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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':

Today, Fredericksburg, 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...
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RELIGIOUS FREEDOM MONUMENT

Historically, the town is especially noteworthy with regard to all American faiths. It was here, at an establishment known as "Weedon's Tavern," where Thomas Jefferson met with his political contemporaries in 1777 and agreed to author a bill for religious liberties in America. Today, the Religious Freedom Monument stands proudly as a testament to that event.

The simple marker was first unveiled in 1932 and moved to its present location at Washington Avenue Mall at Pitt Street in 1977. The monument consists of small obelisk made of hewn stone blocks and pays tribute to Jefferson's words which resulted in the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

The statute, enacted in 1786, separated church and state and gave equal status to all faiths. It became the basis for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving all Americans the freedom to practice their religion or none at all. Jefferson himself proclaimed this bill to be one of his three proudest achievements, alongside authoring the Declaration of Independence and founding Virginia University. In fact, these three accomplishments are the only ones that he deemed worthy enough to inscribe on his grave marker at Monticello.
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THEN AND NOW

Here we have the courthouse building that is often mistaken for a church. The left photo was taken in the 1860's and the right is a recent shot. As you can see not much has changed 'physically' in the town's outer appearance, but I can assure you that the 'insides' of the city are very-very different today.

Of course much of this dramatic change came only after the American Civil War. Let's begin there and briefly recall Fredericksburg during the war in the winter of 1862

What was the area like and what was going on at the time? Well the Battle of Fredericksburg had recently transpired. This engagement was fought in and around the city in early December of 1862. It was fought between General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside. And it is remembered as one of the most one-sided battles of the American Civil War.

After crossing the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges, the Federal Army engaged a contingent of sharpshooters and skirmishers that had remained in the city following its evacuation. The result was urban-style combat. Once in possession of the battered town, the Federals faced a near impossible task of moving forward as Major General Robert E. Lee had positioned the artillery and infantry of his Army of Northern Virginia on the heights above the city, as well as in entrenched positions below. This brilliant tactical strategy dealt a devastating blow to the Union Army who was forced to conduct a series of doomed assaults while marching across an open field toward an impenetrable stone wall at the base of Marye's Heights.

The Richmond Examiner described it as a "stunning defeat to the invader, a splendid victory to the defender of the sacred soil." General Lee, normally reserved, was described by the Charleston Mercury as "jubilant, almost off-balance, and seemingly desirous of embracing everyone who calls on him." Another paper exclaimed that, "General Lee knows his business and the army has yet known no such word as fail."

A Union soldier wrote that, "We might as well have tried to take hell."
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RUINS OF FREDERICKSBURG

In a way he was absolutely right. Fredericksburg looked like hell during the Civil War. The Union's occupation followed a massive bombardment that left much of the town's structures in shambles. It was the first recorded incident of a shelling of a residential town in America and although the results were severe, the action itself was justified from a military standpoint.

Despite evacuating much of the civilian population, the Confederates had left behind a contingent of sharpshooters and skirmishers to wreak havoc on the engineering corps that was working to assemble the floating bridges. Their presence warranted the use of artillery on the city. The five churches that I will be speaking of tonight rose from the ashes of this carnage and are still pillars in the community today. All of them are located right in the beautiful downtown area.

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