This question has been asked of our members frequently enough in recent years to prompt us to print this friendly answer and short history.
We are an association of members of the Society of Friends with a special sense of unity in the concern for distribution of sound Quaker literature. Our roots run deep into the past.
Among the first generation of people called Quakers were men and women with this same concern. They published books and pamphlets telling what it meant to be called by this name. This material was carried by the traveling ministers and given to those who were reached by their preaching. During times of persecution other tracts were printed to explain the scriptural basis of Friends doctrines. Later these first concerns were continued with tracts about our testimonies: plain living and dealing, the abolition of slavery, the equality of women, and the principles of peace.
Then, in the early part of the last century, there arose a generation of birthright Quakers unacquainted with the fundamental principles and history of their religious society; due, in part, to a lack of Friends publications. Edwin B. Bronner commented on this when he wrote:
“Friends belonging to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting were receiving virtually no printed material from the yearly meeting in 1816. There were only two standing committees. . . and they did not send reports to all members . . . the yearly meeting did not send the “minutes” as we know them today, but prepared an “extract” which might run two or three pages in length …. There was no periodical. Friends did publish some books, but it is clear that a minimum of Quaker printed material reached Friends homes.”
Edwin B. Bronner, “Distributing the Printed Word: The Tract Association of Friends, 1816-1966,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume XCI, Number 3, July, 1967.
In this atmosphere, a number of Friends— “having convened in Philadelphia on the 15th of the first month, 1816, to consider the propriety of forming an Association, for the printing and distributing of moral and religious books and pamphlets such as explain and enforce the doctrines of the Christian religion; after deliberate consideration, united in the belief, that such an association, might be productive of much good.”—The Constitution of the Tract Association of Friends.
For nearly two hundred years following that initial meeting we have published pamphlets, essays and books on beliefs, concerns, history and practice; and, when the times required, we printed refutations of unsound doctrines. We continue to encourage Friends to compose material suitable for publication and to participate in our activities as members, if they feel rightly led by the Holy Spirit.
Since 1885 we have published the familiar Friends Calendar, with the months and days numbered in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and consistent Quaker practice. These calendars and all our non-profit literature continue to circulate in this country and overseas.
During the history of the Tract Association, the Society of Friends has been tested by war, tempered by separation and tried continuously in the fields of social change. However, if we look deeper, we see many issues unchanged. The foundation of our Christian faith remains unshaken. The desire for truth is unquenched. The need to spread the gospel of light is as timely today as when George Fox sounded the query, What sayest thou friend, is it inwardly from God?