|The Richmond Theatre Fire of 1811: A Case Study of American Disaster as Evangelical Opportunity|
|In December of 1811 the southern U.S. city of Richmond, Virginia, was briefly catapulted into the national (and international) spotlight when seventy-two of its leading citizens, including the governor of the state and a former U.S. Senator, were killed in a fire. The conflagration, which engulfed a packed public theatre midway through a performance, was one of the worst urban disasters in North American history to that point. The drama and the tragedy of the event captured the national imagination immediately, and the fire remains a defining event for Virginia’s capitol city to this day. The site of the destroyed theatre—where Monumental Church was quickly built to commemorate the victims and mark their collective grave—remains a major venue for tourists to this day.
The fire offers an opportunity to consider the rise of evangelicalism in the American South from a fresh perspective. In 1811, this region was just in the process of becoming the “bible belt” of the United States, and Virginia, the largest state in the Union, was doing far more than any other to populate that region. Through the public discussions of the fire, Richmonders, and Virginians, debated what they believed to hold their community together and what they thought their city should aspire to. Evangelicals, particularly Baptists and Methodists, commented very pointedly on the fire and significantly expanded their hold on Richmonders and Virginians in its wake. This paper is a study of their rhetoric and its impact on southern institutions and culture.
Prior to the fire, Richmond had sought to cast itself as an international and cosmopolitan enclave in a rural and agricultural state that was in danger of being entirely cut off from the intellectual and cultural currents of the Atlantic World. Virginians went to Richmond not just for trade or politicking, but also to make themselves culturally literate, which is to say schooled in the popular diversions of Europe (even the playbill on the night of the fire was of European origin). Evangelical ministers used the fire as a jumping off point to attack the theatre and other secular amusements and to refocus people’s attention on the church, a mission at which they were astoundingly successful. They and city fathers alike, in the aftermath of the fire, took steps to sever Richmonders’ (and Virginians’) ties to an Atlantic culture and to turn their gaze inward, upon their region and their communities, as well as their churches. In sermons and publications, religious leaders made sense of the disaster as God’s punishment for the city’s sins and called upon Virginians to turn their backs on superfluous entertainments and interests and fix their sights very narrowly on the Lord. Popular amusements took on a very different character in this new environment that was distinctly southern, distinctly American, and distinctly evangelical.