By Jane Mace. Quacks Books, 2020. 142 pages. $19.99/paperback. Available at pendlehill.org.
Most Friends are familiar with memorial minutes: the combination of obituary, spiritual biography, and tribute that meetings write about deceased members. Relatively few, however, understand how this practice began. Jane Mace’s encounter with a 300-year-old book in the archives of her area meeting in Gloucester, UK, led her to discover and describe a practice that was once central to Quaker life and to Quaker literature: the recording of the dying sayings of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Friends.
The focus of Mace’s analysis is a volume first published in London in 1703: Piety Promoted in a Collection of the Dying Sayings of Many of the People Call’d Quakers, with a Brief Account of Some of Their Labours in the Gospel, and Sufferings for the Same. By the late nineteenth century, it had gone through 13 editions and had expanded to a multivolume work that included many U.S. Friends. Now known only to historians and genealogists, it holds for Mace a unique set of insights into the lives of past Friends, one that holds deep spiritual meaning for her. As she puts it in her introduction: “The research has no claim to be a careful academic study on an equal footing with more scholarly work. Rather it has felt like a conversation with people long gone, to whom I have come to recognize that I belong and have developed an obligation.”
Jane Mace divides her work into six chapters: Sayings, Authorship, Sufferings, Connections, Partings, and Meanings. In each, she quotes at length from the account of the deaths of a few Friends, almost none of whom will be familiar to contemporary Friends. Each chapter concludes with a reflection, where Mace offers insights both historical and spiritual. In the reflection on Sayings, for example, she notes how in seventeenth-century England, the assumption was that printed or written works would be read aloud in families or other group settings. The Sufferings chapter concludes with an explanation of why Friends objected to paying tithes, taxes to the Church of England, and why this led to problems long after Quaker worship was otherwise legalized. Mace then offers some reflections on the experiences of Palestinian Friend Jean Zaru.
A book on dying sayings probably does not have mass-market appeal, even in the Quaker world. That is unfortunate. Although Jane Mace makes it clear that she did not intend to produce a work of scholarly analysis, this scholar, who has read hundreds of such accounts, was impressed again and again with the soundness of her analysis and reflections. There is much here both to inform and to inspire.
Thomas Hamm is professor of history and Quaker scholar in residence at Earlham College, where he holds the Trueblood Chair in Christian Thought. He is a member of West Richmond (Ind.) Meeting in the New Association of Friends.