Tabernacles in the Wilderness
The US Christian Commission on the Civil War Battlefront
The Kent State University Press
Examining how a civilian organization used the Civil War to advance their religious mission
Tabernacles in the Wilderness discusses the work of the United States Christian Commission (USCC), a civilian relief agency established by northern evangelical Protestants to minister to Union troops during the American Civil War. USCC workers saw in the Civil War not only a wrathful judgment from God for the sins of the nation but an unparalleled opportunity to save the souls of US citizens and perfect the nation. Thus, the workers set about proselytizing and distributing material aid to Union soldiers with undaunted and righteous zeal.
Whether handing out religious literature, leading prayer meetings, preaching sermons, mending uniforms, drawing up tailored diets for sick men, or bearing witness to deathbed scenes, USCC workers improvised and enacted a holistic lived theology that emphasized the link between the body and soul.
Making extensive use of previously neglected archival material—most notably the reports, diaries, and correspondence of the volunteer delegates who performed this ministry on the battlefront—Rachel Williams explores the proselytizing methods employed by the USCC, the problems encountered in their application, and the ideological and theological underpinnings of their work. Tabernacles in the Wilderness offers fascinating new insights into the role of civilians within army camps, the bureaucratization and professionalization of philanthropy during the Civil War and in the United States more broadly, and the emotional landscape and material culture of faith and worship.
Rachel Williams is a lecturer in American history at the University of Hull, England, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, American medicine, and women’s history. She is coeditor of American Philanthropy at Home and Abroad: New Directions in the History of Giving and served as secretary of the British Association for American Studies between 2019 and 2023.