The Gates Ajar [...]

Modern conceptions of heaven feature a reunion with loved ones prominently, and posit an afterlife where people retain their bodily forms and personalities. This version of heaven, at least in in America, was heavily influenced by the 1868 religious novel The Gates Ajar by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (later Elizabeth Phelps Ward)

The second best-selling religious novel of the 19th century, it sold 80,000 copies in America by 1900; a and 100,000 were in England during the same time period.

The New York Times describes the novel as follows:

It’s about a young woman named Mary Cabot whose brother Roy was killed in the Civil War. The bereaved Mary knows that she is supposed to be consoled by her Calvinist faith (personified by a minister with the unsubtle name Bland), but she finds her church’s teachings about the afterlife cold comfort. She does not like picturing her brother single-mindedly adoring God. Mary thinks this sounds dull, and she is horrified by the thought that Roy, in his rapturous concentration on God’s splendor, might forget her, his beloved sister. Through the ministrations of a widowed aunt, Mary ultimately adopts a new vision of heaven — one in which people’s primary end is not union with God, but being reunited with loved ones.

Interestingly, her departed Roy is not only looking forward to a reunion, but is with her at all times:

” Then you think, you really think, that Roy remembers and loves and takes care of me ; that he has been listening, perhaps, and is —why, you don’t think he may be here?”

“Yes, I do. Here, close beside you all this time, trying to speak to you through the bless-ed sunshine and the flowers, trying to help you, and sure to love you,— right here, dear. I do not believe God means to send him away from you, either.” (Source)

John Bunyan’s 17th century conception of heaven makes a quick mention of reunion with family and friends, but only in passing. (Link)

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