Protestant Relics and the Graves of Whitefield and Edwards

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Evangelicals have always had a complicated relationship with the graves and relics of their heroes. On one hand, the heritage of the Reformation made them wary of Catholic excesses regarding religious devotions and relics. On the other, evangelical heroes including George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards have drawn a steady stream of visitors to their graves and other historical sites. Merely knowing about these evangelical “icons” was not enough for some; physical proximity to the places they preached, or even to their buried bodies, was even better.

I was recently reading a chapter from Keith Beutler‘s forthcoming University of Virginia Press book on Americans’ memory of the Founders in the early republic, and he was noting evangelicals’ attraction to relics associated with the major Founders, especially George Washington. He discussed evangelicals’ regular pilgrimages to George Whitefield’s tomb in Newburyport, Massachusetts, which I also discuss at length in my biography of Whitefield. I write:

For evangelicals Whitefield’s grave became a place of pilgrimage for thousands of admirers in the centuries after his death. The prominent Methodist itinerant Jesse Lee visited the tomb in 1790 . . . Lee opened the coffin, offering a clinical account of the body’s condition: “They discovered his ears, hair, and a part of his nose had fallen off. His face was nearly in the common shape, though much contracted, and appeared quite destitute of moisture, and very hard. His teeth were white, and fast in their sockets. His breast bone had parted, and his bowels disrobed. His wig and clothes, in which he was buried, still remained; and were quite hard to tear. His flesh was black; and, as might be supposed, destitute of comeliness.” Lee took “a small relic of the gown in which he was buried; and prayed that he might be endued with the same zeal which once inspired the breast of its wearer.”

Principled Protestants did not believe that spiritual power inhered in relics, yet just to be near the body, to gaze upon it, and perhaps to take a bit of the clothing inspired visitors like Lee. It gave them hope of acquiring some of Whitefield’s passion and spirit.

A surprising number of visitors to the tomb handled the remains of Whitefield’s body, and, Hamlet-like, mused upon the itinerant’s skull. A few went further and took bits of his clothing. Some even took pieces of the skeleton. In 1829, an English visitor bribed the sexton’s son and stole Whitefield’s right arm bone, mailing it to England.

Beutler’s work also prompted me to do some digging (not literal) about Edwards’s grave in Princeton. Edwards definitely has had many visitors, too, and according to a Scottish Presbyterian guest in 1880, some pilgrims had taken pieces of his tombstone.

Princeton is rich in olden memories. . . . The most hallowed spot, the haunt filled with the most sacred memories in the history of American Presbyterianism, is the old cemetery where repose the ashes of great divines and scholars. Here side by side are the graves of the presidents of Princeton College; they were lovely in their lives and in death are not divided. Aaron Burr, son-in-law of Jonathan Edwards, Edwards himself, Finley, Witherspoon, Green, and Carnahan—such are the goodly company. . . . A simple tombstone, with suitable inscription, lies flat on the full length of each grave. . . . Vandalism has, as usual, intruded into the sacred place; the stone at the grave of Edwards is much disfigured by pieces being broken off to be carried away as mementoes.

I have found a historic photo (though not a public domain version) of Edwards’s grave from the 1890s, and it does look a little ragged around the edges. The image at the top of this post is from 1903, and Edwards’s grave appears to be the one with the chipped edges in the center. More recent images show the newer tombstone for Edwards with clean edges.

I warmly recommend visiting both Newburyport and Princeton, but I suspect that both Whitefield and Edwards would caution us against any reverential feelings about being in proximity to their corpses. Or taking any relics. But if being in spots associated with great moments in evangelical history leads to more gratitude to the Lord, that is undoubtedly permissible—even welcome.

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