‘A sacred relic kept’
Protestant relics and ‘the good death’ experience in nineteenth?century America
Keywords:evangelicalism, deathbeds, good death, Protestantism, Protestant relics, material religion, memento mori, hair, Civil War Bibles, religious bodies
By at least the 1830s, evangelical Protestants in the United States considered relic collection and distribution to be an essential part of an individual’s ‘good death’ experience. Protestant relics took form as bodily and contact relics. Bodily relics included locks of hair, pictures of bodies that once lived, post-mortem images, and, in rare cases, blood and bones. Contact relics included Bibles, clothes, burial shrouds, letters, and other objects associated with the dead. Evangelical publishers employed the memoir genre to teach children and adults how to distribute these relics on their deathbeds to family and friends. Some evangelical children even modeled handwritten memoirs of their friends after these published accounts. By the mid-nineteenth century, most Anglo-American Protestants regarded relic collection and distribution around the deathbed as a defining feature of evangelicalism. This held true for evangelical women, children, and men. In fact, evangelical men took these deathbed practices with them to war. Civil War soldiers who died away from home insisted on writing deathbed letters to families as part of their good death experiences. These letters usually carried soldiers’ most treasured possessions back home as Protestant relics, including locks of hair, Bibles, and rings.
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