YMCA Comes to America

  • Religion
  • 1851

In the late 1840s, Thomas Sullivan had retired after a long career as a sea captain, but he continued to sail as a marine missionary. While in London, he admired a place called the Young Men’s Christian Association where men and boys, far from home, could get a clean and safe place to stay, find fellowship, and be taught the Christian gospel. Inspired to provide a “home away from home” for young American seamen on leave, Sullivan brought the YMCA to Boston, opening the first U.S. branch of the organization in 1851 at the Old South Church. As it grew, the Y added educational programs and a gymnasium to its original offerings of overnight lodging, socializing, and prayer and Bible-study meetings.

Prominent evangelist Dwight Moody worked for the YMCA for many years in the later 1800s and expanded its missions work. Evangelist John Mott did likewise in the first half of the 1900s, steering the Y into war relief and assistance to foreign needy as a supplement to its domestic mission. Mott was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for leading the YMCA’s international humanitarian efforts.

With the growth of additional branches across the country, the YMCA became a haven for young people arriving in cities looking for work after leaving rural farms, and later for travelers during the tumultuous decades of the world wars and Great Depression. The Y also helped make basketball and volleyball popular sports, and YMCA summer camps introduced many children to the great outdoors. The organization eventually became a cultural touchstone for suburban Americans. In the process, however, the Y lost its explicitly Christian orientation. Today, YMCA chapters serve 21 million Americans per year at 2,700 sites.