‘A sacred relic kept’

Protestant relics and ‘the good death’ experience in nineteenth?century America


  • Jamie L. Brummitt University of North Carolina Wilmington




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.

Author Biography

Jamie L. Brummitt, University of North Carolina Wilmington

Jamie L. Brummitt is an assistant professor of American Religions at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Brummitt researches the visual and material cultures of American Protestantism. Her book Protestant Relics in Early America (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) traces the history and presence of Protestant relics in nineteenth-century mourning practices. Brummitt also studies Bibles in the Civil War. A forthcoming issue of Material Religion features this work in ‘ “How dare men mix up the Bible so with their own bad passions”: when the Good Book became the Bad Book in the American Civil War’ (2022).


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How to Cite

Brummitt, J. L. (2022). ‘A sacred relic kept’: Protestant relics and ‘the good death’ experience in nineteenth?century America. Body and Religion, 4(2), 195–224. https://doi.org/10.1558/bar.18285