Baptists and the American Civil War: February 8, 1863


The Confederate capitol building, Richmond, Virginia

Today from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, pastor John L. Burrows delivers a rousing sermon criticizing the opening of a new theatre in the Confederate capital. The new theatre replaces the city’s Hewitt Theatre that had burned on New Year’s day, and was built and is owned by a woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Magill, one of few women in the Confederacy who own and operate threatres.

The sermon in the Baptist church is delivered one day before the theatre’s opening and is a discourse that voices common Baptist ministerial opposition to worldly amusements.

The beginning and conclusion of the message is thus:

Tomorrow night the New Richmond Theatre is to be opened. I deem it fitting, in addition to the notices so liberally given through the daily press, to give this public notice from the pulpit. With surprising energy, and regardless of cost, in these pinching times of war, a splendid building, with most costly decorations, has been reared from the ashes of the old. Build­ers, artists, workmen, have devoted themselves with an enterprise and industry that would be praiseworthy, if, in any sense, their work were useful in these pressing times of war. Enough able-bodied men have escaped from the conscription, have, perhaps, purchased the right to keep away from the camp and the battles in order to accomplish this magnificent work, for a consideration. The work is completed; the decorations are finished, and to­morrow night the New Richmond Theatre is to be opened. A strong corps of actors, male and female, have been secured, and, in addition to them, “twenty gentlemen for the chorus and the ballet.” No cripples from the battle­fields are these—they can sing and dance; they can mimic fighting on the stage. For the serious work of repelling a real enemy they have neither taste nor heart. But they can sing while the country groans, and dance while the cars are bringing, in sad funeral procession, the dead to their very doors, and the dismal ambulance bears the sick and the wounded under the very glare of their lights, and within the sound of their music. They keep themselves out of the war for the noble duty of amusing the populace* Should they not, in these times, be especially encouraged, particularly by those whose own brave sons are in the camp or in the hospital, or whose mangled bodies are mouldering in uncoffined graves? Does it not seem a peculiarly happy time for theatrical amusements? Shall we all go and laugh and clap to the music and the dance, while the grasp of relentless foes is tightening upon the throats of our sons, and the armed heels of trampling hosts are bruising the bosom of our beloved mother land ? What fitter time for opening a theatre in the capital of our bleeding country, unless it could have been on the evening of the battle of Malvern Hill or of Fredericksburg? But enterprise and industry could not secure the completion of the building in time for those bloody days, or we should, doubtless, have had the theatre open every night, while the battle raged by day, around the very suburbs of Richmond. “A strong stock company,” and “twenty gentlemen for the chorus and the ballet,” besides artists, musicians, etc., etc. Men enough, perhaps, to form an effective artillery company, deny themselves the patriotic desire to aid in defending the country against assailing foes, in order that they may devote themselves, fellow citizens, to your amusement. And you, doubtless, in your generous liberality, will pay them enough to purchase sub­stitutes, that they may abide in safety, and with these “twenty gentlemen of the chorus and the ballet,” minister to your amusement.

I find, in my heart, no sympathy with that austere and morose idea of religion, which forbids a laugh, and prohibits recreation and amusement. I find no pleasure in tracing the wrinkles of seventy upon the brow of seventeen. It is contrary to nature and piety to curb and cramp, perpetually, the cheerful impulses of the young heart, and force it into the unnatural faith that gloom is godliness, and that innocent mirth is but the outburst of de­pravity. If God had not meant we should laugh, He would not have created the risible nerves and muscles. From the severer duties and struggles of life there may be and there ought to be relaxations and mere pleasures in every family and in every community. Sincere and intelligent piety is always cheerful, and Christians are enjoined in the Word to rejoice and to “ rejoice evermore.” I am not disposed, therefore, to insist upon any captious or churlish denunciation of the theatre, mainly because it is a place of amusement. If there were no graver objections to it than this, you would not be troubled with utterances against it from this desk. Nor is it against the ideal theatre of some pure and poetic minds that I protest. There are some who tell us that dramatic representations might be given that would be harmless and even useful in impressing wholesome moral lessons, and in conveying religious truths. It is very possible. It is not difficult for us to imagine pure, even religious dramatic representations. In Roman Catholic countries it has been tried, and the narratives of scripture, even the passion of Christ, have been dramatized and acted. But we propose to discuss not what the theatre possibly might be, but what it is. When we hear of a theatre which is not the favorite gathering place of the vicious, where the Gospel of Jesus is preached, or even where a pure and chaste morality is inculcated, where we are not compelled to countenance and mingle with vice in its most odious forms, we shall recommeud the place. But the question is not, might not the good visit the theatre if the representations and associations were pure and respectable, but may they do so as it exists? Some talk of the possibility of the theatre and making it reputable. When this is done it will be time to invite the good and the pure within its walls….

…The antagonism between a pure church and the playhouse has been intense and unintermitted from the beginning of the Church. As we have seen, Chris­tians were known in the Roman cities, when churches began to be organized, by their declining to go to the plays and spectacles of the amphitheatre. Only when the Church itself has become corrupt, by alliance wilth the State, or by the general decay of the principles and spirit of piety, has the stage been tolerated by its pastors or members. There are struggles in the minds of some, professing to be Christian*, toward worldliness, conformity to the world in its principles of business, in its spirit, maxims, amusements. And sometimes the restraints of discipline are relaxed, so as to overlook these excursions of members into precincts altogether worldly. There are some whose consciences will not permit them to live without some sort of religion, and yet who are still too worldly-minded to devote themselves to a life of self-sacrifice, who cannot renounce “the pomps and vanities of this world.” They want to love both the church and the world. But Jesus has said, “if any man love the world the love of the Father is not in him.” “I f any man will be friend of the world he is the enemy of God.”  “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Some prefer a church whose discipline and spirit will allow them the largest latitude. Thus, they desire to be at the same time in the church, and therefore on the way to Heaven, and in the world, and therefore en­grossed by its spirit, and participants in all its frivolities and amusements. They can decorously confess themselves “miserable sinners” on the Sabbath, and on Monday contend that there is no sin in the ball, the card game, the theatre or any other practice or pleasure in which they indulge themselves. “Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord.” “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve. I f the Lord be God serve Him, but if Baal then serve him.”

You, my young friends, professing to be Christians, never allow the solici­tations nor jeers of false friends to turn you from the steadfastness and dignity of an upright testimony against evil, nor induce you to share in the impurities of those frivolous, worldly amusements that wound the conscience, stain the heart and impair the usefulness of a Christian.

Among the ingenious instruments of torture invented by tyrants in the olden time, this is said to have been one. In a gorgeously furnished chamber stood a richly dressed image of a beautiful maiden. Her arms were stretched open, and the languishing eye and alluring smile seemed to woo an admirer to her embrace. While soft, sweet strains of music swelled upon his car, the victim was placed within the reach of those extended arms, and slowly, slowly they encircled him, as if in love. But as he was drawn nearer and nearer to that treacherous breast, he felt the puncture of sharp needles, con­cealed by the drapery, over his heart. And as the protracted pressure from which there was no escape, drew him lingeringly to her bosom, his heart was pierced by an hundred sharp stillettoes, and there folded within those perfi­dious arms, he stood a ghastly corpse.

So the stage and attractive worldly amusements may lure you by a cheer­ful inviting aspect, and “a voice like the voice of protecting friendship may bid you there, and a welcome like the welcome of honest kindness, may hail your accession to the society, and a spirit like the spirit of exhilarating joy may animate the whole scenc before you,” but behind all those allurements, horrible death is lurking, glaring upon you. Oh, then, let me implore you, by the worth of heavenly joys and the horror of infernal woes. “Enter not into these paths o  the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men. Avoid it, pass not by it; turn from it and pass away.”  “Her house is the way to Hell, going down to the chambers of Death.”

Sources: John L. Burrows, “A Discourse, Delivered on Sunday, February 8, 1863, in the First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.”, Richmond: Smith, Bailey & Co., 1862, pp. 3-4, 14-15 (link); Jane Kathleen Curry, Nineteenth-Century American Women Theatre Managers, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994 (link)