The Gates Ajar

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The Gates Ajar
The Gates Ajar cover.jpg
Title page of first edition
AuthorElizabeth Stuart Phelps
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward
IllustratorJessie Curtis
(1870 edition only)[1]
CountryUnited States
Genreinspirational fiction
PublisherFields, Osgood & Co. [Boston, MA]
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardcover)
Pages248 pp (first edition)

The Gates Ajar is an 1868 religious novel by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (later Elizabeth Phelps Ward) that was immensely popular following its publication. It was the second best-selling religious novel of the 19th century.[2] 80,000 copies were sold in America by 1900; 100,000 were sold in England during the same time period.[3] Sequels Beyond the Gates (1883) and The Gates Between (1887) were also bestsellers, and the three together are referred to as the author's "Spiritualist novels."[4]


And when my angel guide went up,

He left the pearly gates ajar.

---Mrs. Adoniram Judson [Emily C.] [3][5][6]

The novel is presented like a diary by its main protagonist, Mary Cabot, who mourns the death of her brother Royal. Much of the plot is presented as a dialogue about the afterlife between the two women. The novel represents heaven as being similar to Earth (but better). In contrast with traditions of Calvinism, Phelps's version of heaven is corporeal where the dead have "spiritual bodies", live in houses, raise families, and participate in various activities.[7] The idea was not original to Phelps; at least one earlier book, the anonymous Heaven Our Home, was advertising as early as 1863 about its vision of "a Social Heaven in which there will be the most Perfect Recognition, Intercourse, Fellowship, and Bliss.[8]

Plot summary[edit]

Mary Cabot of Homer, Massachusetts, has recently been notified of Royal Cabot’s death, the brother to whom she is intensely devoted. He was a soldier, "shot dead" in the American Civil War. Their parents are deceased, and Mary is unable to find sympathy and relief from anyone—acquaintances, the church deacon, or pastor. She is losing her religious faith and increasingly despairs. She eventually turns to Winifred Forceythe, her widowed aunt who fortuitously arrives from Kansas with her daughter, Faith. Over the course of their conversations, Winifred offers an inspiring image of heaven and gradually restores her niece's faith. Winifred Forceythe dies, leaving Mary Cabot as guardian of her cousin, Faith. Mary has again found meaning in life and her outlook is joyful.[3]

Composition and publication[edit]

Illustration by Jessie Curtis featuring Mary Cabot, Aunt Winifred Forceythe, and Faith Forceythe

Phelps began writing The Gates Ajar in the final year of the American Civil War, inspired in part by the death of her mother, stepmother, and her fiancé who was killed at the Battle of Antietam.[8] Phelps later claimed the book came from divine inspiration: "The angel said unto me 'Write!' and I wrote."[8] She spent two years revising the book in her father's attic.[9] Frustrated by the insignificant role women played during the War, she wrote the book specifically with a female audience in mind. In an autobiography, she reflected, "Into that great world of woe my little book stole forth, trembling... I do not think I thought so much about the suffering of men... but the women,—the helpless, outnumbering, unconsulted women."[10] Emily Dickinson, according to scholar Barton Levi St. Armand, was among those who believed in a similar vision of the afterlife and found the book helpful in organizing those thoughts.[11]

The book was published in November 1868 by Fields, Osgood, and Company. Along with an initial royalty check for $600, publisher James Thomas Fields reported to her, "Your book is moving grandly. It has already a sale of four thousand copies."[12]

The Gates Ajar, according to Helen Sootin Smith, incorporates at least four literary elements: "sermon, diary, sentimental domestic plot, and allegory." She identified the latter as its "most important literary form."

The Gates Ajar, as a sacred allegory, relates the steps in Christian redemption. The rude, willful Mary in the opening chapters represents that of unregenerate man, who has succumbed to the temptations of 'the world, the flesh, and the devil.'. . . Royal Cabot, however, did not die in vain. He is Christ, dying in the Civil War for the sins of mankind. As Christ's death redeemed mankind so that it could be reunited with Him in heaven, so Roy's death saves Mary for everlasting life with him.

Phelps published two similar books, Beyond the Gates (1883) and The Gates Between (1887), though they are not traditional sequels as they do not continue with the plot or characters of The Gates Ajar.[13] She later lamented she did not write more, partially because of how much effort she had expended so quickly because of her financial duress. In a letter to George Eliot, she wrote:

I do not hope much for it now; I am physically too far spent even to do what is a bitter comfort to hope I might have done, if the success of 'The Gates Ajar' had not driven a very young woman who wanted money, into rapid and unstudious work before the evil days came when work must be quietly put out of the imagination like other forms of suicide.[14]

Critical response[edit]

The Gates Ajar was successful and established Phelps's career and impressed upon the author her ability to influence culture and gave her the confidence to pursue women's rights.[15] By January 1870, one critic estimated, "Miss Phelps has made $20,000 out of The Gates Ajar. She won't be likely to shut them at this rate."[16] It is estimated that the book sold over 80,000 copies in the United States.[17]

The book was part of a wave of some eighty books concerning the afterlife that were published in the decade following the Civil War (during which very little such literature appeared).[18] Its popularity has been described as fueled by Americans seeking the help of religion after the war concluded, but the book was also a success in Britain and translated in at least four different languages.[19][20] In 1877, The New York Times noted that "there are persons to whom The Gates Ajar is a standard to which they refer books they admire intensely, and there are others who use the same volume as a measure of their contempt for trashy, overstrained 'feminine' literature."[21]

Some reviews were mixed, judging the text "trite and philosophically unsound."[3] Within two years an extended analysis appeared under the authorship of "A Dean", who judged the work:

a second-rate sensational novel, professedly of a religious character, but betraying so much positive error, and treating serious subjects in such a flippant, unhallowed strain, that no small amount of Christian charity is required to avoid the conclusion, that 'an enemy hath done this!' "[22]


Helen Sootin Smith, who edited the John Harvard Library edition,[23] proposed that the book's popularity revealed "that it answered a crucial need of hundreds of thousands of readers."[3]

In America this need was no doubt related to the tensions created by the Civil War; but the problems it dealt with transcended politics and war. The book was addressed to the spiritual disquiet created by the advance of science and the erosion of traditional Christianity.... The Gates Ajar , in familiar but simple and undemanding Christian terms, reassured those who had come to doubt the immortality of the soul and who found cold comfort in their minister's vague assertions that life after death was a reality.[3]

Indeed, others have suggested that The Gates Ajar epitomized[24] American "consolation literature" of the mid-19th century.[25][26]

The book inspired parodies and knock-offs, including a reissue of George Wood's 1858 Future Life renamed as The Gates Wide Open.[16] Mark Twain later stated that his short story Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven was a satire of The Gates Ajar.[27] In 1894 The Gates of Hell Ajar appeared, written by Connecticut author John Bolles.[28]

Gates Ajar, Como Park, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1897.

Frederick Nussbaumer, formerly of London's Royal Botanic Gardens, was hired by Como Park in St. Paul Minnesota, where in 1894 he installed the elegant Gates Ajar floral staircase.[29][30] The feature was much photographed, and for decades provided a popular backdrop for wedding photographs.[31] Similar "Gates Ajar" features were found at Washington Park, Chicago, Illinois.[32] and Roger Williams Park, Providence, Rhode Island.[33]

In 1959, the actor and announcer Don Wilson appeared as a flim-flam preacher in the episode, "Gates Ajar Morgan", on the syndicated anthology series, Death Valley Days, hosted by Stanley Andrews. In the story line, Morgan promotes a false religious philosophy based on the novel The Gates Ajar. He must confess the sham to save his friend and benefactor from a lynch mob. The episode also features Chris Alcaide and Sue Randall.[34]

A number of songs were written using imagery consistent with The Gates Ajar.

Gates of heaven imagery in music 1866-1899[edit]

Title Words Music Type Year
Gates Ajar Anon Gussie Estabrook Descriptive Ballad 1869[35]
How the Gates Came Ajar Helen L. Bostwick Joseph Eastburn Winner Song & Chorus 1869[35]
Little Clo from Gates Ajar C. A. White C. A. White 1870[36]
The Gate Ajar for Me Lydia O. Baxter, Silas Vail Song 1872[37]
Opening the Golden Doors Albert D. Hill Charles D. Blake Song & Chorus 1873[35]
The Gates Forever Open M. W. Hackelton Joseph Eastburn Winner Song & Chorus 1873[35]
Passed within the Gates Ajar Mammee E. Peck Charles H. Gabriel Funeral March 1882[35]
Gates Ajar R. N. Turner John H. Kurzenknabe Song 1885[38][39]

Gates Ajar floral arrangements for funerals[edit]

Gates Ajar floral arrangement, 1909.

By the early 1880s, florists had created the "Gates Ajar" floral piece. Obituaries began to describe these ornate tributes:

Probably the most elaborate emblem Portland has ever seen was one brought by the Eastern Railroad conductors. It was entitled the Gates Ajar. The emblem was fully three feet long and on its face were erected seven pillars, each at least 10 inches in height. The base was composed of camellias, and double white pinks, interwoven with some delicate green plant, and the columns respectively of red gilliflowers, double white pinks, pansies and white roses. The gates and railings were composed of delicate heath and smilax was gracefully twined about the design.[40]

Church organizations welcomed the symbolism, evidenced by the announcement that the Methodist Episcopal Church "sent a floral representation of 'Gates Ajar.'"[41] when Utica newsman and Sunday school teacher Benjamin Lewis died.[42]

In September 1881 a stunned nation responded to the assassination of United States President James A. Garfield with ornate floral displays and long lines of mourners. A Boston paper noted "A beautiful representation of the gates ajar was made rosebuds and smilax." [43] A reporter from Akron, Ohio commented on the "beautiful floral offerings" as the President lay in state: "Next is a representation of the gates of Heaven, one of which is ajar. The pillars are beautifully formed of white and purple blossoms, and the gates of evergreen."[44] Gates Ajar funeral bouquets are still available and now described by florists as "traditional".[45]


  1. ^ Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart (1870). The Gates Ajar. Boston, MA: Fields, Osgood & Co. p. 248.
  2. ^ "The American Novel . Six Novel Ideas . Crisis of Faith". PBS. Retrieved 2013-03-29.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Smith, Helen Sootin (1964). "Introduction" to The Gates Ajar. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. pp. v–xxxiv.
  4. ^ Frank, Lisa Tendrich. Women in the American Civil War, Volume 1, p. 438-39 (2008)
  5. ^ Judson, Mrs (1856). "The Pearly Gates Ajar". The Oberlin Evangelist. 18 (445): 24. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
  6. ^ Judson, Emily C. (1872). "My Angel Guide". Arthur's Lady's Home Magazine. 39 (March): 122. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
  7. ^ Murison, Justine S. The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth Century American Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2011: 166. ISBN 9781107007918
  8. ^ a b c Hart, James David. The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950: 120. ISBN 0-520-00538-4
  9. ^ Showalter, Elaine. A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009: 160. ISBN 9780307271457
  10. ^ Phelps [Ward], Elizabeth Stuart. Chapters from a Life. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1896: 97
  11. ^ St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul's Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984: 123. ISBN 0-521-33978-2
  12. ^ St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul's Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984: 124. ISBN 0-521-33978-2
  13. ^ Long, Lisa A. Rehabilitating Bodies: Health, History, and the American Civil War. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004: 80. ISBN 0-8122-3748-X
  14. ^ Showalter, Elaine. A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009: 177. ISBN 9780307271457
  15. ^ Tracey, Karen. Plots and Proposals: American Women's Fiction, 1850–90. University of Illinois Press, 2000: 152. ISBN 978-0-252-06839-3
  16. ^ a b Hart, James David. The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950: 121. ISBN 0-520-00538-4
  17. ^ Showalter, Elaine. A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009: 161. ISBN 9780307271457
  18. ^ Blight, David W. (2008). "The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845–1877 — Lecture 17 — Homefronts and Battlefronts: "Hard War" and the Social Impact of the Civil War". Open Yale Courses.
  19. ^ James, Edward T. (ed.) Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 2, p. 539 (1971)
  20. ^ Winner, Lauren F. (24 April 2011). An Evangelical Pastor Opens the Gates of Heaven, The New York Times
  21. ^ New Publication, The New York Times
  22. ^ Dean, A (1871). 'The Gates Ajar' Critically Examined. London: Hatchards, Piccadilly. p. 62.
  23. ^ Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart (1964). The Gates Ajar. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. p. 162.
  24. ^ "Other heavens". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 23 March 2014.
  25. ^ Schnog, Nancy (1993). ""The Comfort of My Fancying": Loss and Recuperation in The Gates Ajar" (PDF). Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory. 49 (1): 21–47. Retrieved 23 March 2014.
  26. ^ Henderson, Desirée (2011). Grief and genre in American literature, 1790–1870. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
  27. ^ Baetzhold, Howard G. & Joseph B. McCulloch (eds.) The Bible According to Mark Twain, p. 130 (1995)
  28. ^ Bolles, John Rogers (1894). The Gates of Hell Ajar. New London, CT: John R. Bolles. p. 186.
  29. ^ Conzen, Kathleen Neils (2003). Germans in Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press. p. 94.
  30. ^ Shinomiya, Sharon. "Gates Ajar" (PDF). 1 Como Park History Tour: Part I. District 10 Como Community Council. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  31. ^ Hoppin, Jason (3 April 2007). "Gates gone but not for long". Pioneer Press. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  32. ^ "1894 Print Gates Ajar Washington Park Chicago". Period Paper. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  33. ^ "Vintage Linen Postcard - Gates Ajar, Roger Williams Park - Providence, RI". eBay Listings. eBay. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  34. ^ "Gates Ajar Morgan on Death Valley Days". Internet Movie Data Base. October 5, 1966. Retrieved October 3, 2018.
  35. ^ a b c d e Tubb, Benjamin Robert. "Music from 1866–1899". Public Domain Music. Retrieved 17 April 2014.
  36. ^ Jones, F. O. (1886). A Handbook of American Music and Musicians containing Biographies of American Musicians, and Histories of the Principal Musical Institutions, Firms and Societies. Canaseraga, NY: F O Jones. p. 175.
  37. ^ "THE GATE AJAR FOR ME". NetHymnal. Retrieved 18 April 2014.
  38. ^ "Gates Ajar". Net Hymnal. Retrieved 18 April 2014.
  39. ^ Kurzenknabe, John Henry (1885). Gates ajar : a collection of hymns and tunes for use in Sunday-schools, praise and prayer meetings, etc. Harrisburg, PA: J.H. Kurzenknabe & Sons. p. 3.
  40. ^ "Funeral of Edwin H. Hobbs". Portland [ME] Daily Press. 16 February 1881. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  41. ^ Penn, William [pseud] (1899). Facts About Welsh Factors. Utica, NY: Griffiths Press. p. 422.
  42. ^ "B. F. Lewis Dead". Watertown Daily Times. June 4, 1897. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  43. ^ Webb (23 September 1881). "The Last Sad Rites". Boston Journal. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  44. ^ "At Washington". Summit County Beacon (Akron, OH). 28 September 1881. Retrieved 16 April 2014.
  45. ^ "Sympathy flowers italflorist". YouTube. Retrieved 16 April 2014.

External links[edit]