YMCA stands for “Young Men’s Christian Association,” and YWCA for “Young Women’s Christian Association.” The two organizations are completely independent and separate from each other.
The YMCA was founded by George Williams (1821 — 1905) in London, England, on June 6, 1844, as a place for young men to meet for Bible study and prayer. At the time, social conditions were bleak in large cities. As the Industrial Revolution was ending, scores of young men were migrating to urban centers in search of work, only to land in desperate circumstances on the streets.
Moved by the situation, Williams joined with several friends to organize the YMCA and provide a place of refuge for these young men. The evangelical group had two uncommon characteristics for its time: it assigned priority to meeting social needs in the community, and it broke down dividing barriers of English society and religious denominational lines. Ultimately, these traits led to the YMCA’s inclusion of men, women, and children, regardless of race, religion, or nationality. Women and girls received acceptance as YMCA members beginning in 1964.
The YMCA spread quickly in Great Britain and reached North America by 1851. The first YMCA for African-Americans was established in Washington, D.C., by Anthony Bowen, a freed slave, in 1853. The first student YMCA, dedicated to the leadership development of college students, began in 1856 at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee.
From its beginning, the YMCA has sought to develop young people in body, mind, and spirit. Today, the organization is active in more than 100 countries. Most YMCAs are affiliated with the World’s Alliance of YMCAs, established in 1855. The movement gives emphasis to fostering “a worldwide fellowship based on mutual respect and tolerance and seeks to develop stimulating activities in a welcoming environment” (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., p. 1785).
In the early days, almost all YMCA groups were run by volunteers. It wasn’t until the late 1800s when centers were built and paid staff were needed. Around this time, evangelist Dwight L. Moody (1837 — 1899), a YMCA staff member, was extremely influential in American YMCAs. Thousands of YMCA members were sent overseas as missionaries and eventually war workers. During and after both World Wars, the YMCA aided unemployed young men, gave medical assistance, and helped with the rebuilding efforts in various countries.
Until the mid-1900s, most local YMCAs promoted evangelical Christian values like sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. However, a shift began in the twentieth century. As the YMCA became a more global and ecumenical organization, emphasis shifted away from spiritual concerns to simply developing good character and citizenship, apart from biblical training.
Today in America, the YMCA is primarily focused on inspiring healthy living and social responsibility among young people and their families. Local YMCAs engage in charitable activities, provide athletic facilities, hold classes, and engage in humanitarian work. Some centers continue to promote Christianity, but most have de-emphasized the evangelical heritage of the organization.
The YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) is the oldest and largest multicultural, international women’s rights organization in existence. It was founded in the United Kingdom in 1855. One of the founders was Miss Emma Robarts, who formed a prayer union for women; and the other was Lady Mary Jane Kinnaird, who opened the first hostel for Florence Nightingale’s nurses in London. The prayer union and the hostel merged in 1877 as the Young Women’s Christian Association.
Today, the YWCA is a charitable organization dedicated to advancing women’s rights as a practical expression of its Christian roots. It is inclusive of women of all faiths, races, ages, and backgrounds. The YWCA’s training uses what is described as a feminist- and human rights-based approach. The organization is dedicated to “eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all” (from the official YWCA website).
The YWCA’s first practical mission was to find homes for English nurses returning from the Crimean War. This undertaking led to the YWCA being best known in England for its network of safe and affordable lodgings. The association continues with its mission to provide safe spaces for women and girls in local communities. It also provides education, training, counseling, and community support.
Currently, the worldwide association (World YWCA) operates in more than 120 countries, with about 25 million members. Introduced in the United States in 1858, the YWCA USA now has approximately 2.6 million members in 300 local YWCA associations.
Both the YMCA and the YWCA are organizations that started as true Christian ministries, meeting practical needs while emphasizing the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, both organizations have, for the most part, drifted from their original mission and substituted social action for the heart-changing message of the gospel.