbooks are invaluable resources for documenting not only missionary life, but several aspects of the lived religion. In one volume that was used in the 1930s, which I was lucky enough to acquire, I found a wonderful bit of miscellanea. The following image is a report sheet apparently used by the missionaries in Minnesota during this period:

The Missionary Guide associated with it includes several example patterns of effective tracting:

I’m not sure when the term fully lost the connotation of actually using tracts. Perhaps it was Mr. Brown. [Editorial addition: Readers should also check out Edje Jetter’s excellent post at the JI on this topic as well.]


  1. Interesting.

    I agree that Mr Brown is a likely candidate as marker of the change in meaning.

    Of possible interest: we’ve discussed the earlier etymology of ‘tracting’ at JI.

  2. Great bit of early 20th century Mormonalia!

    I like the franglish term we used in our mission — “porting.” We didn’t deliver tracts, we were knocking on doors (portes).

    It’s interesting to see that at least at the era of your example above, they had planned out tracts to deliver for as many as seven visits. That may have functioned roughly as the series of discussions did by giving the missionaries something specific to discuss on each visit, no?

  3. Edje, how could I have forgotten that awesome post! Everyone should click on that link…in fact, I’ll put a link in the post.

    Porting! I have to admit I much preferred “contacting.” And that is an interesting question reqgarding lessons. My understanding was that before the “Anderson Plan” those interested in the church generally studied for several months and up to a year before being asked to be baptized. Seven lessons would suggest less time if they followed the pseudo-stalking methodologies of some of their successors. That said, they included a lot of info in each of those visits in the outline. Perhaps each visit typically had content enough for weeks?

  4. In the early 1970s, we actually did distribute papers we called “ankeito”–questionnaires around a neighborhood, and then went back to collect them and talk to people about the questions and their responses. (My Japanese translator renders that word in Katakana, which suggests that it is not a Japanese word, but I can’t think of an English word which the kana might be mangling. But my dictionary provides an answer, in French: enquête. Now you see why understanding the Japanese using foreign words is such an adventure–they’ll usually assume that the foreign words are from some universal tongue that all Westerners speak)

    Anyway, the questionnaires had a series of questions about religion and the meaning of life and all that (as I recall), and we tried them a few times and didn’t have any success so gave it up. It would be interesting to see a copy, and to hear whether other missionaries from that period (or before) remember using them.

  5. Yes, but Mark, with your new understanding of the purpose of the circumflex, you can guess that the Old French word was enqueste –> inquest –> inquiry –> questionnaire.

    Sounds generally like the “push polls” of current politics, a little.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    The images aren’t showing up on my browser (safari).

    Is there a source for proselytize being the preferred verbal form? I remember T. Allen Lambert making a lengthy, impassioned case in favor of proselyte, although I don’t recall the details at all.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Oops, never mind, the images just magically appeared.

  8. We did give out ‘tracts’ in the 60s. I kinda liked it.__”Well, let me at least give you something to read”.____”Thank you’. The door closed quietly. A less rude goodby.
    Plus we got a #! (tracts handed out). Not bad when you got one discussion in a month, or one baptism in two years.

  9. John Mansfield says:

    “I’m not sure when the term fully lost the connotation of actually using tracts.”

    Sometime in the 90s I suppose it was, the Church stopped printing any tracts other than “The Testimony of Joseph Smith.” As a mid-80s missionary, I still had my collection of a couple dozen pamphlets. We sometimes tried to place them while contacting door to door, but mostly they were left with investigators as additional reading.

    On a recent split with missionaries (Well, not a split; that term has been outlawed; another word for your series, J.), I asked how they had come into contact with their current investigators, and they said “They all came from knocking doors.” It sounded as though “tracting” had finally slipped from the lingo for this mission.

  10. Mark Brown says:

    J., you can find another example of a mission report here. (Scroll down to page 8.) It is from 1899, and the missionaries account not only for the tracts they distributed, but also for something called ‘Dodgers’. I’d be interested to learn what that was.

    The other thing about this report that is interesting is that they kept track of how many people “refused entertainment”. Maybe people who turned down a missionary’s request for a meal got themselves on the short list for a foot-dusting.

  11. Left Field says:

    Whoa, hold on there, pardner! I must’ve missed the memo. The church doesn’t print tracts any more? No more Christ in America? No more Which Church is Right? No Plan of Salvation, Contributions of Joseph Smith, Church as Organized by Jesus Christ, What of the Mormons?, A Word of Wisdom, Jesus Christ: Savior and Mediator of Mankind, Purpose of Life, Why Stay Morally Clean, What the Mormons Think of Christ, or After Baptism, What? Not even 30 Minutes for your Family? And they don’t publish anything to replace them? I had no idea.

    About 20 years ago, I was a stake missionary, and a recent convert told me she didn’t have a copy of the Doctrine and Covenants. I figured if she didn’t have one, it must have been some horrible oversight on the part of the fulltime elders. I asked them if they had a copy they could give her, and they looked at me as if I was asking for a moon rock. “You don’t have copies you give to investigators?” They were dumbfounded. “Give investigators a Doctrine and Covenants? Why would we do that?” I dunno. Because it’s the Word of God?

    So if we don’t give them the scriptures, and we don’t have pamphlets any more, do investigators get anything to read?

  12. Mark B., there was a fad to try and survey people on the street in order to make contact in France while I served. Proselytizing FAIL.

    Kev, I think it relates to the indiscriminate transformation of nouns to verbs. If you do a news search, for example, the few returns for “proselyting” are Mormon, whereas there are thousands of returns for “proselytizing.”

    John, that is interesting. Splits have gone the way of “sticks”?

    Mark Brown, I love conference reports. Thanks for pointing to that. Miles walked. That would have been a lot in my mission. And I have no idea what a Dodger is, but I am sufficiently intrigued. I did a quick search and perhaps from B.H. Roberts’ autobiography, we have an answer:

    Palmer and I only had one day in which to notify the people of such a meeting. Dodgers were printed, and with a bucket of paste and an armful of notices of the meeting, we placarded the town, giving notice of the meeting.

  13. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Dodgers = dogs that evaded both my 3 ft umbrella and a sidearm rock.

  14. Thomas Parkin says:


    What I’d really love to see is a history of the Missionary Uniform – the white shirts, ties, haircuts and name badges. I have an idea that a lot of this formed as a reaction to hippies, but I really know nothing about it.

  15. Peter LLC says:

    do investigators get anything to read?


  16. Wikipedia on Dress Shirts says:

    Originally, in the Edwardian era, when the modern shirt emerged, all shirts were white. Gradually more colours were introduced, including blue, the most popular colour, particularly in lighter shades such as Wedgwood.

    So, the question is, as those “colours” were gradually introduced, did missionaries simply get stuck on white? Until it became a symbol? And mandatory?

    As to nametags, we (in 1973-75) had them, but we rarely wore them. And nobody–not our mission president, not the most zealous zone leaders–told us we had to wear them.

  17. John Mansfield says:

    The “miles walked” column in that mission report that Mark Brown pointed out reminded me of the segments from Spencer Kimball’s mission journal that were printed in BYU studies (link). The entries included a lot of notations of the mileage walked. For example:

    Wed. 25. Elder Peterson and I [assigned to do country tracting for several weeks] fixed up our grips and bot every necessary equipment in Jefferson City [in the center of Missouri]. We left Jef. City at 11:30 carrying our overcoats and grips weighing about 35 lbs. We walked about 12 miles, then as it was getting dark we began seeking entertainment. At House after house we were turned away. On, on, on, we dragged our tired limbs after walking another 3 mi. and having asked 12 times for a bed without success we were let in a house, not welcome tho. 15 mi. Very tired, sleepy, & hhungrry. No dinner, no supper.

    Lots of genuine, old-fashioned tracting, too, including from January 1915: “Tue. 26. Tracted alone, it being too cold for my companion. Very cold.”

  18. clarkgoble says:

    I think it relates to the indiscriminate transformation of nouns to verbs.

    I agree. There’s a term for this. Nouning.

  19. Mansfield, that is extraordinarily cool.

  20. You mean “verbing” Clark? Cool post J. I still remember handing out “Which Church is Right?” (Mark Peterson?) and “The Plan of Salvation” (John Longden?) Pamphleteering has always been a Mormon strong point. I wonder what percentage of them were actually read.

  21. Researcher says:

    The Plan of Salvation. John Hamilton Morgan. Southern States Mission President, 1878-1888.

  22. John Mansfield says:

    Here’s a site I didn’t know about before today: Is the internet great or what? (Reminds me of the time I was looking up something about hantavirus and discovered there is a site.)

  23. There are a few pamphlets still being printed by the church (beside Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the missionary lesson pamphlets) that could be distributed by missionaries, including Cornerstones of a Happy Home, Being a Righteous Husband and Father, Pure Religion, The Purpose of Life, Pursuit of Excellence, Repentance Brings Forgiveness, and The Family: A Proclamation to the World.

  24. @John Mansfield FTW!

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