The Schick Store, Christian Commission The Schick Store today
HQ in Gettysburg, PA 1863.
Another volunteer organization during the Civil War was the United States Christian Commission. The group had its roots in the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association). The YMCA was founded by George Williams in 1844 when he became concerned about the young men on London’s streets. The initial focus of the YMCA was to provide young men with a safe place in which they could pray and study the Bible. What made the Y unique was that it welcomed all young men, regardless of class at a time when the class system was in full sway. (YMCA.net)
Meanwhile, in America, Thomas Valentine Sullivan, a retired sea captain who was working as a marine missionary, noticed that sailors and merchants in Boston needed a safe place. He had heard about the YMCA's work in England, liked what it was doing, and on 25 December 1851 started the first Y in the United States at the Old South Church in Boston. (YMCA.net)
Ten years later, the Civil War erupted in the United States. Leaders of the YMCA in New York were concerned that the religious and spiritual needs of soldiers and sailors were not being met in nearby camps. Since the military chaplaincy was in its early development, Vincent Colyer from the New York City YMCA decided to help out at a local camp. His efforts were noticed by the New York Association of the YMCA, who promptly made Colyer chair of the “Army Committee.” Its mission was to provide soldiers with preaching, visitation, and reading and devotional materials. (nwuscc.com)
In November of 1861, fifteen YMCAs sent fifty delegates to a convention in New York City where they appointed a “Christian Commission” to work at the national level. Local and regional YMCAs were encouraged to support the work of the national group, but also encouraged to create their own Christian Commissions. (nwuscc.com)
The original mission of the Commission was to provide spiritual nourishment for the troops through publications, organizing in-camp prayer and devotional groups, developing a “working Christian force” in each regiment, and supporting chaplains as needed. But within a short time physical and social needs were added to the organization's purely spiritual goals. The Christian Commission soon found itself creating social centers as a place for soldiers to relax, write letters, and read magazines. It developed libraries and canteens, saw to the distribution of emergency medical supplies, clothing, and food, kept records of those who were buried in prisons and in certain battlefields, and cared for prisoners of war. (nwuscc.com)
Once the war was over, the United States Christian Commission continued its work until 1 January 1866 when it was dissolved. (nwuscc.com)
The two major volunteer groups I've been writing about - the United States Sanitary Commission and the United States Christian Commission - were dedicated throughout the Civil War to helping soldiers, sailors, and sometimes citizens. They sprang from the concerns and interests of the citizenry, were an expression of the power of groups of average people, and supplemented and supported the work of the federal government.
As a historian, I believe that the activity and dedication of these organizations had a powerful influence on our nation and may have helped facilitate the explosion and proliferation of other voluntary organizations addressing social concerns in the last half of the nineteenth century.
Gentle people, we have power. When we stand together we can do great things.
The North West Branch of the United States Christian Commission: History of the U.S. Christian Commission.
The Y: “History-Founding: The Story of Our Founding”