Clay Street: Hymns and Hospitals

Shaye Ellis


Richmond’s position as a dividing line between the North and the South significantly influenced the culture and population of the city. The city’s industry reflected Northern counterparts, while its social interactions and values were quintessentially Southern. Religious values were fundamental in the region and Richmond’s devout dedication to faith was evident in the “antebellum skyline [that] bristled with steeples and domes of its many denominations.”[1] The presence of religion remained and expanded as the city evolved into the capital of a new nation in the midst of war. By the eve of the American Civil War, Richmond “boasted thirty-three churches from every major denomination”[2] several of which resided on Clay Street, merely blocks from the Capitol, the center of the secular and political realm of the city. As the war progressed and faith transformed into a unique identity for the nation to justify the actions of the Confederacy, the functions of the Clay Street buildings adjusted accordingly.

Churches served not only as the foundation of religion and morality, but also a base for social interaction. Clay Street bustled on Sunday mornings as Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists entered their respective buildings to hear the word of God preached from the pulpit; however, the services provided more than time for pious reflection. As the war loomed and tensions increased, the objective of the weekly meetings shifted from prayers and sharing idle gossip to conveying pertinent information regarding the Union and subsequently, war reports. In fact, “throughout the war, news circulated most completely on Sundays within and between the city’s churches.”[3] News of recent events and mounting tensions between the Union and the Confederacy spread through extensive networks of communication. Despite the sharing and comparing of stories that followed Sunday services, Clay Street reverends likely followed the lead of well known religious leaders in the community and attempted to keep politics and scripture separate and distinct.

In April 1861, the war began and changes swept through Richmond, inducing preachers to modify their perspective on the role religion would play in the infant nation. Within the churches “the boundaries between politics and piety were hurriedly being redrawn”[4] as the Confederacy turned to religion as a driving factor and source of motivation for the war ahead, and Clay Street was no exception. On the Sunday following the attack on Fort Sumter, there was a drastic shift in the tenor of the sermons. Up and down Clay Street, reverends “were equally enthusiastic and unwaveringly certain about the morality of their course” and created the image of the Southern states united as a “chosen nation fighting a righteous crusade.”[5] The religious community not only justified the actions and motivations of the Confederate States, it summoned support and unified the congregations in a concerted effort, including converting numerous churches into hospitals to care for wounded soldiers. For a month in September 1861, the Clay Street Chapel, on the “corner [of] Brook Avenue and Clay Street”[6] tended to 70 patients.[7] Shortly thereafter, a new hospital opened between 5th and 6th Streets to address the rising need for medical treatment.[8] The vibrant exchange of news after Sunday service gave way to the tidal wave of change that followed secession, the start of the war, and the active role of the Church in the conflict.

Religious leaders made repeated appeals on Sundays when “most of the hearers of the sermons delivered in churches were female,” which explains the “powerful source of women’s involvement in the war and their growing sense of political involvement in the struggle.”[9] By the end of April 1861, women’s organizations from the Clay Street Baptist and Methodist Episcopal Churches were engrossed in volunteer efforts for the government. As a strong representation of moral standards and values, women worked under the guidance of their churches and reverends to “prepare lint, bandages and uniforms for our soldiers”[10] and collect materials to “make up uniforms for the volunteers.”[11] Churches became the center for information exchanges and volunteer efforts. Rather than staying isolated from secular matters and wartime actions, churches actually became a hub for them.

Religion in Richmond thrived in the wartime environment, motivating and spurring the South towards imminent battles and potential victories. The new Confederate States of America founded their national identity on strong religious principles and ideals. Southern religious leaders viewed the secession and creation of the Confederacy as a “liberating event” and one that “pointed to a glorious future and announced the birth of a unique Christian nation.”[12] This pious image of the Confederacy provided all denominations with a fresh, larger platform from which to preach, and Clay Street’s growth and development exemplified the escalation of religion that resulted from the Civil War. Ground broke on a new Episcopal Church in early 1861. This church, designed to seat six to eight hundred would “not only be a handsome one, but quite an ornament to the portion of the city in which it is located.”[13] Importantly, church buildings were not simply a religious meeting place; they were also a physical representation of the pride felt for the religion practiced within. Richmonders found it essential to portray the style and significance of the urban religious life to travelers visiting the city.[14] The Baptists of Richmond collected funds to construct another place of worship on Clay Street “so that soon we may hope to see a nice church in every community.” [15] Reverend Thomas A. Ware capitalized on the current religious zeal by organizing a revival that produced fifteen new members for his Clay Street Methodist Church, at the corner of Clay and Adams Streets, confirming, “in these exciting times the subject of religion is not lost sight of.”[16]

Notably, the separation of church and state, a concept widely discussed and debated in American history, was inapplicable in the Confederate States of America. Records from the secular and religious presses from the start of the war in April 1861, until the final surrender four years later, demonstrate frequent and substantial overlap between the two sectors. Religion justified political action and the government supported and encouraged a devout and faithful culture. This close relationship was undeniable when “preachers could now politicize from the pulpit, [and] magistrates could preach from the podium.”[17] Further, it brought a cohesive message to the Confederate population. One Clay Street reverend, E.J. Willis, even served heroically as captain in Company A of the 15th Virginia and “encouraged men by every possible means”[18] on the battlefield as he did from the pulpit of the Baptist church. Both secular and religious organizations relied on the printed press to spread the word to a larger audience. Several denominations formed their own publications, including the Central Presbyterian, The Religious Herald, and The Southern Churchman, “to report both religious and secular news.”[19] At the same time, the traditional publications expressed great interest in the religious community and “the Dispatch and the Enquirer had regularly printed advance notices of special religious lectures, summaries of local religious meetings, and synopses or even sometimes the minutes of regional church conferences.”[20]  A union, not separation, of church and state was the unquestionable reality of the region and the time.

Clay Street, Richmond is merely one small area that encompassed a broad and deeply ingrained religious culture in the city. Yet, its abundant houses of worship contributed to the landscape that allowed Richmond to identify itself as “the City of Churches.”[21] The four years of Civil War initiated a surge of religion that greatly defined not only Clay Street and its worshippers, but the city of Richmond, and the Confederacy as well. The expansion of religious foundations on Clay Street served many vital purposes, adapting to the shifting needs of its members and the community at large. Though the prominent steeples of Clay Street are no longer visible on the horizon, the dominance of religion remains an important factor in the history and identity of Richmond.

[1] Gregg D. Kimball, “American City in a Southern Place,” in American City, Southern Place: a Cultural History of Antebellum Richmond (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000), 49.

[2] Harry S. Stout and Christopher Grasso, “Civil War, Religion, and Communications: The Case of Richmond,” in Religion and the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 316,

[3] Stout and Grasso, Religion and the American Civil War, 316.

[4] ibid, 317.

[5] ibid, 318.

[6] Richmond Daily Dispatch, “Attention, company B, second Class Militia,” June 18, 1863, Military Notices sec.

[7] Richmond Daily Dispatch, “Ladies’ Hospitals in Richmond for the Sick Soldiers,” October 2, 1861, Local Matters sec.,

[8] Richmond Daily Dispatch, “New Hospital,” October 28, 1861, Local Matters sec.,

[9] Stout and Grasso, Religion and the American Civil War, 323.

[10] Richmond Daily Dispatch, “Tender of Service,” April 25, 1861, Local Matters sec.

[11] Richmond Daily Dispatch, “Aiding the Volunteers,” April 30, 1861, Local Matters sec.

[12] Stout and Grasso, Religion and the American Civil War, 322.

[13] Richmond Daily Dispatch, “New Church Edifice,” January 3, 1861, Local Matters sec.

[14] Kimball, “American City, Southern Place,” 49.

[15]  Richmond Daily Dispatch, “Church Extension,” April 5, 1861, Local Matters sec.

[16] Richmond Daily Dispatch, “Revival,” October 23, 1861, Local Matters sec.

[17] Stout and Grasso, Religion and the American Civil War, 322.

[18] Richmond Daily Dispatch, “Loss of Richmond Soldiers,” October 4, 1862, Local Matters sec.

[19] Stout and Grasso, Religion and the American Civil War, 327.

[20] ibid, 330.

[21] ibid, 316.

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