'Having, in the course of my reading, met with many excellent sayings of our dying Friends, that afforded me much satisfaction of mind, I have collected some of them together for the benefit of others: knowing that usually the words of dying persons make deeper impression on the minds of men, than words spoken at other times.'
Tomkins acknowledges that he is bound to give some account of his subjects' lives as well as of their deaths but stresses that his purpose in this is not to 'exalt men but to exalt the great God, and his grace in Christ Jesus, by which they were what they were.' He was building on a tradition of collections of dying sayings which were popular in the 17th century and later, especially those relating to children and young people. Piety Promoted found a wide audience and eventually appeared in eleven parts, each of which was reprinted several times.
|Title page of revised edition by John Kendal|
The work was carried on by several editors over the years. Tomkins published three parts from 1701 to 1706 and his successor John Field another three from 1711 to 1728, followed by John Bell who published the seventh part in 1740. Thomas Wagstaffe brought out two more parts in 1774 and 1796 then Joseph Gurney Bevan put together the tenth part in 1810 which includes a helpful 'historical account of the preceding parts or volumes and of their several compilers and editors.' Finally in 1829 the eleventh part of Piety Promoted appeared compiled by Josiah Forster.
Not only were these books popular, they were approved by the Quaker establishment and printed by official Quaker printers such as Tace Sowle, Luke Hinde and James and William Phillips. As time went on however the emphasis on a 'good death' became less important than the example of a good life. Testimonies to the grace of God in the life of deceased Friends had been written from the beginning of Quakerism by the local meetings of the deceased and in time the practice arose of sending these to Yearly Meeting for collection and publication. At first only recorded ministers were memorialised in this way but that distinction fell away in the 20th century together with the custom of specially recording those with a gift for vocal ministry.
There was another source for information about the lives and deaths of Friends in Britain and Ireland. This was the Annual Monitor, a mainly statistical volume which recorded all deaths of Quakers in these Yearly Meetings each year from 1812 to 1920. Some entries give the bare facts of name, meeting, age and date of death but others add memoirs of the Friends' lives, sometimes in considerable detail. These memoirs often concentrate on the end of life but include many other details of their lives and service. As with Piety Promoted the intention is to inspire the reader.
In our own times 'dying sayings' are no longer considered edifying reading and indeed the practice of writing and publishing testimonies is not as prevalent as it once was. There seems to be a fear that in writing testimonies for some and not for others we are failing in our testimony to equality, but is this in fact the case? As John Tomkins said, the aim is not to exalt individuals but to point out examples of the grace of God as seen in individual lives. We have good advice available about the writing of testimonies and I hope that we will follow it and so produce more inspiration for succeeding generations.