Skip to main content

Young Mens Christian Association


Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was founded in London, England, on June 6, 1844, in response to unhealthy social conditions arising in the big cities at the end of the Industrial Revolution. Growth of the railroads and centralization of commerce and industry brought many rural young men who needed jobs into cities like London. They worked 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Far from home and family, these young men often lived at the workplace. They slept crowded into rooms over the company’s shop, a location thought to be safer than London’s tenements and streets. Outside the shop things were bad — open sewers, pickpockets, thugs, beggars, drunks, lovers for hire and abandoned children running wild by the thousands.

George Williams, born on a farm in 1821, came to London 20 years later as a sales assistant in a draper’s shop, a forerunner of today’s department store. He and a group of fellow drapers organized the first YMCA to substitute Bible study and prayer for life on the streets. By 1851 there were 24 Ys in Great Britain, with a combined membership of 2,700. That same year the YMCA arrived in North America: It was established in Montreal on November 25, and in Boston on December 29.

The idea proved popular everywhere. In 1853, the first YMCA for African Americans was founded in Washington, D.C., by Anthony Bowen, a freed slave. The next year the first international convention was held in Paris. At the time there were 397 separate Ys in seven nations, with 30,369 members total.

Teaching "The Art of Self Defense" at Boise YMCA, 1936
Teaching “The Art of Self Defense” at Boise YMCA, 1936

The YMCA idea, which began among evangelicals, was unusual because it crossed the rigid lines that separated all the different churches and social classes in England in those days. This openness was a trait that would lead eventually to including in YMCA’s all men, women and children, regardless of race, religion or nationality. Also, its target of meeting social need in the community was dear from the start. Local YMCA’s engaged in a variety of community services, e.g., emergency relief, distribution of coal to the poor, clothing for destitute children.

The national YMCA organization grew out of a conference of local associations in the U.S. and Canada, held in Buffalo, New York in 1854. In its activities and organization, the American YMCA experienced considerable growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. State and local associations flourished, organizing their own conventions; dormitories and restaurant facilities became a regular part of YMCA buildings.

Local YMCA leaders became aware of the need to provide professional training for men seeking careers within the YMCA field. As a result, several association-affiliated colleges were set up in the late nineteenth century, including Springfield College in Massachusetts in 1885 and George Williams College in Chicago in 1890.

Spurred on by men such as the clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, Y leaders accepted the precept that a healthy moral spirit is best maintained by a healthy body. By 1880, most Ys had gyms for their members use. A swimming pool was first introduced by the Brooklyn YMCA in 1885. Physical work programs became an integral part of the Ys mission to enrich the “spiritual, mental, social and physical” aspects of a man’s character. Dr. Luther Halsey Gulick, a physician and pioneer in the field of organized recreation brought a scientific and philosophical coherence to the YMCA’s physical program. As the first physical work secretary of the YMCA from 1886 to 1903, Gulick wrote and spoke widely on his theory of the “unified man,” a theory that rejected the traditional mind-body dualism of earlier thinkers and argued that, like Christ, man’s nature was an essential unity of “body, mind, and spirit.” Excerise and recreation were, therefore, not merely useful but vital to the development of the “perfect” Christian man. To illustrate his notion of the tripartite nature of man’s unity, Gulick devised an inverted equilateral triangle, which became — and remains– the universally recognized symbol of the YMCA.

Another accomplishment of Dr. Gulick was inviting James Naismith, a physical education teacher at the YMCA’s Springfield International Training School to look for a way to relieve his students’ boredom during indoor winter gym classes. Inspired in part by a game he played as a child in Ontario called Duck-on-a-Rock, Naismith’s basketball started sometime in December 1891 with thirteen rules, a peach basket nailed to either end of the school’s gymnasium, and two teams of nine players. On January 15, 1892 Naismith published the rules for basketball. Today, basketball is one of the world’s most popular sports.

For more information, visit:
For more information about Dr. James Naismith and the history of basketball, visit:

One Reply to “Young Mens Christian Association”

Comments for this site have been disabled. Please use our contact form for any research questions.