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The Young Men's Christian Association ("YMCA" or "the Y") is a world-wide, non-denominational Christian and apolitical organization with a special emphasis on its purpose "to put Christian principles into practice," as taught by Jesus Christ. It uses a holistic approach to individual and social development encompassing spiritual, intellectual and physical methods. This approach is symbolised by the inverse red triangle used by YMCAs around the world representing the YMCA mission of building a healthy spirit, mind, and body.

The YMCA was founded in London, England, on June 6, 1844 by Sir George Williams as a result of his desire to "win souls to Christ" in the midst of the unhealthy social conditions in London during the Industrial Revolution. Since then the YMCA has grown to become a world-wide movement of more than 45 million members from 124 national federations affiliated through the World Alliance of YMCAs.

In 1844, the concept of a YMCA was begun by evangelicals desiring to win souls to Christ. It was unusual because it crossed the rigid lines that separated the different churches and social classes of England, making the YMCA a pioneer of ecumenism. This Christ-centered openness was a trait that would eventually lead to the inclusion of women and children and a culture of acceptance of people of different faiths and backgrounds. Today, the degree to which Christ is emphasized in programs varies between individual YMCA associations. Generally, YMCAs are open to all, regardless of faith, social class, age, or gender.

Its name represents something of an anachronism, but it has been retained as a strong brand name.


A federated model of governance has created a diversity of YMCA programs and services, with YMCAs in different countries and communities offering vastly different programming in response to local community needs. In North America, the YMCA is sometimes perceived to be primarily a community sports facility; however, it offers a broad range of programs such as sports, personal fitness, child care, overnight camping, employment readiness programs, conference centers and educational activities as methods of promoting positive values.

Related Organizations

The 19th century YMCA inspired the creation of the Young Men's Hebrew Association and Young Men's Buddhist Association. Its original male focus similarly led to the establishment of a parallel Young Women's Christian Association.


Although local variations in mission exist and the YMCA's collectively expressed mission has evolved since its founding, the international YMCA movement's mission historically has been one of promoting Ecumenical Christianity.

Paris Basis

Ninety-nine YMCA leaders of individual YMCAs from Europe and North America met for the first time prior to the 1855 Paris World Exposition to discuss the possibility of joining together in a federation to enhance co-operation amongst individual YMCA societies. This meeting resulted in the Paris Basis which is still a guiding principle of the organization today. Two themes resonated during the council: the need to respect the local autonomy of YMCA societies, and the dogma that Christian churches are united and the YMCA is a way of manifesting that unity. (Muukkonen, 2002:85)

The need for the respect of local automony is expressed in the preamble:

The Committee has never upheld the opinion that all the Associations should adhere to the same forms and methods; on the contrary, it fully recognizes the necessity of an individual growth based on the local conditions and the influences of varying circumstances.

The main principle of the Paris Basis is expressed:

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 amongst young men.

The main principle of the Paris Basis is often stated as the entire basis, and the preamble and other articles are omitted.

There are two versions of the Paris Basis, one in French and one in English. It is thought that the French version is the more accurate representation of the agreement reached and that the English version was a result of a later transcription of notes after the meeting. Some adjustments were made to the English version to align it with the French version in 1955. In the French version, the last two words of the main principle are "jeunes gens", which more accurately translates as "young people" rather than "young men" (although all participants in YMCAs at the time were male) (Muukkonen, 2002:90).

Challenge 21

In 1998, at the 14th World Council of YMCAs, the World Alliance of YMCAs adopted Challenge 21 as its modern day statement of mission for the 21st century:

Affirming the Paris Basis adopted in 1855, as the ongoing foundation statement of the mission of the YMCA, at the threshold of the third millennium, we declare that the YMCA is a world-wide Christian, ecumenical, voluntary movement for women and men with special emphasis on and the genuine involvement of young people and that it seeks to share the Christian ideal of building a human community of justice with love, peace and reconciliation for the fullness of life for all creation.
Each member YMCA is therefore called to focus on certain challenges which will be prioritized according to its own context. These challenges which are an evolution of the Kampala Principles
  • Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and striving for spiritual, intellectual and physical well-being of individuals and wholeness of communities.
  • Empowering all, especially young people and women to take increased responsibilities and assume leadership at all levels and working towards an equitable society.
  • Advocating for and promoting the rights of women and upholding the rights of children.
  • Fostering dialogue and partnership between people of different faiths and ideologies and recognizing the cultural identities of people and promoting cultural renewal.
  • Committing to work in solidarity with the poor, dispossessed, uprooted people and oppressed racial, religious and ethnic minorities.
  • Seeking to be mediators and reconcilers in situations of conflict and working for meaningful participation and advancement of people for their own self-determination.
  • Defending God’s creation against all that would destroy it and preserving and protecting the earth’s resources for coming generations. To face these challenges, the YMCA will develop patterns of co-operation at all levels that enable self-sustenance and self-determination.


First YMCA in North America in Montreal, Quebec

1844: George Williams was a 23-year-old draper, typical of the many young men who were being drawn to big cities by the Industrial Revolution. His colleagues were similarly employed, and they were concerned by the lack of healthy activities for young men in cities such as London. The alternatives were often taverns, brothels, and other temptations to sin. On June 6, Williams founded the first YMCA in London for "the improving of the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery and other trades."

1851: There were YMCAs in Great Britain, Canada, the United States, Australia, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and France.

1855: YMCA delegates met in Paris, France, at the First World Conference of YMCAs, marking the beginning of the World Alliance of YMCAs. The conference adopted the Paris Basis, a common mission for all present and future national YMCAs. Its motto was taken from the Bible, "That they all may be one" (John 17:21). Other ecumenical bodies such as the World YWCA, the World Council of Churches and the World Student Christian Federation, reflected elements of the Paris Basis in their founding mission statements.

1865: The Fourth World Conference of YMCAs, Germany, affirmed the importance of developing the whole individual in body, mind and spirit. The concept of physical work through sports was also recognised. This was a new concept for the time.

1878: The World Alliance offices were established in Geneva, Switzerland, where they have been ever since.

1880: In some of the member countries the YMCA was the first national organization to adopt a strict policy of equal gender representation in committees and national boards. Norway adopted this policy in 1880.

1885: Camp Baldhead (later known as Camp Dudley), originally located near Orange Lake in New Jersey, was established by YMCA workers George A. Sanford and Sumner F. Dudley as the first residential camp in North America. The camp moved to Lake Wawayanda in Sussex County, New Jersey the following year and then to the shore of Lake Champlain near Westport, New York in 1891.

1900: North American YMCAs, in collaboration with the World Alliance, began working in European ports with millions of migrants leaving for the USA.

1910: The YMCA was an early influence upon Scouting, including the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and German Scouting. Edgar Robinson, a Chicago-area YMCA administrator, briefly left the YMCA to become the BSA's first director.

1916: K.T. Paul became the first Indian National General Secretary of India. Paul had started rural development programmes in India through co-operatives and credit societies. These programmes for self-reliance of marginal farmers became very popular. He also coined the term "rural reconstruction", and many of the principles he developed were later incorporated into the Government's nation-wide community development programmes.

1923: Y.C. James Yen of the YMCA of China devised the "thousand character system", based on pilot projects in education. The method became very popular, and in 1923, it led to the founding of the Chinese National Association of the Mass Education Movement.

1939-1945: The YMCA became very involved in war work. The YMCA increased its international work with displaced persons and refugees and set up War Prisoners Aid to support prisoners of war by providing sports equipment, musical instruments, art materials, radios, gramophones, eating utensils and other items.

1947: The World Alliance of YMCAs gained special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

1955: The First African President of the World Alliance of YMCAs was elected, Mr. Charles Dunbar Sherman from Liberia. At 37 years, he was the youngest President in World Alliance history.

1973: The Sixth World Council in Kampala, Uganda, was the first World Council in Africa. It reaffirmed the Paris Basis and adopted a declaration of principles, known as the Kampala Principles, which include the principles of justice, creativity and honesty. It stated what had become obvious in most national YMCAs, that a global viewpoint was more necessary, and that in doing so, the YMCAs would have to take political stands, especially so in international challenges.

1985: The World Council of YMCAs passed a resolution against apartheid, and campaigns against the system began under the leadership of Mr. Lee Soo-Min (Korea), the first Asian Secretary General of the World Alliance.

1998: The World Council in Germany adopted "Challenge 21," giving even more focus to the global challenges, like gender equality, sustainable development, war and peace, fair distribution and the challenges of globalization, racism and HIV/AIDS. All these topics are viewed as challenges against the will of God.

A new YMCA in Moncton, New Brunswick
A new YMCA in Moncton, New Brunswick

2002: The World Council in Oaxtepec, Morelos, Mexico, called for a peaceful solution to the Middle East crisis.

2003: The YMCAs, especially in Western Europe and North America, have helped to build national YMCAs in Eastern Europe, with great success. In 2003, a youth convention was arranged in Prague with attendance from almost all countries in Europe to celebrate the healing of the wounds from the Iron Curtain.

2006: YMCAs are present in 124 countries. The current president of the World Alliance of YMCAs is Martin Meissner from Germany, and Bartholomew Shaha of Bangladesh is Secretary General.


The activities of the YMCA work to build healthy mind, body and spirit for all, and there are many activities that work to achieve these goals.

Healthy spirit

The first YMCA was concerned with Bible study, although the organization has generally moved on to a more holistic approach to youth work. Around six years after its birth, an international YMCA conference in Paris decided that the objective of the organization should become " Christian discipleship developed through a program of religious, educational, social and physical activities" (Binfield 1973:265). More recent objectives as found on the YMCA UK website include no reference to discipleship.

Restore Ministries of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee provides an example of how the Christian influence in the YMCA still exists today. Founded in 2000 by Scott Reall, Restore provides support groups and individual counseling with an aim of “lifting the ‘C’” (of the YMCA).

Healthy mind

Many colleges and universities owe their creation to the YMCA. Springfield College was founded in 1885 as an international training school for YMCA Professionals, while Sir George Williams University—one of the two schools that eventually became Concordia University—started from night courses offered at the Montreal YMCA.

Northeastern University (Boston, Massachusetts) began out of a YMCA in Boston, and Franklin University began as the YMCA School of Commerce.

The YMCA pioneered the concept of night school, providing educational opportunities for people with full-time employment. Many YMCAs offer ESL programs, alternative high school, day care, and summer camp programs.

American high school students have a chance to participate in YMCA Youth and Government, wherein clubs of kids representing each YMCA community convene annually in their respective state legislatures to "take over the State Capitol for a day." YMCA Youth and Government helps teens learn about and participate in civics in a real-world setting.

Healthy body

In 1891 James Naismith, a Canadian, invented basketball whilst studying at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts (later to be named Springfield College). Naismith had been asked to invent a new game in a desperate attempt to interest pupils in physical exercise. The game had to be interesting, easy to learn, and easy to play indoors in winter. Such an activity was needed both by the Training School and by YMCAs across the country. It was a success from the very first game.

Naismith and his wife attended the 1936 Summer Olympics when basketball became one of the Olympic events.

In 1895, William G. Morgan from the YMCA of Holyoke, Massachusetts, invented the sport of volleyball.

North America


Many YMCAs in North America adopt a more secular mission than their counterparts in other parts of the world, although most still reference religion in the terms of promoting "Christian Principles" or " Judeo-Christian Values".

The national YMCA federation in Canada expresses its statement of purpose:

The YMCA in Canada is dedicated to the growth of all persons in spirit, mind and body and a sense of responsibility to each other and the global community.

The national YMCA federation in the United States expresses its mission:

To put Christian principles in to practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all

This variation is in keeping with the concept of local autonomy expressed in the preamble to the Paris Basis, and both YMCA Canada and YMCA of the USA are active participants in the World Alliance of YMCAs.


The first YMCA in North America opened in Montreal, Quebec, on November 25, 1851.

The first YMCA in the United States opened on December 29, 1851, in Boston, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1851 by Captain Thomas Valentine Sullivan (1800-1859), an American seaman and missionary. He was influenced by the London YMCA and saw the association as an opportunity to provide a "home away from home" for young sailors on shore leave. The Boston chapter promoted evangelical Christianity, the cultivation of Christian sympathy, and the improvement of the spiritual, physical, and mental condition of young men. By 1853, the Boston YMCA had 1,500 members, most of whom were merchants and artisans. Members paid an annual membership fee to use the facilities and services of the association. Because of political, physical, and population changes in Boston during the second half of the century, the Boston YMCA established branch divisions to satisfy the needs of local neighborhoods. From its early days, the Boston YMCA offered educational classes. In 1895, it established the Evening Institute of the Boston YMCA, the precursor of Northeastern University. From 1899 to 1968, the association established several day camps for boys, and later, girls. Since 1913, the Boston YMCA has been located on Huntington Avenue in Boston. It continues to offer social, educational, and community programs, and presently maintains 31 branches and centers. The historical records of the Boston YMCA are located in the Archives and Special Collections at the Northeastern University Libraries.

YMCA camping began in 1885 when Camp Baldhead (later known as Camp Dudley) was established by George A. Sanford and Sumner F. Dudley on Orange Lake in New Jersey as the first residential camp in North America. The camp later moved to Lake Champlain near Westport, NY.

Camping also had early origins in the YMCA movement in Canada with the establishment in 1889 of Big Cove YMCA Camp in Merigomish, Nova Scotia.

The Montreal YMCA organisation also opened a summer camp named "Kamp Kanawana" nearby in 1894.

In 1919, YMCA began their Storer Camps chain around the country.

Sports and Fitness

It is very common for YMCAs to have swimming pools and weight rooms, along with facilities for playing various sports such as basketball, volleyball, and racquetball.

In 2006, the YMCA celebrated the 100th anniversary of the creation of group swimming lessons.

In the mid-20th century, it was not unusual for participants in YMCA programs to swim in the nude. One reason cited was that the cotton or even older wool swimsuits would clog up the filtration system. Another reason was dirt and soap would be released into the pool from the fibers of swim wear. Filtration systems used in swimming pools were not as advanced as they are today, and far less chlorine was used making it easier, in those days, to degrade the cleanliness of the water thereby promoting the growth of bacteria. Females were never allowed to be present in such a setting.

Concerned with the rising rates of obesity among adults and children in America, YMCAs around the country are joining with the non-profit America on the Move to help Americans increase their physical fitness by walking more frequently.

Parent/Child programs: Building strong kids and strong families

The Weekley Family YMCA in the Braeswood Place neighborhood of Houston, Texas
The Weekley Family YMCA in the Braeswood Place neighbourhood of Houston, Texas

In the US, the YMCA parent/child programs (originally called YMCA Indian Guides, Princess, Braves and Maidens) have provided structured opportunities for fellowship, camping, and community-building activities (including craft-making and community service) for several generations of parents and kids in kindergarten through third grade.

The roots of these still vibrant programs stem from similar activities dating back to 1926. Notable founders of YMCA Indian Guides include Harold Keltner, a St. Louis YMCA director, and indirectly, Joe Friday, an Ojibwa hunting guide. The two men met in the early 1920s, when Joe Friday was a speaker at a local YMCA banquet for Fathers and Sons that Harold Keltner had arranged. Today, Joe Friday and Harold Keltner are commemorated with patch awards honoring their legacy which are given out to distinguished YMCA volunteers in the program.

YMCA Indian Guides participants historically took pride in cultivating respect and honour for Native American culture. Responding to a number of variables, including making the program more culturally sensitive and attracting a broader audience, in 2003 the program evolved into what is now known nationally as " YMCA Adventure Guides"; "Trailblazers" is the YMCA's parent/child program for older kids. Local YMCAs are currently still free to continue support of the Native American theme, and several do so. In areas where the local YMCA has elected to convert to the "Adventure Guides", many YMCA Indian Guides groups have separated from the YMCA and operate independently as the "Native Sons and Daughters Programs" from the National Longhouse.

In some programs, children earn patches for achieving various goals, such as completing a designated nature hike or participating in Y-sponsored events. A typical suburban Indian Guide meeting was parodied in the Bob Hope/ Lucille Ball comedy of 1960, The Facts of Life. More recently, the continued popularity of the YMCA Indian Guides is seen in the 1995 Chevy Chase/ Farrah Fawcett comedy, Man of the House, wherein a campout takes place complete with the dads and kids addressing one another by their program names in patch-covered vests, wearing headdresses, singing songs, and roasting marshmallows around a campfire.

In 2006, YMCA Indian Guides celebrated 80 years as a YMCA program.

United Kingdom

The Archive of the British YMCA is housed at the University of Birmingham Special Collections.


Until the late 1950s, YMCAs in the United States were built with hotel-like rooms called residences or dormitories. These rooms became a significant part of American culture, known as an inexpensive and safe place for a visitor to stay in an unfamiliar city. In 1940 there were about 100,000 rooms at YMCAs, more than any hotel chain. By 2006, YMCAs with residences became relatively rare in the US, but many still existed.

Many YMCAs throughout the world still maintain residences as an integral part of the programming.

YMCA Goes To War

Starting before the American Civil War, YMCA provided nursing, shelter, and other support in wartime. During World War I, Irving Berlin wrote Yip Yip Yaphank, a revue that included a song entitled "I Can Always Find a Little Sunshine in the Y.M.C.A." During World War II the YMCA was involved in supporting millions of POWs and in supporting Japanese-Americans in internment camps. This help included helping young men leave the camps to attend Springfield College and providing youth activities in the camps. In addition, the YMCA was one of six organizations that helped to found the USO during World War II.

In popular culture

In 1978, a disco band called Village People recorded a wildly popular disco song titled " Y.M.C.A."

In the animated TV series The Flintstones episode "The Swimming Pool", Barney lets the YCMA (Young Cave Men's Association) swim in the pool that he and Fred built.

In the TV series The Brady Bunch episode "A Clubhouse is Not a Home", the boys are upset about having to share their clubhouse with the girls. One of them asks "Did you ever see a girl at the YMCA?" The kids' father answers that Mrs. Carson, an admin, "...runs the whole thing."

In the animated TV series The Simpsons, the family visit the YMCA to take advantage of free classes.

In Kevin Smith's View Askewniverse series, the never seen but often mentioned Julie Dwyer died from an embolism while swimming in a pool at the local YMCA.

In 1998 comedy film Dirty Work, the character Jimmy ( Chris Farley) mentions to Mitch ( Norm MacDonald) that "I live over at the Y, as you know," in reference to the YMCA residencies that still exist in some parts of the US (see above section).

Nobel Peace Prize Winners

1901: Henry Dunant, who co-founded the Geneva YMCA in 1852, and was one of the founders of the World Alliance of YMCAs, won the first ever Nobel Peace Prize for founding the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863, and inspiring the Geneva Convention (Convention de Genève). He shared the prize with Frédéric Passy, founder and President of the first French peace society.

1946: John R. Mott, USA, President of the World Alliance, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his "long and fruitful labours in drawing together the peoples of many nations, many races and many communions in a common bond of spirituality". John R. Mott also played an important role in the founding of the World Student Christian Federation in 1895, and the World Council of Churches in 1948.

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