U.S. Christian Commission

views updated

U.S. Christian Commission

Before the outbreak of the American Civil War, civilians had paid little attention to the spiritual needs of soldiers. By the end of 1861, however, with the mobilization of large volunteer forces, the opportunity for an organization devoted to soldiers' spiritual needs arose. The United States Christian Commission (USCC) was organized at a Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) meeting held in New York from November 14 to November 15, 1861, with the passage of a resolution by thirty-six delegates. This document recognized one of the YMCA's duties as promoting "the spiritual and temporal welfare of soldiers and sailors, and created a Christian Commission of twelve members, who were to serve gratuitously appoint necessary agents, and report their accomplishments to the Young Men's Christian Association and to the public" (Cannon 1951, pp. 63–64).

The new USCC was hierarchically structured. George Hay Stuart (1816–1890), a Philadelphia merchant and Presbyterian lay leader, was named the chairman of the organization. In August 1862, John A. Cole was appointed general field agent—the man in charge of all the paid field agents in each army corps. These individuals supervised volunteer delegates—those ministers who performed the grassroots work of the organization, serving in both hospitals and in battlefield regiments. According to the historian M. Hamlin Cannon, those delegates sent to the battlefield served a two-week tour of duty while those stationed in camps or at hospitals served for six weeks (1951, pp. 64, 66). At the height of the USCC's influence, about 5,000 volunteer delegates worked for the organization (Woodworth 2001, p. 167).

Goals and Activities

The main goal of the USCC was "to bring men to Christ," an objective achieved through two main activities (Cannon 1951, p. 70). First, USCC delegates strove to help regimental chaplains in all aspects of their jobs: providing pastoral care for their men, distributing tracts, and assisting with worship services. The USCC proved especially helpful in constructing chapels for men in camp. William R. Eastman, a chaplain for the Seventy-second New York Regiment, recalled that during the winter of 1863–1864, "the Christian Commission lent a large canvas to cover any log chapel that might be built and there were several brigade chapels that winter near Brandy Station, each seating more than a hundred men" (Eastman 2003, pp. 120–121). The USCC also maintained their own prayer spaces, such as the chapel at City Point, Virginia, the main supply depot for the Union armies operating in Virginia from 1864 to 1865. Described by Thomas Scott Johnson, a USCC delegate stationed at City Point, two services were held there daily, "the one a prayer meeting held at two o'clock and the other a regular evening service with preaching at 7 o'clock" (Kaliebe 1966, p. 45).

Second, the USCC delegates provided for the physical needs of the soldiers themselves. This undertaking included providing soldiers with stationery and stamped envelopes. Moses Smith, Chaplain of the Eighth Connecticut Volunteers, Army of the James, explained in The Congregationalist that "the Commission Tent allowed me to draw daily a quire of paper and package of envelopes for our men" (January 20, 1865). In addition, the USCC delegates tended the wounded, serving as nurses. At Gettysburg, Surgeon General William Alexander Hammond (1828–1900) praised the assistance of the USCC in a letter sent to George Hay Stuart dated July 20, 1863, and reprinted in the Bangor (ME) Daily Whig & Courier. Hammond noted that without the aid of USCC delegates at the battle "the suffering would have been much greater" (July 31, 1863).

Commended by such prominent civilians as Surgeon General Hammond for their dedication and hard work, USCC delegates were beloved by many of those soldiers who had been in their care. An article printed in the Vermont Chronicle in 1864 related the message quite clearly, explaining that "The delegate who passes through the hospitals with his shining badge upon his breast continually hears the testimony of these men, saying, 'You saved my life!' 'Many of us would have been in our graves but for you'—and similar things" (August 6, 1864).

The Union military establishment also helped the USCC in any possible manner. Its assistance most was explicitly seen in Grant's order pertaining to USCC delegates, dated December 12, 1863, and reprinted in the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin the following year. Promulgated in Chattanooga, Tennessee, this order gave delegates permission "to pass to all parts within the lines, without hindrance or molestation" and charged the Commissary Department to sell goods to USCC delegates. It also allowed delegates to use military telegraph lines. Perhaps most useful to the USCC, however, was that Grant charged the Quartermaster's Department with providing delegates with "free transportation upon all government steamers and military railroads to and from such points within the military divisions as their duties may require them to visit" (May 5, 1864).

The Home Front's Support

The work of the USCC among the soldiers in the field and in hospitals would not have been successful or even attempted without money raised by the organization on the home front. Collections for the organization were taken throughout the Northern states. At the anniversary meeting of the USCC held in Philadelphia in 1863, the Bangor (ME) Daily Whig & Courier stated, "a very large collection was taken up at the close, and rings, brooches, and other jewelry were found in it" (February 13, 1863). The city of Boston was another major contributor. George H. Stuart noted in the North American and United States Gazette that the citizens of Boston had given twenty-six thousand dollars and had not yet completed their fundraising activities (July 13, 1863).

Later in the conflict, Stuart made a specific appeal for more donations to the cause. In one notable example, Stuart published a "Thanksgiving Appeal for the Nation's Defenders" in the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel. Here, he made a plea to the newspaper's readers for aid "in behalf of our country's defenders, for Thanksgiving day collections." He further elaborated: "Contributions of clothing, and comforts, as well as money, are needed" (November 9, 1863). In another request for money printed in the North American and United States Gazette, Stuart attempted to appeal to the Union population's religious base. He stated on behalf of the USCC delegates, "It remains for the Christian philanthropic people of the land to keep [the delegates] supplied with the means of carrying on and increasing their labors of love" (May 26, 1864).

Dwight L. Moody

Dwight Lyman Moody (1837–1899) was a member of the U.S. Christian Commission who became a well-known nineteenth-century evangelist and the founder of a Bible training school now known worldwide as Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Moody's institute, which opened in 1886, was intended to train laypeople to do evangelism; it was not a seminary for clergy.

Born in Northfield, Massachusetts, Moody went to Boston to work for an uncle in the shoe business while he was still a teenager. He had always been a devout church member, but after a conversion experience in 1854 he became interested in the Sunday School movement. Moody continued to be a Sunday School worker after he moved to Chicago in 1856. He was doing so well in the shoe business that his new employer sent him out as a commercial traveler, but after the Civil War began, Moody decided to give up secular employment for full-time evangelistic work.

As a member of the wartime U.S. Christian Commission Moody visited prisoner of war camps for Confederate soldiers in the Chicago area, handing out pocket-sized Bibles and holding revival meetings. After the war he traveled to England to study British methods of evangelism and to hear Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892), a famous English preacher. Moody himself began to preach in Scotland and Ireland as well as in England, drawing crowds as large as twenty thousand. He drew similarly large crowds after returning to the United States; President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) attended one of Moody's worship services in 1876. Moody was also invited to preach at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. He died in 1899 after a series of heart attacks.

Moody's preaching was noteworthy for the period because there was nothing sensationalist or flamboyant about his sermons. He was not attracted to controversy with other clergy, and he strove to be "homey" and sincere rather than entertaining or provocative. An example of Moody's warm and positive approach to faith is a sermon that he preached in 1873 called "The Qualifications for Soul-Winning." Here is an excerpt from that sermon:

I have observed that God never uses a man that is always looking on the dark side of things: what we do for Him let us do cheerfully, not because it is our duty—not that we should sweep away the word but because it is our privilege. What would my wife or children say if I spoke of loving them because it was my duty to do so? . . .

A London minister, a friend of mine, lately pointed out a family of seven, all of whom he was just receiving into the Church. Their story was this: going to church, he had to pass by a window, looking up at which one day, he saw a baby looking out; he smiled—the baby smiled again. Next time he passes he looks up again, smiles, and the baby smiles back. A third time going by, he looks up, and seeing the baby, throws it a kiss—which the baby returns to him. Time after time he has to pass the window, and now cannot refrain from looking up each time: and each time there are more faces to receive his smiling greeting; till by-and-by he sees the whole family grouped at the window—father, mother, and all. The father conjectures the happy, smiling stranger must be a minister, and so, next Sunday morning, after they have received at the window the usual greeting, two of the children, ready dressed, are sent out to follow him: they enter his church, hear him preach, and carry back to their parents the report that they never heard such preaching; and what preaching could equal that of one who had so smiled on them? Soon the rest come to the church too, and are brought in—all by a smile. Let us not go about, hanging our heads like a bulrush; if Christ gives joy, let us live it! The whole world is in all matters for the very best thing—you always want to get the best possible thing for your money; let us show, then, that our religion is the very best thing: men with long, gloomy faces are never wise in the winning of souls.



Marsden, George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, pp. 20–22. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991.

Moody, Dwight L. "The Qualifications for Soul-Winning," December 7, 1873. Available from http://www.biblebelievers.com/moody_sermons/m1.html.

Relations between the USCC and the USSC

During the course of the war, tensions arose between the USCC and another philanthropic organization, the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC). According to historian Gardiner Shattuck, this tension occurred due to the inherent differences between "two rival theological wings of American Protestantism—evangelical [the USCC] and liberal [the USSC]." Moreover, "the practical work that they both performed was similar" (Shattuck 1987, p. 29). Some chaplains in the field, such as Hallock Armstrong of the Fiftieth Regiment, Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers of the Ninth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, appeared to think that the USCC @was more beneficial than the USSC. Armstrong related an incident in a letter to his wife Mary, in which he saw the delegates at the USCC headquarters in Virginia "distributing a large number of beautiful medals, on which was inscribed the pledge 'Rum and tobacco I'll not use, Nor take God's name in vain,' yet when approaching the USSC headquarters, he "found them issuing large quantities of tobacco free to the boys" (March 23, 1865; quoted in Raup 1961, p. 13). Yet other chaplains felt both organizations were performing valuable work. The Reverend Andrew Jackson Hartsock, chaplain of the One Hundred and Tenth and the One Hundred and Thirty-third Pennsylvania Regiments, noted in a diary entry dated February 3, 1863, that "the agents of these organizations [the USCC and the USSC] are gentleman and Christians, and are doing a noble work" (Duram 1979, p. 59).

The United States Christian Commission provided for the spiritual and physical well-being of Union soldiers throughout the American Civil War. The USCC delegates, although serving only for a limited period of time and without pay, augmented the strength of the official paid military chaplains assigned to both regiments in the field and hospitals. Supported by donations from the home front, USCC delegates successfully spread evangelical Christianity while at the same time providing for the physical needs of soldiers. Soldiers, chaplains, and even General Grant acknowledged the USCC's important role, yet over the course of the conflict tensions sometimes flared between the USCC and the other large philanthropic body that aided the troops, the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC).


Cannon, M. Hamlin. "The United States Christian Commission." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 38, no. 1 (June 1951): 61–80.

Duram, James C., and Eleanor A. Duram, eds. Soldier of the Cross: The Civil War Diary and Correspondence of Rev. Andrew Jackson Hartsock. Manhattan, KS: Military Affairs/Aerospace Historian Publishing for the American Military Institute, 1979.

Eastman, William R. "A Yankee Chaplain Remembers." In Faith in the Fight: Civil War Chaplains, John W. Brinsfield, William C. Davis, Benedict Maryniak, and James I. Robertson Jr., eds. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.

Fredrickson, George M. The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of the Union. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993 [1965].

Kaliebe, Jon Edward. "The Letters of Thomas Scott Johnson: His Work among the Negro as Christian Commission Delegate and Chaplain, 1864–1866." Master's thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1966.

Moorhead, James H. American Apocalypse: Yankee Protestants and the Civil War, 1860–1869. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

Raup, Hallock F., ed. Letters from a Pennsylvania Chaplain at the Siege of Petersburg, 1865. London: The Eden Press, 1961.

Shattuck, Jr., Gardiner H. A Shield and Hiding Place: The Religious Life of the Civil War Armies. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987.

Smith, Moses. "The U.S. Christian Commission." The Congregationalist, January 20, 1865.

"Special Notices U.S. Christian Commission." North American and United States Gazette, July 13, 1863.

Stuart, George H. Letter to the editor, North American and United States Gazette, May 26, 1864.

"U.S. Christian Commission." Bangor (ME) Daily Whig & Courier, February 13, 1863.

"U.S. Christian Commission." Bangor (ME) Daily Whig & Courier, July 31, 1863.

"The U.S. Christian Commission." Daily Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, May 5, 1864.

"U.S. Christian Commission Thanksgiving Appeal for the Nation's Defenders." Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, November 9, 1863.

"U.S. Christian Commission: The Present Campaign in Virginia,—Marches and Battles," Vermont Chronicle (Bellows Falls), August 6, 1864.

Woodworth, Steven E. While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Benjamin L. Miller

About this article

U.S. Christian Commission

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


U.S. Christian Commission