United Society For Christian Literature (Religious Tract Society)
Name of creator(s): Religious Tract Society
Administrative/Biographical history: The Religious Tract Society (RTS) was founded in 1799 to print and distribute religious tracts among those who with, in the words of the Proceedings of the first twenty years, 'little leisure and less inclination to peruse entire volumes might thus be furnished with agreeable and useful employment and eventually be led to an acquaintance with the state of their own hearts and a knowledge of Salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ'. The founders of the Society were drawn from the same group of evangelicals who had earlier set up the London Missionary Society and were later to found the British and Foreign Bible Society, in the realization that more might be achieved through co-operation between denominations than by individual denominational efforts. From its earliest years the Society concerned itself not only with the distribution of tracts in Britain but with similar work in continental Europe, in the British colonies, and in the many countries of the world where British missionary societies were active. By 1848 the RTS was operating, directly or indirectly, in China, Singapore, Borneo, Thailand, Burma, India, Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand, the South Pacific islands, Africa, Madagascar, the West Indies, the United States, Canada, most European countries, and the countries of the Near and Middle East.
Towards the end of 1857 representatives of four British missionary societies working in India - the Baptist Missionary Society, the Church Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society and the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society - put forward proposals for a new society, to be named the Christian Vernacular Education Society for India. The proposers did not, according to its First Annual Report, intend the new society to compete with 'existing educational establishments which employ the English language and literature and which are chiefly attractive to the higher classes of Hindu youth ... but rather to reach the village populations, and the masses of the lower orders in towns throughout the country, exclusively through the vernacular of each district'. The new society was formally instituted in May 1858 as a memorial to the Indian Mutiny. John Murdoch was appointed 'Representative and Travelling Secretary in India'. In 1891 the name of the Society was changed to the Christian Literature Society for India and in 1923 the words 'and Africa' were added when the Society extended its work to that continent.
The Christian Literature Society for China had a complex genesis. It originated as a School and Text Book Committee of the China Missionary Conference in 1877, developing into the Chinese Book and Tract Society in Glasgow in 1884 and forming the Society for the Diffusion of Christian and General Knowledge (SDCGK) among the Chinese in 1887. It was supported by the Christian Literature Society for China, organised in 1892 to succeed the Chinese Book and Tract Society. In 1906 the SDCGK changed its name to the Christian Literature Society for China.
The United Society for Christian Literature (USCL) was formed in 1935 when the Religious Tract Society and the Christian Literature Society for India and Africa merged. The RTS China kept its old title in China, with USCL as a sub-title. In 1941 the London Committee and in 1942 the Scottish Committee organising support for the Christian Literature Society for China were incorporated. Also, in 1941, there was a change of imprint to Lutterworth Press for all RTS publications intended for the home market. The change of name was intended to honour John Wycliffe who was Rector of Lutterworth from 1374 to 1384.
For further information see William Jones, The Jubilee Memorial of the Religious Tract Society (London, 1850); S G Green, The Story of the Religious Tract Society (London, 1899); G Hewitt, Let the People Read (London, 1949), the last of which surveys the work of all three societies.
Custodial history: In 1941 the offices and warehouse of the USCL were burnt out. Some minute books had been moved to Horley in a partial evacuation of the offices in 1939, but many of the records stored in London were either totally destroyed or very badly damaged. Very little original correspondence has survived. Much of the book stock was also destroyed.
Immediate source of acquisition: The surviving records of the UCSL and its predecessors to 1953 were deposited in the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1982. A second deposit of additional papers was made in 1988 (UCSL Add).
CONTENT AND STRUCTURE
Scope and content/abstract: Records, c1725, 1799-1986, of the United Society for Christian Literature (USCL) and its predecessors, including the Religious Tract Society, comprise:
Executive Committee minutes for the RTS, 1799-1935 (some gaps) (Ref: USCL 1-113), continued under the USCL, 1935-1953 (Ref: USCL 113-122), and other minutes, including copyright, finance, and local associations, for the RTS, 1806-1935, and USCL, 1935-1972 (Ref: USCL 123-149, USCL Add 6, 15, 19-22);
copies of outgoing RTS letters, 1824-1889 (Ref: USCL 150-195); miscellaneous correspondence of the RTS, 1824-1847 (Ref: USCL Add 23-26);
annual reports for the RTS, 1820-1935 (many gaps) (Ref: USCL 311-336, USCL Add 34), USCL, 1935-1962 (Ref: USCL 337-357, USCL/S 69-72, 99-103, USCL Add 38), and RTS (China), continued under the USCL, 1884-1947 (Ref: USCL 366-376);
ledgers and accounts, 1836-1952 (Ref: USCL 196-231);
papers of the RTS, succeeded by the USCL, relating to copyright, 1825-1835 (Ref: USCL Add 1-2); reports of sub-committees on anti-popery, 1839, and new warehouses, 1844 (Ref: USCL Add 3-4); salaries books, 1851-1938 (Ref: USCL Add 5); letters, report and pamphlet relating to the Assam mission, India, 1857-1859 (Ref: USCL Add 7); legacies book, 1911-1986 (Ref: USCL Add 11); USCL register of members, 1946-1963, also including declarations of employee names, 1948-1972 (Ref: USCL Add 16); USCL papers concerning premises in Lusaka, Rhodesia, 1949-1955 (Ref: USCL Add 17); reports on USCL officials' visits to India and Ceylon, Northern Rhodesia, and Zambia, 1950-1969 (Ref: USCL Add 18); papers documenting USCL history, 1927-1976 and undated, including notes, chronology, printed material, and photographs, including the fire damage of 1941 (Ref: USCL Add 64-71);
RTS and USCL printed tracts, c1920-c1950 (Ref: USCL 400-401); annotated listings of RTS publications, 1842-1859 (Ref: USCL Add 39); RTS publications, 1822-1934 and undated (Ref: USCL Add 41-57); USCL publications, 1935-1962 and undated (Ref: USCL Add 57-62); miscellaneous publications, c1725, 1816-1960, including some on the work of the RTS but also including other publications, some by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (Ref: USCL 377-399, USCL Add 40, 63).There are also records, 1858-1950, of the Christian Literature Society (CLS) for India (and Africa) and its predecessor; and records, 1885-1977, of the UCSL (Scotland) and its predecessors.
System of arrangement: The main groups comprise records of the Religious Tract Society/United Society for Christian Literature; Christian Vernacular Education Society (CVES) for India, later Christian Society for Literature (CSL) for India (and Africa); Annual Reports (various societies); miscellaneous publications; tracts; and records of Scottish Committees (Ref: USCL/S). The records are divided between the main deposit (Ref: USCL) and the later deposit (Ref: USCL Add).
ACCESS AND USE
Language: Mainly English; some Chinese, Nepali and Tamil.
Conditions governing access: Unrestricted.
Conditions governing reproduction: Copyright holder: USCL/Feed the Minds. No publication without written permission. Apply to archivist in the first instance.
Finding aids: Unpublished handlist. Some items (RTS/USCL minutes, correspondence, ledgers and accounts, and annual reports) on database. Descriptions of the two sub-fonds, records of the Christian Literature Society (CLS) for India (and Africa) (Ref: USCL/CSLI) and of the UCSL (Scotland) (Ref: USCL/S), are also available online.
Copies: Available in microfiche edition published by IDC.
Archivist's note: Compiled by Rachel Kemsley as part of the RSLP AIM25 project.
Date(s) of descriptions: June 2002.