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The Presence of the Dead among U.S. Protestants, 1800–1848

  • Erik R. Seeman


Historians have long known that antebellum American Protestants were fascinated by death, but they have overlooked Protestant relationships with the dead. Long before the advent of séance Spiritualism in 1848, many mourners began to believe—contrary to mainstream Protestant theology—that the souls of the dead turned into angels, that the dead could return to earth as guardian angels, and that in graveyards one could experience communion with the spirits of the departed. The version of Protestantism these mourners developed was therefore, to use Robert Orsi's term, a religion of “presence,” a religion in which suprahuman beings—in addition to God—played an important role. Based on diaries and popular sentimental literature written mostly by women, this article brings to light an unexplored facet of antebellum Protestant lived religion: that the dead were “present with us tho’ invisible,” as one young woman wrote about her deceased sister.



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For valuable comments and suggestions, the author wishes to thank Peter Marshall, Robert Orsi, Alexandra Walsham, Doug Winiarski, Victoria Wolcott, and an anonymous Church History reader.



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1 Anna Eliza Heath Diary, Massachusetts Historical Society (hereafter MHS), 18 March 1825.

2 Ibid., 7 April 1825.

3 Ibid., 19 April 1825.

4 Whelpley, Samuel, Thoughts on the State of Departed Souls (Morristown, N.J.: Henry P. Russell, 1807), 4.

5 Holcombe, Henry, The Funeral Sermon of Joseph Moulder (Philadelphia: John Bioren, 1817), 21.

6 Orsi, Robert A., History and Presence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 4, 25.

7 Michael Pasquier, review of Orsi, History and Presence, H-AmRel, H-Net Reviews, November 2016 <>.

8 Stannard, David E., The Puritan Way of Death: A Study in Religion, Culture, and Social Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); and Laderman, Gary, The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799–1883 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).

9 On how these ideas combined to form an antebellum “cult of the dead,” see Seeman, Erik R., Speaking with the Dead in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming 2019), chaps. 7 and 8.

10 Seeman, Erik R., Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492–1800 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 48, 68, 152–153, 181–183, 188189; and Seeman, Erik R., The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead: Indian-European Encounters in Early North America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 53–54, 89–90, 119120.

11 Scholars have paid far greater attention to death in sentimental literature than in diaries. Kete, Mary Louise, Sentimental Collaborations: Mourning and Middle-Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000); Giffen, Allison, “‘Till Grief Melodious Grow’: The Poems and Letters of Ann Eliza Bleecker,” Early American Literature 28, no. 3 (1993): 222241; and Douglas, Ann, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), chap. 6. An exception is Hoffert, Sylvia D., “‘A Very Peculiar Sorrow’: Attitudes Toward Infant Death in the Urban Northeast, 1800–1860,” American Quarterly 39, no. 4 (Winter 1987): 601616.

12 Keck, David, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 161165.

13 Marshall, Peter and Walsham, Alexandra, “Migrations of Angels in the Early Modern World,” in Angels in the Early Modern World, ed. and, Marshall Walsham (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 10.

14 Sutton, Anne F. and Visser-Fuchs, Livia, “The Cult of Angels in Late Fifteenth-Century England: An Hours of the Guardian Angel Presented to Queen Elizabeth Woodville,” in Women and the Book: Assessing the Visual Evidence, ed. Smith, Lesley and Taylor, Jane H. M. (Oxford: St. Hilda's College, 1997), 252.

15 Marshall, Peter, “The Guardian Angel in Protestant England,” in Conversations with Angels: Essays Towards a History of Spiritual Communication, 1100–1700, ed. Raymond, Joad (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 296.

16 Calvin, John, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Beveridge, Henry, 2 vols. (1536; Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 1:196 (bk. I, chap. 14, para. 7).

17 Bayly, John, Two Sermons: The Angell Guardian. The Light Enlightening (Oxford: John Lichfield, 1630); Baxter, Richard, The Protestant Religion Truly Stated and Justified (London: John Salusbury, 1692).

18 Elizabeth Reis, “Otherworldly Visions: Angels, Devils, and Gender in Puritan New England,” in Angels in the Early Modern World, ed. Marshall and Walsham, 282.

19 Willard, Samuel, A Compleat Body of Divinity (Boston: B. Green, 1726), 5255; Mather, Increase, Angelographia; or, A Discourse Concerning the Nature and Power of the Holy Angels (Boston: B. Green, 1696), 40; and Emerson, Joseph, Early Piety Encouraged: A Discourse Occasion'd by the Joyful and Triumphant Death of a Young Woman of Malden (Boston: J. Draper, 1738), 26.

20 For example, Mather, Angelographia, 103.

21 Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, <> (accessed 1 December 2017).

22 Marshall and Walsham, “Migrations of Angels,” 39 n.136. Ann Braude mentions in a footnote but does not explore the “popular notion that virtuous people became angels after death.” Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, 2d ed. (1989; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 43.

23 Swedenborg, Emanuel, Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell: From Things Heard and Seen, trans. Ager, John C. (1758; West Chester, Penn.: Swedenborg Foundation, 2009), para. 311.2, 512.

24 Block, Marguerite Beck, The New Church in the New World: A Study of Swedenborgianism in America (1932; New York: Octagon Books, 1968), 173.

25 Rowe, Theophilus, ed., The Miscellaneous Works, in Prose and Verse, of Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe, 2d ed., 2 vols. (London: Henry Lintot, 1749), 2:24. This collection does not name Thynne as the letter's recipient; the identification is from Backscheider, Paula R., Elizabeth Singer Rowe and the Development of the English Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 166.

26 Rowe, Elizabeth Singer, Friendship in Death: In Twenty Letters from the Dead to the Living (London: T. Worrall, 1728), 80.

27 The tally of English editions appears in Backscheider, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, 1.

28 “Wrote, on the Annaversay [sic] of My Dear Parent's Death (A Day, never to be forgot by me),” Hannah Griffitts Papers, Box 1, Folder 12, 13 February 1759, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. See also Griffitts's 1763 elegy to her mother, Box 1, Folder 36.

29 The History of Clorana, the Beautiful Arcadian; or, Virtue Triumphant (London: n.p., 1737), 119–120. See also “On the Death of Miss R----- D-----,” Pennsylvania Magazine 1, no. 3 (March 1775): 135; and The History of Eliza Warwick, 2 vols. (London: J. Bew, 1778), 2:248–249.

30 Read, Martha, Monima; or, The Beggar Girl: A Novel (New York: P. R. Johnson, 1802), 85, 397. Davidson, Cathy N., Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 361 (“widely read”), citing three book-length editions and numerous pirated and condensed versions. See also Parsons, Eliza, The Girl of the Mountains: A Novel, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: John Bioren, 1801), 1:66; and Roche, Maria Regina, Nocturnal Visit: A Tale, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: John Conrad, 1801), 2:66.

31 “Addressed to a Mother, on the Death of Two Infants,” American Register (Philadelphia) 1, no. 1 (1 January 1807): 195–197. See also Hoffert, “‘A Very Peculiar Sorrow,’” 609.

32 Examples include “The Little Girl's Answer to Her Baby Cousin,” Juvenile Miscellany (Boston) 2, no. 3 (July 1827): 106; and “Lines, on Hearing a Mother Bid Farewell to Her Little Daughter,” New York Evangelist 7, no. 31 (30 July 1836): 124.

33 Stephens, Ann S., “The Black Seal,” The Ladies’ Companion (New York) 12, no. 1 (November 1839): 18.

34 “The Departed,” Liberator (Boston) 13, no. 18 (5 May 1843): 72.

35 For example, “The Widow's Daughter,” Rural Repository (Hudson, N.Y.) 9, no. 16 (29 December 1832): 121; Sigourney, Lydia Huntley, Letters to Mothers (Hartford: Hudson and Skinner, 1838), 212; and “The Dying Mother's Prayer,” Christian Secretary (Hartford) 23, no. 24 (23 August 1844): 4.

36 Anna Eliza Heath Diary, 19 April 1825; Knight, H. Gally, “The Portrait,” Christian Examiner and Theological Review (Boston) 1, no. 6 (November/December 1824): 452453.

37 Quoted in Rosenblatt, Paul C., Bitter, Bitter Tears: Nineteenth-Century Diarists and Twentieth-Century Grief Theories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 18 (entry of 10 March 1844).

38 Drury, Clifford Merrill, ed., First White Women over the Rockies, 2 vols. (Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark, 1963), 2:270 (entry of 18 July 1844). See also Memoir of Mrs. Mary E. Van Lennep, Only Daughter of the Rev. Joel Hawes, 6th ed. (Hartford: Wm. Jas. Hamersley, 1850), 67 (entry of 19 December 1840).

39 Curtis, Caroline G., ed., The Cary Letters (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1891), 313 (letter of 28 September 1825). See also Bethune, Joanna, ed., The Unpublished Letters and Correspondence of Mrs. Isabella Graham (New York: John S. Taylor, 1838), 94 (letter of November 1773).

40 Adelia M. Beckley Lamb Diary, typescript, Connecticut Historical Society (hereafter CHS), 7 April 1839. See also 30 April 1837 on her brother's “angel spirit.”

41 Louisa Jane Trumbull Diary, American Antiquarian Society (hereafter AAS), 5 January 1834. See also Diary of Sarah Connell Ayer (Portland, Me.: Lefavor-Tower Company, 1910), 56 (entry of 12 August 1808).

42 Tileston, Mary Wilder, ed., Caleb and Mary Wilder Foote: Reminiscences and Letters (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918), 59 (letter of 20 September 1837). See also Elizabeth Jocelyn Diary, CHS, 20 December 1842; and Wagenknecht, Edward, Mrs. Longfellow: Selected Letters and Journals of Fanny Appleton Longfellow, 1817–1861 (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1956), 144 (entry of 14 October 1848).

43 Mary Ware Allen Johnson Diary, AAS, 2 July 1838. See also Lee, R. H., ed., “Draveil”; or, The Life of Harriet Preble (Philadelphia: Henry B. Ashmead, 1876), 196197 (entry of 26 January 1839); and Wilson, W. Emerson, ed., Phoebe George Bradford Diaries (Wilmington: Historical Society of Delaware, 1975), 265 (letter of September 1841).

44 Louisa Adams Park Diary, AAS, 10 July 1848. See also Edward Everett to Rev. C. W. Upham, Edward Everett Letters, MHS, 22 July 1838.

45 Sarah Brown Ruggles Eaton Diary, Rhode Island Historical Society, 19 July and 19 August 1833.

46 Larkin, Jack, The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790–1840 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 104.

47 Linden-Ward, Blanche, “Strange But Genteel Pleasure Grounds: Tourist and Leisure Uses of Nineteenth-Century Rural Cemeteries,” in Cemeteries and Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture, ed. Meyer, Richard E. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1992), 293328; Linden-Ward, , Silent City on a Hill: Landscapes of Memory and Boston's Mount Auburn Cemetery (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989); Bender, Thomas, “The ‘Rural’ Cemetery Movement: Urban Travail and the Appeal of Nature,” New England Quarterly 47, no. 2 (June 1974): 196211; French, Stanley, “The Cemetery as Cultural Institution: The Establishment of Mount Auburn and the ‘Rural Cemetery’ Movement,” in Death in America, ed. Stannard, David E. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 6991; Sloane, David Charles, The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1991), 5364; and Smith, Jeffrey, The Rural Cemetery Movement: Places of Paradox in Nineteenth-Century America (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2017).

48 McDannell, Colleen, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), chap. 4; and Upton, Dell, Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), chap. 9.

49 Felicia Hemans, “Dirge of a Child,” in The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans, 4th American ed., 2 vols. (New York: Evert Duyckinck, 1828), 2:82. At least ten editions of this volume were published in the United States before 1850.

50 Davison, Carol Margaret, History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature, 1764–1824 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009), 6162. See also Parisot, Eric, Graveyard Poetry: Religion, Aesthetics, and the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Poetic Condition (Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2013); and Jan Van Leeuwen, Evert, “Funeral Sermons and Graveyard Poetry: The Ecstasy of Death and Bodily Resurrection,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 32, no. 3 (2009): 353371.

51 Blair, Robert, The Grave: A Poem, 4th ed. (1743; London: J. Waugh, 1753), 78.

52 Young, Edward, The Complaint; or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality. Night the First (London: R. Dodsley, 1742), 10.

53 W. D. B., “A Fragment,” Weekly Museum (New York) 4, no. 205 (14 April 1792): 2. See also, for example, “Written in a Grave-Yard,” Gentlemen and Ladies’ Town and Country Magazine (Boston) 1, no. 7 (August 1789): 348–349; “The Rural Mourner: A Sentimental Fragment,” Massachusetts Magazine; or, Monthly Museum 3, no. 5 (May 1791): 277; [Anna Young], “Lines Occasioned by the Writer's Walking One Summer's Evening in the Grave-yard of the Church of Wicacoe,” Universal Asylum and Columbian Magazine (Philadelphia) 6, no. 8 (August 1791): 121–123; and “The Church Yard,” Weekly Museum (New York) 5, no. 256 (6 April 1793): 2.

54 W. D. B., “A Fragment.”

55 Upton, Another City, 217–221, quotation at 219; and Sloane, Last Great Necessity, 29–34.

56 On the rise of the “democratic family,” see Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), chap. 3.

57 Many thanks to my Buffalo colleague Neil Coffee for help with the Latin. He points out that familiares includes unrelated household members such as servants and slaves and could even extend to friends. I use it, however, only for blood relations.

58 Sloane, Last Great Necessity, 42; and Upton, Another City, 221–223, quotation at 223.

59 Elizabeth Jocelyn Diary, 19 February 1839.

60 Catherine Henshaw Diary, AAS, 14 April 1805.

61 Merritt, T., ed., Memoir, Diary, and Letters, of Miss Hannah Syng Bunting, of Philadelphia, 2 vols. (New York: T. Mason, 1837), 1:117 (entry of April 1827), 2:135 (letter of 24 July 1831).

62 Diary of Sarah Connell Ayer, 58–59 (entry of 29 August 1808), 229 (entry of 21 June 1822).

63 “The Village Grave-Yard,” The Club-Room (Boston) 1, no. 2 (1 March 1820): 70–77. For a small sampling of similar pieces, see “The Grave-Yard,” The Guardian; or, Youth's Religious Instructor (New Haven) 3, no. 3 (1 March 1821): 90–92; “The Grave of a Mother,” Religious Miscellany (Carlisle, Pa.) 1, no. 19 (30 May 1823): 295–296; and “The Mother's Lament,” Ladies’ Magazine (Boston) 1, no. 1 (January 1828): 16–17.

64 Reprinted or excerpted: “Life,” Ladies’ Literary Cabinet (New York) 2, no. 14 (12 August 1820): 106–107; Christian Advocate and Journal and Zion's Herald (New York) 5, no. 2 (10 September 1830): 8; and “The Village Graveyard,” Youth's Companion (Boston) 5, no. 17 (14 September 1831): 67–68. Read to students: Mary Ware Allen Johnson Diary, 26 March 1838.

65 Anna Eliza Heath Commonplace Book, MHS, undated entry, likely early 1820s; Anna Eliza Heath Diary, 18 March 1825.

66 Unknown artist, Memorial for S. C. Washington, c.1789. Watercolor, chopped hair, gold wire, and pearls on ivory. Yale University Art Gallery, ILE1999.3.18.

67 All items held by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum numbers 918–1888 (ring), 920–1888 (brooch), 925–1888 (locket).

68 Linden-Ward, Silent City on a Hill, chap. 6; and Sloane, Last Great Necessity, 34–43.

69 Quoted in Linden-Ward, Silent City on a Hill, 168.

70 Story, William M., ed., Life and Letters of Joseph Story, 2 vols. (Boston: Little and Brown, 1851), 2:65.

71 Quoted in Jamie L. McKay, “The Living among the Dead: Negotiating Social Inclusion in Albany Rural Cemetery” (M.A. thesis, University at Albany, 2013), 8.

72 George Waterman Jr., “My Mother,” Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book (New York) 28, no. 1 (January 1844): 45.

73 “Untitled,” New-York Mirror 11, no. 34 (22 February 1834): 270. See also, for example, J. G. Percival, “Death: (An Extract),” The Knickerbocker; or, New York Monthly Magazine 7, no. 6 (June 1836): 572; and “Our Parents Sleep There,” Every Youth's Gazette (New York) 1, no. 27 (24 December 1842): 398.

74 “Laurel Hill Cemetery,” Episcopal Recorder (Philadelphia) 24, no. 2 (28 March 1846): 5.

75 W. Nixon, “Miniature Sketches: Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia,” Ladies Repository and Gatherings of the West (Cincinnati) 6, no. 11 (November 1846): 336. See also “Laurel Hill Cemetery,” New-York Evangelist 8, no. 29 (15 July 1837): 116; and Mrs. B., “Laurel Hill Cemetery,” The Subterranean (New York) 4, no. 35 (23 January 1847): 4.

76 Sarah Brown Ruggles Eaton Diary, 21 October 1837. On tourism in Laurel Hill, see Aaron Vickers Wunsch, “Parceling the Picturesque: ‘Rural’ Cemeteries and Urban Context in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia” (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2009), 99, 115–118.

77 Adelia M. Beckley Lamb Diary, 17 July 1842.

78 Sarah Brown Ruggles Eaton Diary, 6 March and 13 April 1834.

79 Louisa Jane Trumbull Diary, 9 February 1833. Sentence crossed out in original.

80 Eliza M. Spencer Diary, typescript, MHS, 10 September 1832.

81 Ibid., 4 August 1833.

82 JHervey, ames, Meditations and Contemplations, 4th ed., 2 vols. (London: John and James Rivington, 1748), 2:51.

83 Adelia M. Beckley Lamb Diary, May 1834.

84 <> (accessed 30 October 2017).

85 Adelia M. Beckley Lamb Diary, 10 July 1836, 1 March 1840, July 1838.

86 McDannell, Colleen and Lang, Bernhard, Heaven: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), chap. 7.

87 Davis, Natalie Zemon, “Ghosts, Kin, and Progeny: Some Features of Family Life in Early Modern France,” Daedalus 106, no. 2 (Spring 1977): 92.

88 Koslofsky, Craig M., The Reformation of the Dead: Death and Ritual in Early Modern Germany, 1450–1700 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), chaps. 2 and 3.

89 Eire, Carlos M. N., Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450–1650 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), 754.

90 Marshall, Peter, Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Handley, Sasha, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007). An exception to the general inattention to ghosts in colonial America is Winiarski, Douglas, “‘Pale Blewish Lights’ and a Dead Man's Groan: Tales of the Supernatural from Eighteenth-Century Plymouth, Massachusetts,” William and Mary Quarterly 55, no. 4 (October 1998): 497530.

91 “A Dictionary of the English Language: A Digital Edition of the 1755 Classic by Samuel Johnson” <> (accessed 2 December 2017). Emphasis added.

92 Spiritualists themselves generated the figure of “millions” in the 1850s and may have exaggerated. In any case the number was very large. Braude, Radical Spirits, 25. Historians trace the origins of Spiritualism through Swedenborg, Mesmer, and the Shakers rather than mainstream Protestant belief in departed spirits. Cox, Robert S., Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003), 517; Albanese, Catherine L., A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 177220; McGarry, Molly, Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 10, 45; and Ogden, sEmily, Credulity: A Cultural History of U.S. Mesmerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 217218.

For valuable comments and suggestions, the author wishes to thank Peter Marshall, Robert Orsi, Alexandra Walsham, Doug Winiarski, Victoria Wolcott, and an anonymous Church History reader.


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