WILLIAMS: Tabernacles in the Wilderness (2024)

Tabernacles in the Wilderness: The US Christian Commission on the Civil War Battlefront by Rachel Williams. Kent State University Press, 2024. Paper, ISBN: 978-1-60635-473-5. $34.95.

Tabernacles in the Wilderness
explores the overlooked role of the United States Christian Commission (USCC) during the Civil War. During its years of operation, the USCC provided Union soldiers with food and clothing for their bodies and emotional and spiritual counsel for their souls. Historians have often neglected the USCC in favor of studying the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), which provided and improved medical care for Union soldiers. The Christian Commission fulfilled a similar role while also infusing a message of evangelical Christianity.

The opening chapters examine the men and women who served in the USCC. Operating on a volunteer basis, the institution almost exclusively recruited men for battlefield roles, as placing women near the action violated conventions of femininity. In their recruiting, the USCC often targeted young ministers and theology students who could handle the rigors of warfare and counter the perception of religious men as effeminate and gentle. While playing up the masculinity of their male recruits, women primarily served in ways that confirmed their femininity, such as in the Ladies Christian Commission (LCC) and the Special Diet Kitchens. The LCC was a network of women on the home front who raised money and produced supplies—primarily food and clothing—for Union soldiers. Special Diet Kitchens prepared food for Union soldiers who had injuries that made them unable to consume a standard army-ration diet. In this role, women often served as kitchen managers, teaching the men under them how to cook these meals. In both roles, women used the language of femininity to gain significant organizational and leadership experience, though they accrued that experience through limited gender confines.

The core of Williams’s book focuses on the work done for the spiritual and material care of Union soldiers. Inspired by novel theological ideas in the North, the USCC believed their work among the soldiers had divine significance, arising from a growing belief in a postmillennial theology where the “Second Coming of Christ would be preceded by a thousand-year utopia on Earth” (64). In this vision, each individual could choose to accept God’s grace, and the conversion of every soul would eventually bring about a perfect society. Convinced that the Lord had specifically chosen America for this mission, the USCC evangelized among Union soldiers, thinking it would bring individual salvation and a collective push toward an ideal world.

To bring the soldiers to God, the USCC utilized both oral preaching and print culture. USCC agents held religious services and supplemented their message with Christian reading material, including Bibles, tracts, and newspapers. Both tracts and sermons reflected changes in evangelical Christianity by focusing on emotions and Christianity’s life applications more than strict theological doctrine. In the camps they served, many USCC agents also tried to foster a Christian community by starting prayer and scripture reading groups.

The USCC also helped alleviate the soldiers’ physical discomfort by procuring clothes and food, but these relief efforts often had a Christian undertone. In one instance, religious agents encouraged the celebration of Christian holidays by supplying delicacies, such as fresh fruit and ice, on these days. The USCC’s alleviation of bodily discomfort also reflected a growing belief among antebellum Christians that a link existed between the physical body and the spirit. In their view, properly nourishing the body could also lead to spiritual growth. The USCC’s work for the soldiers’ material comfort also put their agents in constant contact with death. Religious agents tried to ease the soldiers’ burden by writing dictated letters to the families of dying men. Naturally, they also encouraged conversion which, in many cases, provided emotional support for the troops. Through this work, the USCC tried to improve the qualitative and emotional experiences of the soldiers as they navigated their mortal end.

Tabernacles in the Wilderness is an organized and well-written book. Williams particularly impresses in the ease with which she explains dense theological concepts and how these ideas influenced the USCC’s mission. However, this reviewer would have appreciated a more thorough analysis of how this research impacts various debates in Civil War and religious studies scholarship. Does this research, for instance, change how we view Civil War soldiers or their religiosity? Williams mentions that the USCC demonstrated an early instance of “reforming zeal” that would become more prominent with the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth century, but she only briefly explores this thought in a short epilogue (150). Another chapter exploring the experiences of USCC men and women in the post-war era would be a welcome addition. However, these minor grievances should not detract from Williams’s excellent research on a Civil War organization that deserves greater attention from scholars.

Josh Waddell is a Ph.D. student studying religion during the Civil War and Reconstruction at the University of Georgia.

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