In order to begin to
understand the experiences of the historic
churches of Fredericksburg, one must first
look at the locality and the important
role that organized religion played in it.
I'd like to start off with a couple
passages from my Introduction to 'Houses
of the Holy':
Virginia is known as "America's Most
Historic City," while the neighboring
county of Spotsylvania is referred to as
the "Crossroads of the Civil War." Both
are literally saturated with landmark
homesteads, museums, plantations and
battlefields, which draw thousands of
tourists each and every year. Churches
remain among some of the most coveted
attractions, for their historical
significance and architectural beauty.
Thankfully, many of these houses of
worship from the 19th century remain to
this very day as a testament to the
generations of congregations that have
cared for them.
Fredericksburg has also
been referred to as a "city of churches"
as its silhouette is dominated by a
plethora of bell towers and steeple roofs.
Today there are over 300 congregations
spread throughout the surrounding region.
Clearly, anyone walking through the town
can see the important role religion played
in the day-to-day lives of the town's
inhabitants. Chartered in 1728, the
settlement served as the surrounding
area's political, social and economic
center. As it was conveniently located on
the banks of the Rappahannock River,
Fredericksburg quickly became a bustling
metropolis, with taverns, lodging and
commerce. Both eighteenth and nineteenth
century industries such as mills, shipping
and transportation helped to establish the
town as a commercial beacon on the
ever-expanding map of Central Virginia.
Despite a widespread
disenchantment among America's first
settlers with the Church of England,
religion remained a precious keystone in
colonial life. Many of the eighteenth and
nineteenth century citizens still retained
their belief in God and brought the deep
desire to practice their faith with them,
when they came to this new land. It was
the freedom to pursue that faith in a
variety of forms that separated the early
Protestant and even Catholic churches from
their European counterparts. Therefore,
churches were significantly important
institutions in the foundation of any
settlement in the 'New World.'
They were certainly
important here in Fredericksburg. Without
getting too far into detail about the
earliest origins of the city, I will add
that my own preconceived notions of the
town were pretty far off. This town was
far from a commercial success when it
started out. In fact, Fredericksburg went
through some harsh times in regards to its
development and economy. I could spend a
whole night speaking on that alone.
In 1828, residents here
realized that the development of their
city was seriously lagging behind the
nearby cities of Alexandria (to the north)
and Richmond (to the south). As a result,
they launched a thirty-year expansion
plan. Unfortunately many of
Fredericksburg's long-term projects proved
to be poorly planned or executed. By 1858,
most had fallen into bankruptcy, after
uncoordinated and intermittent attempts to
complete them were unsuccessful.
Looking around today, it's
hard to believe that development of any
kind would fail.
Eventually many of these
matters were tended to, but a rift
remained between the citizens of the city
who found differences in social,
political, and spiritual aspects of life.
Slave holding was a particularly sensitive
issue, as the town's white citizens were
divided along pro and anti-slavery lines.
For some, it was simply an issue of
morality, while others considered slavery
to be a self-defeating business that
encouraged the town's economic lethargy.
Simply put, forced or involuntary labor
seemed to produce less than desirable
results from a demoralized and disgruntled
workforce. Numbers of influential white
citizens held meetings at the Town Hall
calling for the support of African
colonization. These meetings were deemed
unpopular by many, as the institution of
slavery in the Old Dominion had been in
place for generations.
Needless to say, the issue
of race-relations and slavery is a major
piece in my book. It's a controversial and
unpleasant subject at times, but it plays
an important role in the history of the
churches as you will see later. A freedom
of another kind also has a significant
place in Fredericksburg's legacy...