Antebellum Richmond, Fall 1995, College of William and Mary

Karen Resendes

December 11, 1995

A Beacon That Cannot Be Hid: The Religious Impact of the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811

On the night of December twenty-sixth, 1811, tragedy overcame the city of Richmond as the Richmond Theater burned to its foundations. That evening the Palcide and Green Company were performing "The Father" after the completion of the play, the actors moved onto the pantomime, "The Bleeding Nun", that was to follow. Between the first and second acts of the pantomime, a candle in the stage chandelier was left lit, and as the chandelier was drawn up above the stage, it set fire to the theater. Hopkins Robinson, one of the actors, yelled from the stage, "The house is on fire!". The crowd scattered like mice in an attempt to evacuate the house. What followed was an ugly scene. The theater contained between six and seven hundred men, women, and children of all races, a near full capacity crowd. Everyone was struggling to free themselves and their loved ones from the oncoming fire and fumes. The pit and the gallery were quickly emptied, but those in the boxes were not so lucky. Over one hundred people died, consumed by the dark cloud of smoke that filled into the boxes and the lobbies. Those who were not killed by the smoke perished at the hands of the collapsing building, leaping from windows, or falling with the crumbling staircase.

Darkness and pain dominated the images described by many survivors and historians. "In two minutes the whole audience was enveloped in hot scorching smoke and flame. The lights were all extinguished by the black and smothering vapor, cries, shrieks, a confusion and despair succeeded." As the vapors overtook the masses, awful "shrieks of despair" which many described as "appalling" emanated from the crowd.

This horrid imagery, however, does not end there. Although the windows brought salvation to some with a breath of fresh air, "air of heaven" they called it afterwards, the windows were the damnation of others. Of the many who tried to get out of the building by jumping out of the windows, some managed to escape unscathed, but many were brutally "killed or mangled by the fall." Others who attempted to take the stairs shared a similar hellish fate. Many people almost escaped through the door only to be crushed by the trampling feet of others, or by the bodies that fell on them as the stairs gave way and collapsed. Some people even reached the doorway and exited the building, but were so badly burned that their escape was meaningless.

After all of these people died, the American public did not merely mourn the loss and attempt to place the event in the past. The fire struck a nerve in the community, especially in the Protestant churches. The darkness and pain experienced by those who hurriedly attempted to escape the flames were seen as acts of God by the religious community, not only in Richmond but in several cities along the coast. The fire became the church's symbol for the sins of the theater, and their interpretations of fire brought about unprecedented success to their cause. The theater fire led to an outbreak of anti-theater preaching, sweeping the people into the ideology of the Second Great Awakening which had been moving in from the West.

The church's anti-theater rampage began soon after the fire. Like the fire itself, the movement spread rapidly in all directions, following Congress' call that:

Every minister of religion in the United States would with
pious zeal, embrace this opportunity, which the providence of
the Almighty has put in his power to call upon the people to
seek that temper and practice of righteousness which exalt, and
forsake the crooked ways of sin, which are a dishonor to any
people, especially to Americans who are so favored with civil
and religious blessing.

This movement hit many cities along the eastern seaboard and in the state of Virginia. As Richmond was recovering from the emotional and physical pain caused by the catastrophe, ministers everywhere began to preach. In the far north of Boston, Joseph Dana warned his church that those in Richmond were "neglectors of God", and that each sinner within their parish was liable to the same fate. In Philadelphia's Second Presbyterian Church, the public gathered to hear the minister speak of the theater's tendency to be "decisively hostile to religion and morals." Approaching farther south, the words of Episcopalian George Dasheill could be heard, who described the theater fire's impact as the "beacon that cannot be hid." The preaching of the fire's importance and meaning also spread westward. In the town of Winchester, Virginia, the message was given by Presbyterian William Hill. Hill warned his parishioners that they could feel sympathy for those who were lost, but reminded them to be an enemy of the theater.

As these men began to preach, they already had a strong foundation to back up their words because the ministers were not the only ones who believed that the fire was an act of God. Different members of the public voiced opinions similar to those of the church. Like the ministers, they attempted to create an awareness of God's presence in this situation. Public support of the churches' beliefs was the strongest in Richmond, where the fire had its most personal effects.

Several citizens of Richmond used magazines and newspapers to share their support of the churches' opinion of the fire with the rest of the community. A member of the Richmond community took it upon himself to chastise Editor Ritchie of the Richmond Enquirer for his criticism of the churches' claim that the fire was providential. Ritchie taunted those who believed that the fire was God's doing, and he termed their beliefs as superstitious in an article mostly pertaining to an earthquake on January 25, 1812. The public was quick to respond. A subscriber to the Virginia Patriot defended the public's belief in a letter to the magazine. The subscriber informed Ritchie that if he were to read the Bible, he would have been able to see that "God in his providence suffers the children of men to be afflicted, are so many rebukes as signal tokens of God's displeasure against sinners."

The strength of the public support for the churches grew through a similar incident that occurred just a few weeks later. The Virginia Argus published a letter from Oliver Whipple of Georgetown written to Richmond's mayor. Whipple harshly mocked Richmond's public "who class themselves among professing Christians" who asserted that the fire was "God's work." Whipple saw no solid reasoning for calling the fire a chance for God to "inflict deserved justice and avenge himself on this wicked people;" members of the Richmond public, however, did not agree with him. When Whipple asserted that a play may be "perfectly moral and instructing," a "Friend to Sound Doctrine" responded to Whipple's claims. The "Friend" destroyed Whipple's argument against the church's beliefs by accusing Whipple of misquoting and perverting scripture to back his points.

Other citizens spoke out about their distaste in the theater's conflicts with religion. After the fire an article was published in the Virginia Argus that criticized the extreme frequent blasphemy which occurred in the theater. The article called this profanity "an insult to the majesty of God." Once again the public began to take a religious stand against the theater.

Along with the words of the public, these preachers also drew on fables that suggested Christianity's long standing opposition to the theater. George Dashiell provides us with the earliest example of the churches' anti-theater beliefs. Dashiell pointed out that the "primitive Christians were most often excommunicated for attending the theater." Early evangelic magazines also depicted the evil influence of the theater on early Christians as they related the story of Alsypius. Forced to a gladiator show by pagan pranksters, Alyspius became so entranced by the theater that he left the church for the amphitheater.

The churches were greatly disturbed that the theater had such a great influence over people. Religious leaders knew "that no man can serve two masters", and thus continually worried about the "conflict between the pleasures of the world with the pleasures of religion." Because of this fear many ministers developed a dislike for the theater and its evil customs. Clergymen believed that the stage was merely "too revolting to the moral feelings." Many also saw the theater as a place where the profanity was awful and that phrases such as "God, God" and "Lord have mercy" were "even with the most reverence in appropriate places, blasphemous." It was also the belief of some that the sin created within the theater emanated from the actors and actresses. It was in the theater that these people were developing lives that were "extremely unfavorable to their immortal interests", a life of both "vanity and sin."

And so it was when the theater in Richmond burned down that fateful December evening that many religious leaders had the "conviction that a righteous God was at work." With the backing of the public and the church, these men began to preach to their people in the new style of evangelic Protestantism that was developing through the Second Great Awakening. The puritan belief of predestination was slowly fading away. The new belief was that although through the original sin each person started out damned, one has the opportunity to change one's fate. If one recognized that one was a sinner and submitted to God, one would be saved. It was preached that each person had the free will to save themselves from the fires of hell. Evangelicalism tended to turn away from the prior ideas of hellfire and damnation in order to take the "deepest spiritual impulses at face value." Preachers began to bring religion down to this more basic level where people could have a direct and personal relationship with God.

This new style of religion therefore destroyed the "meddling intermediaries between the believer and God." In doing so, preachers created the important "link between belief and action," which allowed people to see that events within their own social lives could have an impact on their religious lives. Protestantism therefore began to redefine itself through popular culture. Americans increasingly turned to "church membership as a means of formulating and rationalizing their own religious convictions amid the vagaries of modern life." Protestantism also began to mirror the social culture, where the dynamic style of preaching and the overwhelming audience participation was similar to the active style of the amusements of the time. Preachers were then able to use this religious tie with culture to tap into the new belief of personal responsibility for one's destination, which the Second Great Awakening had created. The Richmond Theater fire was a perfect time for preachers to use this connection to reach a large part of the population.

The Presbyterians, which had overwhelmingly taken in these new concepts, had a perfect chance to strengthen their congregations' beliefs by preaching about the fire. Presbyterian Hill and the Second Presbyterian church of Philadelphia took similar routes in their attempts to preach this conviction to their congregations. "Repent, Repent or likewise perish" became the common theme running through the cities and churches. They wanted to make it clear that one's fate was in one's hands. The preachers believed that those who perished were not all sinners; however, many also stated that just because one was not a victim of the fire, one was not necessarily a sinless person. The key was to look at these people as examples for oneself. One must be aware that unrepented sin, such as theater-going, brought harm, "a solemn warning of God's holy providence." Those, on the other hand, who recognized themselves as sinners and did not interpret people's bad fate as their own good fortune would give themselves a chance at salvation.

The Episcopalians, however, did not accept the ideas of the Second Great Awakening so openly. They approached the topic in a slightly different manner. Their focus was on fear. Rather than viewing the calamity as a reason to look to the self and repent, the Episcopalians were more traditional in their thinking. They saw the event as an example of what they should expect to happen to them in their own damnation. Joseph Dana stressed that it was always proper to regard such judgement by God as being important "to those who were there and saw, but also those far away," and so he suggested that public "adopt the language of the profit that is Richmond." The Episcopalian belief was that "scenes more awful surely await us,"meaning that although they had been saved from this calamity, they still had to be wary for their own lives. Dashiell continued to warn that "Death and all its modes are under His control." Like Dasheill, the words of the Episcopalians did not reflect the brightness of the ideology created by the Second Great Awakening; rather, they continued to suggest the darkness of damnation.

To strengthen their points, both the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians discussed similar biblical examples to demonstrate their ideas. The book of Job was the prime illustration used to relate their respective religious beliefs to the theater fire. Job was a "fearless and upright man... who feared God and avoided evil". The Lord one day asked Satan, "Have you noticed my servant Job, and that there is no one on earth like him, blameless and upright, fearing God and avoiding evil?". Satan responded by pointing out that Job had no reason to fear because he lived a life filled with great wealth and a wonderful family. The Lord then twice struck down upon Job, ruining all of the happiness that his life contained and plagued him with illness. Job continued to remain devoted to the Lord and "said nothing sinful". He spent much time after that in silence with his friends who all believed that Job must have had some sin hidden within in him.

Dashiell told his parish to look at Job and all the suffering that had come upon him although he was a sinless man. The afflictions upon Job were not all accidents, according to Dashiell; rather, they were God's messages. In punishing Job, God warned everyone else to beware, because the hand of God could come upon one like it did upon Job. Rather than using Job's story to show that God's wrath can come down on anyone, the Presbyterian William Hill presents Job in a different light. Hill looked to Job's friends instead of Job himself, and he scorned them for believing that because Job was being punished, he must have some inherent evil. Hill focused on the concept that it is wrong to presume "that His arrows are leveled against the wicked only." He related to his congregation that like Job one can have a sinless heart and still fall on hard times, but one must continue to repent, for like Job one can save one's soul.

Although the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians used Job to make different points, they were both able to affect their congregations and force them to see the importance of the theater fire. Both groups were also able to strengthen the faith of their congregations. The Richmond Presbyterians had been for quite a length of time planning a new place of worship. With the burning of the theater, the building of the new church was rushed into beginning. Sermons could be heard coming from the pulpit by the spring. The Episcopalians also began work on a new place of worship. Their chosen location was the plot of land where the theater used to stand.

The church embodied the connection between the fire and the Lord, and also drew together the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians. The committee that developed the idea of creating a church on the site contained three Episcopalians, William Fenwick, Thomas Taylor, and John Marshall (committee chairman), along with Presbyterian Benjamin Hatcher. The building became the Monumental Church, and when it was completed in the spring of 1814, it had inscribed upon it the names of all of those who died, sinner or not, and an urn containing their ashes.

It was ironic that a church was built on the theater's location, and that Marshall should head the committee for its construction. Marshall, who had also led the committee which built the theater, was now building a church where the new evangelicalism being preached had developed such a theatrical style. One theater, as a result of a competition for the attention of the people, was merely replacing another. The preachers who spoke of the fire, along with all of the other men who were preaching at the time, were largely a group of "restless young men of magnetic personality, highly skilled in the arts of communication and group mobilization." These men "became important and influential actors on the religious stage."

The people of Richmond continued to keep their religious based dislike of the theater strong for several years after the fire. Even after the Monumental church was completed in 1814, the feelings were still strong. In 1819 the new theater in Richmond faced many financial problems. The company manager, Charles Gilfet, cited the church, and "the continual attack upon the theater by the local clergy," as one of his major reasons for the theater's failure in Richmond. The ministers were still going strong, according to the editor of the Virginia Patriot, who pointed out that they still "daily hear it [the theater] ridiculed by the clergy." The parishioners were also still in strong opposition to the theater. Gilbert's income was greatly affected because "whatever the extent preachers were able to influence their parishioners, to precisely that extent did Gilbert suffer at the box office."

The suffering of the Richmond Theater Fire developed a religious awareness which pushed the Second Great Awakening forward. The strength of the sermons professed after the fire shed new light to an audience that previously listened little to the churches' warnings against the theater. Together the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians strengthened the beliefs of the people. The people who had laid out their support of the church through newspapers and magazines opened the doorway so that the entire public listened to the preachers and allowed themselves to be enlightened by the new church. Because the Protestant churches were able to grab the attention of the American public, the people were then wrapped up in the new evangelicalism. Although the Episcopalians continued to preach in their style of hellfire and damnation, while the Presbyterians moved into this new sphere of religiousness, both churches were able to use this tragic event to create a heightened awareness of God's presence in the American populous. Once the church had grabbed the attention of the public, it was able to draw itself a new role in the community by casting the sin-filled theater aside to create a new social gathering, the religious theater.