Religious Organizations 


Knights of Columbus, 1917
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph.3g10131


Religious organizations have been a powerful influence in American social welfare history.  In many significant ways, religious organizations and churches have contributed to
advancing more humane programs and policies concerning orphans, slaves, the poor, the sick and others in need of assistance.



  • African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) ChurchThe A.M.E. Church evolved out of the Free African Society at the end of the 18th century in Philadelphia. The Society was a response to the discrimination against black Methodists who requested aid from the charitable funds of their church. Even during these initial years, the organization surpassed its immediate purpose and included religious, social, and intellectual aspects.
  • African Union SocietyFormer slaves, including Newport Gardner and Pompe (Zingo) Stevens, were two of the leaders in creating the African Union Society. By providing the basic record-keeping services previously mentioned, the society hoped to encourage a strong family structure for all blacks in Newport. Additionally, the AUS took on young black apprentices in hopes of creating a pathway to freedom for them. One of the ways Gardner was able to purchase his freedom was through trade work, and he naturally believed in its value to lift up others.For its members, the African Union Society provided the typical benefits of a mutual aid society, a buffer from the effects of illness and death in the family. Beyond the local welfare of blacks, the organization made contact with free blacks in a number of surrounding communities, hoping that expanded membership would lead to greater advancement of the race overall. They also pooled financial resources to provide loans and facilitated black purchase of property.
  • Amana Colonies: A Utopian CommunityThe new colony was originally to be named Bleibetreu, German for "remain faithful". However, residents found difficulty properly pronouncing the word in English. Instead, the Inspirationalists settled on Amana, a Biblical name with similar meaning. Under Iowan laws, the Community had to incorporate as a business, so the Amana Society was founded as the governing body in 1859. Shortly thereafter, the Community agreed to adopt a new constitution. The resulting ten article document was very similar to the amended Ebenezer Constitution.
  • Bresette, Linna EleanorIn the 1930’s alone, Bresette traveled the country holding 50 or more conferences on the social teachings of the Catholic Church, pushing forward a progressive social-mindfulness in Catholic communities that would have otherwise been forgotten or unknown. While Bresette was unmarried and remained fairly independent for a woman in her day, she was not known for challenging gender roles of her time. On at least one occasion, Bresette made the argument before Congress that wages for workers needed to be high enough to ensure women could stay at home and focus on the moral and spiritual development of their children.
  • Catholic Charities USAImmigration not only reshaped the face of America, but the face of the Catholic Church in America. The most recent immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe and were mostly Catholic. The church faced a host of new issues with these newcomers, who were largely working class peas­ants from agrarian areas who couldn’t read or write and spoke little or no English. They were sin­gularly unprepared for American urban life and culture and joined the millions of Catholics al­ready destitute. In 1910, one half of the approximately 15 million Catholics in the United States lived in poverty.
  • Catholic Community Service Organizations in War TimeDuring America's involvement in the Second World War (1941-1945) there were over 1,500 clubs operated domestically by the six member agencies, including NCCS, as well as nearly 1,200 operated domestically by local communities and nearly 200 clubs operated overseas by USO Inc. The USO officially terminated operations on December 31, 1947 though it maintained its corporate structure and a small headquarters staff thereafter. With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 the NCCS joined with the YMCA and the Jewish Welfare Board to form the Associated Services for the Armed Forces. The USO Inc. was reactivated in 1951with the original six member agencies and the camp shows. In 1962, the USO's National Ad Hoc Survey Committee stated the need for the USO's existence during the Cold War and made several recommendations, including that domestic operations be given autonomy and financial responsibility while USO Inc. would continue with overseas operations.
  • Christ Child SocietyThe Christ Child Society was founded in Mary Virginia Merrick’s home at the end of the 19th century as a small relief organization which sewed clothes for local underprivileged children. As more needs were recognized by Merrick and her friends, more individuals and agencies became involved. By 1903, the organization was officially recognized in the District of Columbia, and the Society provided a variety of services including settlement efforts. By 1915, the Child Christ Society had nationalized and become associated with work in twenty states; individual branches decided the type of efforts to undertake in response to the needs of their communities.
  • Church of All Nations, New York CityAfter its official opening at 9 Second Avenue on February 15, 1923, the Church of All Nations continued to provide services to the local community. Many interviewees in The Tao of 9 Second Avenue echo Shuttleworth’s comments, noting that the Church accepted and embraced people of all races and religions. Members could attend religious services in its chapel, which were given in Polish, Chinese, Russian, and English. According to Judy Sutula, a local synagogue even used the chapel for its Passover celebrations.
  • Citizenship Survey (1914)...the Chicago Hebrew Institute began a house-to-house survey, the object being to ascertain the citizenship status of the residents as well as their literacy, particularly with reference to English. Preparedness is a vital necessity for any social institution in its critical times. The Institute, facing the difficult situation of a rapidly changing neighborhood and constantly meeting new problems which increase in exact proportion to its activities, has added this survey department in connection on with its Bureau of Civics and Citizenship, the main purpose of this department being the research and study of the Jewish community life in Chicago.
  • Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De PaulFrom 1832-1834, they were responsive to community needs for nursing in a variety of locations across the United states during the cholera and yellow fever outbreaks. Many nurses and others in charge of caring for the sick were fearful of catching the disease and left the job rather than risking infection. While anti-Catholic attitudes were strong in early America, the work of the sisters had a good reputation, and their vows, especially of celibacy, gave them clarity of purpose and intention in their roles.
  • Educational AllianceThe Educational Alliance was founded by German Jews in response to an influx of Eastern European Jews whose economic and political hardship started a migration at a point when the U.S. was industrializing and labor was needed. That immigration accelerated rapidly when in 1881 pogroms accompanied the assassination of Czar Alexander II. Eastern and Central European Jews initially settled in lower Manhattan in an area which rapidly became known as the Great New York Ghetto. Over two million Jews came to the U.S. between 1881‑1924. Initially, most settled on the Lower East Side, an already poor area populated with Irish and then German speaking immigrants....Alliance’s early entertainment and theater personalities include Edie Cantor who became Edgies’ poster child for success and a future board member. It also included actor and comedian Zero Mostel, who played Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. Its Breadwinner’s College (Thomas Davidson School), a progressive and philosophically oriented high school and college program, was run by Professor Morris Raphael Cohen who met Davidson at a lecture given at the Alliance
  • First Methodist Parsonage in the United StatesThere can be no doubt that the little, old-fashioned, Dutch-built house which stood on a lot adjoining the John Street Church, New York City, was the first Methodist parsonage in America. When this house was purchased by the John Street Methodists is not known exactly; but that it was fitted up as a “preacher’s house” as early as June 1770, is a matter beyond dispute. This is amply shown by many entries in the first record book of the old Church. The items in this book were kept in the most painstaking fashion, and extend from 1768 to 1797.
  • Friends (Quakers) in Prison Reform William Penn was for many months a prisoner in the Tower of London, and many thousands of Friends during that period were incarcerated; there being at one time more than three thousand of them imprisoned and scores of them died in jail, and many more after being released, from the abuse and the diseases contracted therein. These terrible experiences, both in England and Massachusetts, probably impressed very forcibly upon the Friends of that day, and upon their successors.
  • Harmony Society: A Utopian CommunityThe Harmony Society, also called the Rappites, were similar to the Shakers in certain beliefs. Named after their founder, Johann Georg Rapp, the Rappites immigrated from Württemburg, Germany, to the United States in 1803, seeking religious freedom. Establishing a colony in Butler County, Pennsylvania, called Harmony, the Rappites held that the Bible was humanity's sole authority.
  • Healy, Bishop James Augustine (1830-1900)
  • Jewish Community Council of Washington, DCAt the request of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Social Services Agency a meeting of the presidents of the major Jewish organizations was called on March 6, 1938 to consider the formation of a coordinating committee representing the entire Jewish Community. The JSSA had received requests for assistance to refugees from Germany and other countries. The JSSA admitted that it could not assume the entire burden, nor could the Council of Jewish Women who were called in to help.
  • Jewish Social Service Agency of Metropolitan Washington, D.C.The Jewish Social Service Agency of Metropolitan Washington has its origins in two different agencies. The United Hebrew Charities was incorporated in 1893 "…to assist in relief of needy Hebrews" in Northwest Washington; the Hebrew Relief Society of the District of Columbia was organized to "…provide relief for needy Orthodox Hebrews" in Southeast Washington. The two agencies merged and incorporated in 1921 as the United Hebrew Relief Society of D.C. Services, delivered by volunteers, were tangible and personal: money, food, clothing and coal for widows with children, needy families, and new immigrants.
  • Knights of St. Peter Claver (1909- )The Knights of Peter Claver organization was founded in 1909 in Mobile, Alabama. It is the largest African American Catholic lay organization in the United States. The organization was founded by the Josephites, a Catholic order whose mission was to serve Catholic African Americans. Josephite leaders were concerned that the Church would lose its African American members to other organizations, such as the Elks and the Masons, who had black lodges, if they did not have their own fraternal Catholic organization.
  • Lutheran Social Service of MinnesotaThe 1860s were a time of beginning and great activity in founding Lutheran institutions of all varieties including congregations, colleges, hospitals, orphanages and inner mission societies in Minnesota. All of this activity was the result of the great northern European emigration to America.The era of German and Scandinavian migration peaked from the 1850s to 1900 in the Midwest. With fertile land for farming, Minnesota became a popular resettlement site. Spiritual, social and health needs grew rapidly as more newcomers arrived in greater numbers.
  • Lutheran Social Services of MichiganAmong the immigrants making their way to Detroit at the end of the 19th century were many Lutherans from Germany and Scandinavia. They followed the Biblical imperative to help others in need especially fellow immigrants with food, clothing and jobs. Congregational outreach efforts came together in 1909 in the Missionsbund (Mission Federation), a group dedicated to "inner mission" (social service) work. The Lutheran Inner Mission League of Greater Detroit was incorporated in 1934, changing its name soon afterward to The Lutheran Charities. Its ministry grew to include child welfare work, a settlement house and services to the elderly. In 1959, the organization merged with a similar group in Saginaw and was renamed Lutheran Social Services of Michigan.
  • Martyrs of Memphis...In the summer of 1878, Sisters Constance and Thecla were able to return to the mother house in Peekskill for rest and retreat. They had been there for only two weeks when, on August 15, 1878, news arrived that Memphis was once again in the throes of Yellow Fever. Panic spread throughout Memphis and at least two people were trampled to death at the railroad platform as crowds rushed to flee the city. Sisters Constance and Thecla left at once to return to Memphis, stopping in New York to arrange for forwarding of contributions and medicine. When they arrived in Memphis on August 20, they rejected offers to take up residence in the countryside and immediately turned the convent into a dispensary....
  • Menace Of Racial And Religious Intolerance (1925)While my calling is not in the line of practical social work, I believe social science and social work should go hand in hand. I have been identified with this body for twenty-five years, for at the beginning of my teaching I joined the National Conference of Charities and Correction, as it was then called, and attended my first meeting in Topeka in I900. Through the twenty-five years that I have been teaching sociology at the University of Missouri I have always stressed the point that social theory is for the sake of social work, that theory is no good without practice; and my department has tried to turn out many practical social workers. Some of them, I am glad to see, are a part of this audience. So I feel myself one of you, and I am going to talk to you straight from the shoulder, face to face.
  • National Catholic Community Service A major concern of the NCCS for much of its existence was operating a Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital Program/Service as part of the VA's Voluntary Service National Advisory Committee. In 1946, Pope Pius XII extended the jurisdiction of the Military Ordinariate to include chaplains and VA hospital patients. This made the latter eligible to participate in activities and services offered by NCCS as a USO member agency. In 1947, the NCCS board designated NCCS as the official agency of the Church to organize and develop the overall program of Catholic volunteer services in VA hospitals. It was actually efforts at a VA hospital in Lyons, New Jersey, that would serve as the national model. The NCCS-VA Hospital Service had a professional director, based in Washington, from its beginning until dissolution in 1979 in the person of Philomena F. Kerwin. She continued in this capacity as the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) took over direct administration, becoming the USCC-VA Hospital Service.The National Catholic Community Service (NCCS) served the spiritual, social, educational, and recreational needs of the military and defense workers and their families from 1940 to 1980. NCCS rendered service with both professional personnel and volunteers at home and overseas. It was a member agency of the United Service Organization (USO) and the Veteran's Administration's (VA) Voluntary Service National Advisory Committee and operated a VA Hospital Program. NCCS was under the direction of a board of trustees composed of members of the Administrative Board of the American's Bishops' Conference, the military vicar and his delegate, that worked closely with the various departments and committees of the Bishops' Conference.
  • On The Duties And Advantages Of Affording Instruction To The Deaf And Dumb (1824)The following is Gallaudet’s standard sermon lauding sign language and the American Asylum. It was his way of garnering both financial and political support for the institution, and versions of the sermon were repeated in Gallaudet’s frequent trips to demonstrate and popularize his work. Gallaudet saw deaf education in general and sign language in particular as the means by which an evangelical vision could be universalized. At the heart of his argument was the notion that the deaf are “the heathen among us,” a people bereft of access to God but whose spiritual isolation could be broken through education. Gallaudet explicitly equates the goals of foreign missions with those of deaf education. Both ultimately sought to bring about the Second Coming of Christ.
  • Oneida Community (1848-1880): A Utopian CommunityThe Oneida community believed strongly in a system of free love known as complex marriage, where any member was free to have sex with any other who consented. Possessiveness and exclusive relationships were frowned upon. Unlike 20th century social movements, the Oneidans did not seek consequence-free sex for pleasure, but believed that, because the natural outcome of intercourse was pregnancy, raising children should be a communal responsibility.
  • Religion In Nineteenth-Century AmericaBeginning in the late 1790s on the western frontier, a new religious style was born. Itinerant preachers traversed the backcountry in search of converts by holding enthusiastic camp meetings. What came to be called the Second Great Awakening began as circuit riders, especially Methodists, stirred up emotional outpourings of Christian fervor. Among isolated migrants to places like Kentucky, the chance to socialize and release pent-up emotions at camp meetings had considerable appeal. Backcountry men and women also gained the spiritual comfort of hearing ministers assert that human beings had moral free agency, the innate ability to choose between good and evil.
  • Roosevelt, Eleanor and the AFSCEleanor Roosevelt's association with the AFSC began before Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration in March 1933. The AFSC had started a child feeding program in the coal mining areas of Pennsylvania and West Virginia in 1931, at Herbert Hoover's request. He supplied money from a nongovernmental source for the program. In late 1932, Clarence Pickett, then executive secretary of the Service Committee, was invited to be an overnight guest at the Roosevelt home in Hyde Park. The Roosevelts were acquainted with the AFSC's work in coal-mining areas and wanted to talk with Clarence Pickett about the plight of miners in the bituminous coal fields, the conditions under which they lived, and the AFSC's efforts in vocational reeducation and subsistence living projects.
  • Shakers - A Utopian Community: Founded In U.S. 1776All the Shaker settlements launched overwhelming building programs during this 1790-1850 period. At the Watervliet Church Family, this amounted to 27 buildings by 1858, including the new dwelling house already mentioned, the Brick Shop in 1822, the Ministry Shop in 1825, the Brick Office in 1830, the stone Sisters’ Shop in 1840, and a Laundry in 1858. All of these buildings are still standing except the Stone Sisters’ Shop which, along with most of the wooden buildings on the site except for the 1848 Meeting House, was razed by the County in 1927.
  • Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, OHSystemic bias was also present in Cincinnati in the early 1840’s and played a significant part in the financial difficulties of the sisters’ ministries. While funding was allotted by the Ohio legislature to support Protestant asylums, the sisters’ petition was denied because they were considered a sectarian group. Still, the sisters’ ministries continued to expand, and in 1844 a boys’ orphanage was opened stemming from their previous ministry of placing male orphans, mostly Catholic, into community families. By 1847, St. Peter’s orphanage had outgrown its facility twice, and new facility construction projects proved helpful in caring for the nearly 150 orphans who needed services, many whose parents had passed away in another cholera outbreak.
  • Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, KYWhen the cholera outbreak hit Louisville in 1832, the sisters nursed many to full recoveries. In addition, many of the children who lost their parents in the outbreak were placed in St. Vincent’s orphanage. Those sisters who were teaching had dropped everything in lieu of the crisis, and three SCNs died during this episode of the infectious disease. After the epidemic subsided, the sisters opened St. Joseph Infirmary, which treated all classes of people according to medical records, including some slaves. In Nashville, TN, the SCNs had a similar experience with cholera. Classes were temporarily cancelled, and orphans who were under the guardianship of the sisters, some who likely lost their parents to cholera, became assistants to the sister-nurses.
  • Sisters of Charity of New YorkAs Catholic immigrants arrived in poverty during the 19th century, the sisters became known for accepting newborns at the doorsteps of the convent. The work of the SCNYs in education, health care, and other social services for all faiths and races continues today throughout the city and beyond.
  • Turner, Henry McNealTurner became increasingly disillusioned with the inability of African Americans to achieve social justice in the United States. He proposed emigration back to African, an idea much discussed in the antebellum period but which all but disappeared during the Civil War and Reconstruction. By 1880 Turner had become one of the leading advocates of emigration, particularly to Liberia. He founded two newspapers, The Voice of Missions (1893-1900) and the Voice of the People (1901-1904) to promote emigration. Between 1895 and 1896, Turner organized two ship voyages to Liberia which carried over 500 emigrants to Liberia. Many of them returned disillusioned and thus undermined Turner’s emigrationist work.
  • Twilight, Alexander (1795 - 1857)For the next twelve years he learned reading, writing and math skills while performing various farming duties. He was able to save enough (probably with some assistance from the farmer for whom he labored) to enroll in Randolph’s Orange County Grammar School in 1815 at the age of 20. During the next six years (1815-1821) he completed not only the secondary school courses but also the first two years of a college level curriculum. Following his graduation from Randolph he was accepted at Middlebury College, entering as a junior in August of 1821. Two years later he received his bachelor’s degree. Middlebury College claims him to be the first African-American to earn a baccalaureate degree from an American college or university.
  • Vasa Children's Home The Vasa Children's Home is the oldest Home in Minnesota and the Augustana Lutheran Church. In 1926 the present structure housing 50 children and personnel was erected on this new location. The building is fireproof with all modern facilities. April 21, 1926, Dr. C. J. Sodergren, then vice-president of the Conference, conducted religious ceremonies at the ground breaking of the new home. The cornerstone was laid by Crown Prince Gustaf Adolph of Sweden. Thousands of people attended this auspicious occasion. In the presence of a large gathering, the Home was officially opened for the children October 16, 1926.
  • Volunteers of AmericaBoth Ballington and Maud felt that their effectiveness would increase if they were ordained ministers of the gospel. On September 14, 1896, Episcopal Bishop Samuel Fallows ordained Ballington Booth at St. Paul’s Church in Chicago. It was an interdenominational event with Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational ministers assisting. Maud’s ordination took place the next year in Carnegie Hall before an audience of 5,000 Volunteers. Their old friend Chauncy Depew presided with ministers of all major Protestant denominations in attendance while her husband ordained her as a minister of “the Church of God in general.”
  • What Religion Means to MeAnd yet most of us who are in the forties and fifties today can look back to a childhood where religion and religious instruction were part of our everyday life, but we have come so far away from those days that in writing this article I even feel that I must begin by defining what I mean by religion. To me religion has nothing to do with any specific creed or dogma. It means that belief and that faith in the heart of a man which makes him try to live his life according to the highest standard which he is able to visualize. To those of us who were brought up as Christians that standard is the life of Christ, and it matters very little whether our creed is Catholic or Protestant.
  • Woman’s Christian Temperance UnionThe WCTU was a religious organization whose primary purpose was to combat the influence of alcohol on families and society. It was influential in the temperance movement, and supported the 18th Amendment.