As the YMCA moves into its second century, friends of this originally remarkable movement are hopeful that it will re-examine its mission and message for the safeguarding of a high and historic calling. They have been fearful over the past generation that the Young Men’s Christian Association has deleted from its program Christianity as a Gospel of salvation for lost sinners; and that in place of genuine spirituality, it has developed interests apart from, and even competitive to, the purpose for which it began.

It was in 1844, in the heart of London’s mercantile district, that twelve men, leaders from the Anglican Church’s evangelical wing, and from the Wesleyan and other free churches, launched the Y into operation. It was a time of social unrest. The evangelical conscience was now aggressively directed toward prison reform, education, temperance, decency in literature and art, and other vexing social problems. Yet, underlying all the energy put forward had been the presupposition of a personal faith in the redeeming work of Christ and an enthusiasm for soul-winning. John Wesley had emphasized his belief that “The gospel of Christ knows no religion but social, no holiness but social holiness”; yet he had also left no doubt in mind that he was “saving sinning men, with no aim to transform them into crusaders against social sin.” It was the evangelical forces to which England came to owe its greatest debt in the struggle for social justice; the social vision remained the by-product of a desire to fulfill the objective of the Great Commission—personal soul-winning and evangelism.

Nine of the twelve founders of the mid-nineteenth century London Association had been members of free churches, the remainder being from the Church of England. Their object was to improve “the spiritual condition of young men employed in the drapery and other trades, by the introduction of religious services among them.” It was a common fact then that many of London’s retail clerks had become degraded and dissolute. And for its first year of activity, the London Association sponsored prayer meetings, Bible study, soul-winning, and weekly offerings for foreign missions. Yet Dr. L. L. Doggett, in A History of the Y.M.C.A., credits the London Association as having been “one of the chief factors in shortening the hours of labor for commercial young men.” Incited by spiritual vision, the YMCA became a promoter of social welfare through the spread of Christianity.

A chain of Associations, devoted to the Gospel of Christ, soon spread across the United States. The first was established in Boston in 1851. Montreal had formed the first YMCA in North America two months earlier. Its founders were Protestants, mostly of fervent evangelical conviction, and the associations developed into centers of Christian activity. “In those days,” said the late “Ma” Sunday, widow of Evangelist Billy Sunday, “the Y was known for its Bible more than for billiards.”

Article continues below

Galen M. Fisher, for many years executive of the Institute of Social and Religious Research and author of Public Affairs and the Y.M.C.A. 1844–1944, claims that “during the first fifty years of the history of the Young Men’s Christian Association, there was virtually no attention paid to what is properly called public affairs. During the second fifty years there developed, albeit slowly and unevenly, a determination by progressive leaders to arouse and equip Association members to participate in solving some of the great public questions of the day” (p. 183). He observes that the second century discloses the “growingly rooted conviction held by both lay and secretarial leaders that public affairs must be a central concern of the Associations” (p. 185).

The observation would appear cryptic. Fisher is unwittingly stating the cold fact that as an evangelical agency, the YMCA has in recent generations displaced its Christian evangel by the secular and merely social.

Fortunately, some Y Associations have still preserved their spiritual heritage and at the present time carry on supplementary programs of recreation, education and social effort in the interests of vigorous Christian witness. Perhaps the best example of this is the Association at Kannapolis, North Carolina, the largest in America, with 12,000 members. This is an exceptional example, however. In many places the spiritual tenor is at a very low ebb, and in others virtually non-existent. Some Associations have gone so far as to distort their original theological emphasis. For instance, the Cal-Tech branch of the Pasadena YMCA has for years been drifting in Unitarianism. Other Associations have become rallying places for “religious brotherhood” efforts, bringing together Protestant, Catholic and Jewish interests in such a way as to deprive Protestantism of its former missionary vitality.

The issue, of course, is not whether the YMCA ought to bristle with social concern. Rather, the problem to be faced is the manner in which that concern is to be defined and carried out. Many Association leaders today declare that faith in God and his Kingdom is the foundation of their confidence, and that business, labor, politics, race relations and international affairs can be dominated by the Spirit of Christ. But they are still suffering from the liberal Protestant illusion that the Kingdom of God can be introduced by the social melioration of unregenerate humanity. Y leaders have frequently protested against “the excessive individualism of the Protestant tradition.” This complaint has arisen, not simply from tendency of private religion to overlook the obstacles that unjust social institutions place in the path of consistent Christian living, but also out of a misplaced confidence that social evils can be conquered apart from supernatural individual regeneration. Proponents of the “social gospel,” even speakers applying evolutionary theories to moral and spiritual realities, have been featured in the past on the Y platforms. Moreover, some speakers have accorded Christian sanction to forms of Marxism which, they imply, would be acceptable if “filtered through the minds of men steeped in democratic optimism and Christian idealism.”

Article continues below

This anemic, if not unchristian, drift of Y interests, running alongside its program of recreational and public activities for “Christian citizenship,” represents the situation today in many of America’s most influential Associations. What it indicates is that the liberal social gospel movement still widely dominates the YMCA public affairs program.

This development has not been due to a neglect of social issues by evangelicals in the Associations. The entire Y movement had been born out of a social concern. The great evangelist Dwight L. Moody had, in days when social concern was rooted in the Gospel of Christ, raised large sums of money in his campaigns for new Association buildings. Before the turn of the century, however, lectures and panels sponsored by some of these Associations were already reflecting a shift toward independent consideration of social problems. After the turn of the century, attention focused more and more upon social ideals as divine imperatives, and local Associations were called upon to educate their memberships in terms of these objectives. In 1919 the International Convention adopted a set of “Social Ideals” which called for “subordination of … the profit motive to the … cooperative spirit,” “social planning and control of the credit and monetary systems and the economic processes for the common good,” “a wider and fairer distribution of wealth,” and other semi-socialist objectives. It is not to be denied, however, that many of the social correctives which the Associations supported pointed to definite, even urgent, areas of need. Some of its formative leaders in past decades have been of socialistic temper, however. Others have represented “world church” ecumenical attitudes and even tend to speak of the Y as a form of ecclesia.

Article continues below

The vast membership of the Y today represents a strategic global constituency. Centennial statistics show that the YMCA now has more than 2,000,000 world members, over 8,500 Associations, with some 6,000 secretaries. The United States alone has 1,800 Associations and 3,700 secretaries, which account for three-fourths of the world membership.

It may appear ironic to say that the Young Men’s Christian Association today stands as a vast mission field with infinite, significant Christian potential. Its concern for human welfare has given it a unique role to play in American communities. And as it moves into the second century of its life, many of its supporters hope that it will reflect upon its Christian heritage and effectively find its social interests to the Gospel of personal redemption.

At the 1955 Centennial Conference in Paris, Alfred Hirs of Zurich, who has demonstrated a wide evangelical witness on the International Committee, reminded the opening session of a consecration which young delegates had made one hundred years previous: “Each one carried away in his heart a new vision of the Master’s cause, a stronger determination to serve the Lord more faithfully; each one left Paris with the conviction that the All Powerful would stretch out his hand upon this new undertaking.”

At that Paris conference on August 22, 1855, delegates from Europe and America laid the evangelical basis for the future admission of all new Associations: “The Young Men’s Christian Associations seek to unite those young men who, regarding Jesus Christ as their God and Saviour according to the Holy Scriptures, desire to be his disciples in their faith and in their life, and to associate their efforts for the extension of his Kingdom among men.”

This was the beginning of the YMCA venture, worthy indeed of survival for Christian service.

Once A Bible Land, Syria Can Trigger War

It is sometimes difficult to interpret God’s mysterious hand in history, and even more difficult for us to understand the relation of immediate events to his ultimate plan. At the same time we should always confess that the sovereign God watches over men and nations and that all are subject to his judgment.

Article continues below

One of the most startling events in the history of the Christian Church took place outside the walls of Damascus. The Apostle Paul went out from that experience with a divine commission which made him a mighty power down to the present day.

This same Damascus is now one of the danger centers of the world. At the helm of the government of Syria are men who, wittingly or unwittingly, can trigger what could become World War III.

The disciples were first called Christians in Syrian Antioch. From that church there went out missionaries who, in their generation, turned the world upside down.

Strange that during these recent weeks this same city and area should now be occupied by Egyptian soldiers, as a gesture of defiance to the West and as a token of the would-be solidarity of the Arab world.

Paul’s missionary journeys were largely in the area now covered by Turkey. The witness of those early churches has largely disappeared. The cities in which were located the seven churches mentioned in the Revelation no longer have such churches; the total Protestant population of all of Turkey today is probably less than 150.

But today we find Turkey and Israel the dominant military powers in the Middle East. Both are able and willing to impose their own will on all of that area. Only America and Russia restrain these nations or make them hesitate to take action.

What is the significance of all of these events? None of us can say. But of this we can be sure: the God of history is overruling in the affairs of men and nations and his own holy will shall certainly prevail. One of the dramatic turns of history is that the Bible lands of antiquity so much dominate the headlines of the world. But the God of Bible history holds the destinies of nations in his hands.

In the face of the kaleidoscopic changes in the world situation, the modern man is holding his breath, not only at scientific developments which stagger the imagination but also because men themselves seem unable to exercise moral control over the forces they have now generated.

Precisely at this point the Christian and the Church has comfort and hope to offer. We know the Christ of history and the Christ of Calvary and they are the same. We also know that the future is in his hand. As he yearned over Jerusalem in the days of his flesh, so he yearns for the sinning world of our generation and offers peace and redemption to those who hear his call.

The Church is the repository of this glorious Gospel. God forbid that we should neglect it for another.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.