Protestant Relics: Religion, Objects, and the Art of Mourning in the American Republic

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2018

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Morgan, David

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Abstract

This dissertation turns attention to the neglected history of relic practices among Protestants from late colonial America to the 1860s. It explores why Protestants deemed the material remains of their dead saints, friends, and relatives to be special kinds of objects in their mourning practices. American Protestants of all stripes put relics—the corporeal and non-corporeal remains of their dead—to work as lively material objects. Chapters examine George Whitefield’s relics, George Washington’s relics, mourning pieces made by schoolgirls, mourning lithographs, locks of hair, paintings, daguerreotypes, and bibles.

By charting the production, display, and collection of Protestant relics, this dissertation argues that a new attitude towards mourning objects proliferated among Protestants. Late eighteenth-century Protestants combined Enlightenment notions about the role of memory objects in everyday sensory experiences with notions about the role of sentiment to feel the character, virtue, and piety of their dead. Protestant relics carried the presence of the dead as powerful memory objects that enlivened belief. They were powerful in their ability to induce conversion experiences and increase piety in the living. Sometimes, they condensed space and time in order for the living to feel the dead in heaven.

Protestant men first acknowledged relics as emotional memory objects with a lively presence that acted on living bodies and minds. After the American Revolution, a relic culture developed among Protestant men that valued the remains of evangelists and politicians. Young women also participated in this relic culture as they mourned for Washington and produced mourning pieces for the General and their families in women’s academies. This relic culture authorized a distinctly republican Protestantism that united evangelicals, Anglicans, and some “old light” Calvinists as American Protestants around the relics of George Whitefield, George Washington, and individual Americans.

By the 1830s, mourning was deemed women’s work as nearly every young Anglo-American woman who attended school produced a relic as a mourning piece for a family member. Mourning pieces as relics were later consigned to the attics of grandmothers as signs of women’s handiwork in mourning practices. The marketplace reinvigorated relic practices through the 1860s as Protestant women and men transformed commodities into relics to be distributed on their deathbeds as gifts to loved ones. Protestant men who learned to die distributing relics on their deathbeds took their practices with them to war. Civil War soldiers continued to engage in relic practices as they sent letters with locks of hair to family members, as well as bibles, rings, and clothes. Some families even searched battlefields for the relics of their dead. Protestant relic practices started to decline after the war as some families were not able to access the relics of dead loved ones and others defined relics as the remains of the dead Confederate States. By the 1930s, relic practices died out among Protestants who defined them as historical but not religious objects and as dirty objects that circulated diseases.

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Brummitt, Jamie L. (2018). Protestant Relics: Religion, Objects, and the Art of Mourning in the American Republic. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/16930.

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