First YMCA Opens in America
On December 29, 1851, Thomas V. Sullivan established America’s first YMCA.
In the 1840s, young adults flocked to industrialized London in search of jobs. However, after arriving, many found a place of dangerous influences and substandard housing.
George Williams had been one of these young men drawn to the city. Formerly a farmer, he had found success working at a department store by the time he was 22. However, he grew worried for the young people that came to the city. He believed they needed healthy activities to prevent them from the temptations at the local taverns.
Williams and 11 of his fellow workers joined together on June 6, 1844, and created the world’s first YMCA to improve “the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery, embroidery, and other trades.” The YMCA offered Bible study and refuge from the streets for any young men in need.
The idea quickly caught on, and YMCA chapters began forming around the world. Former sea captain Thomas V. Sullivan was responsible for establishing America’s first YMCA. A Boston native, Sullivan had spent much of his life at sea but eventually found it unfulfilling. It was then that he turned to religion and missionary work. In 1848, Sullivan founded Boston’s Marine Mission at Large, which preached and distributed reading materials on ships. He also wanted to help provide these sailors with an education, and founded a lending library at the Marine Mission.
In 1851, Sullivan read an article by George Van Derlip, an American student that had visited the London YMCA. He was ecstatic at the idea and shared it with everyone who would listen. On December 15, Sullivan and 31 others met in Boston to draft a set of guidelines for an American YMCA. He worked late nights all week writing and rewriting policies. After another meeting, the group met again on December 29 and adopted the constitution, establishing America’s first YMCA. The rules remained in place for 37 years and served as the basis for other American chapters.
In 1855, delegates from 99 YMCA chapters met in Paris to form the World Alliance of YMCAs. Their motto came from the Bible: “That they all may be one.”
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