The Theater Fire Hymn

It’s a little-known fact that the Richmond Theater fire had a “theme song” of sorts. A hymn was composed to be sung at city-wide services held on January 1st, 1812. (The day was set aside as a day of fasting and prayer in Richmond, Virginia in commemmoration of the dead–businesses closed, all churches opened to host multiple services to handle the crowds, and so on.) James E. Goode, in his 1858 Full Account of the Burning of the Richmond Theatre, on the Night of December 26, 1811 included the entire hymn.

Goode’s book is the only place that I ran across it, and the hymn is particularly special because of the theological ideas it expresses. It confirms the idea that in Richmond, the victims were presumed to be in heaven (vs. consigned to hades for the sin of theatergoing/frivolity/etc., as some ministers asserted). It also shows that the horrible event was hoped to result in the moral improvement of other citizens and survivors, who should live “more obedient” lives after such a shocking experience.

There wasn’t room to fit the entire song into the book, so here it is:

Borne down with age, disease, in war,
Or famine, tho’ we fall;
All conq’ring death, how dreadful are
Thy visitations all!

But arm’d with fire that mocks our flight,
Eludes our force to quell,
What tongue thy terrors can recite,
Thy horrors who can tell!

Dear victims of its recent rage,
How wretched was your end,
Were Jesus not, in Truth’s fair page,
Proclaimed the suff’rers friend!

But tho’ to frail untimely dust,
Your fleeting forms are given—
Array’d in glory, HE, we trust,
Has placed your souls in heav’n. 

The wailings of weak nature, Lord,
In mercy now forgive,
And more obedient to thy word
Inspire us hence to live. 

Then may we hope above the bourne,
Of sublunary woes,
Again to meet the friends we mourn,
Where bliss eternal flows.