The United States Christian Commission (USCC) was somewhat similar to the United States Sanitary Commission, but their ultimate goals were different. While the Sanitary Commission focused on cleaning up camps, the Christian Commission worked to preach the gospel.
Organized to Share
In November 1861, the Young Men’s Christian Association leaders met to discuss what they could do to promote religion and good morals in the Union army. From those meetings came the United States Christian Commission.
All volunteers, the mission field workers and organizers were called delegates. The common bond between all the delegates was their profession of Protestant theology, a desire to preach the gospel, and a call to minister to the soldiers. Almost all were civilians – some were theological seminary students, but most were ministers from small communities.
“Let me stand hear and shout the gospel at you while you’re perishing from physical thirst” is not an effective was to evangelize. The delegates of the USCC realized they needed to earn the respect and trust of the soldiers; they needed to provide physical supplies and aid.
Similar to the Sanitary Commission, the USCC collected and stockpiled supplies which were transported to camps or battlefields to aid the soldiers and surgeons. It has been estimated that the USCC delegates distributed over $6 million dollars worth of supplies during the war. They also distributed thousands of Bibles and religious tracts.
These chaplains entered hospitals, camps, and prisons, bringing much needed food, bandages, clothing, Bibles, religious tracts, and a message of salvation by faith through Christ.
A Positive Response
Unlike the Southern armies, the Union did not experience the widespread religious revivals during the war. However, surely many soldiers’ lives were changed or encouraged by the ministry of the volunteer chaplains.
Remember the negative feelings toward the Sanitary Commission? (You can read the details here.) Surprisingly, the USCC was more readily welcomed by the military, particularly the officers. This reaction wasn’t necessarily for the right spiritual reasons, but it does reveal some interesting effects.
The military officers liked the USCC delegates because they encouraged the men to avoid drinking, loose moral actions, gambling, and other vices. It was frequently observed during the war that men with real faith were better soldiers. Thus, the officers took the practical (but not so spiritual view) that the chaplains could help with camp discipline.
How the actual enlisted soldiers felt about it depends on the individual. Some resented the reminder of sin and need for repentance. Many simply wanted the supplies and didn’t care about religion. Others welcomed the opportunity to go to camp meetings or talk with a minister.
General Buford, Gettysburg, and The USCC
General John Buford – the cavalry commander who “started” the battle at Gettysburg – got the USCC to Gettysburg. He and his troops were guarding supply wagons down in Maryland in the days immediately following the battle.
A delegate from the USCC approached the general, explaining they had wagons of supplies that they wanted to get the Gettysburg, but the roads were jammed and they couldn’t get military permission.
Conscious of the horrible aftermath situation unfolding at Gettysburg and presumably favorable to the cause of the commission, Buford gave the necessary permission and ordered his troopers to clear the road for the wagons. Thus, Buford sent some of the first relief supplies toward Gettysburg under the care of dedicated delegates of the USCC.
A Practical Example
A Christian is called to serve. During the Last Supper, Christ said to his apostles “For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? …I am among you as the One who serves.” (Luke 22:27, NKJV)
The delegates of the United States Christian Commission leave us with a positive example of evangelism and service to those in need. They saw a spiritual need they stepped forward to live their faith in military camps, on battlefields, at hospital bedsides, or in prisons. May their actions inspire us to find practical ways to share our faith and serve those around us.
P.S. Do you think the USCC’s efforts to bring supplies was a distraction from their goal of preaching the gospel or do you think it enforced the Christian call to serve?