Young Men's Christian Association

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Young Men's Christian Association

The Young Men's Christian Association, known today as the YMCA, is familiar to most for its family fitness centers and recreational programs for youth. In the Civil War era, however, the organization was active throughout the nation, tending to the spiritual and social needs of the communities they served.

Origins of the YMCA

In 1844 unhealthy social conditions in England at the end of the Industrial Revolution led George Williams (1821–1905) to begin a Bible study and prayer group for the men who roamed the streets searching for jobs. The idea caught on, and other groups formed throughout Great Britain and other parts of the world. In 1851 the first YMCA in North America was established in Montreal, Canada, on November 25, followed by the first YMCA in the United States in Boston, Massachusetts, on December 29. Anthony Bowen (c. 1805–1872), a freed slave, founded the first YMCA for African Americans two years later in Washington, DC. By 1854 total membership worldwide had grown to 30,369 members, with 397 YMCAs in seven nations.

During the Civil War membership in the United States dwindled as men went off to war, until at the end of the war there were only fifty-nine chapters. However, the popularity of the YMCA and the organization's war efforts among the troops helped to revive membership when the war was over, and four years later there were more than 600 chapters. Women were not admitted as members until the beginning of the 1850s, but they served the YMCS before then by teaching classes, raising funds, and functioning like a church's Ladies Auxiliary.

Although begun by evangelical Christians, the concept of the YMCA was unusual and appealing because it fostered an openness that crossed the boundaries between different churches and social classes, and it focused on social need in the communities it served. The focus of the YMCA in the early years "was on saving souls, with saloon and street corner preaching," but by 1866 the New York YMCA adopted the fourfold purpose of improving the "spiritual, mental, social, and physical condition of men" ("History of the YMCA Movement").

Areas of Service

One area of focus for the YMCA was recreation for youth. In the 1860s the YMCA got involved with camping when the Vermont Y's boy's missionary took a group of boys to Lake Champlain for a summer encampment. In 1860 the Brooklyn YMCA planned a building that would cost $50,000 and would be large enough for meeting rooms, a library, reading room, baths, a bowling alley, and a gymnasium (Boston Investigator, February 29, 1860).

Another recreational activity sponsored by the YMCA was reading clubs. Male clubs were attended by businessmen and professionals who founded many social projects. Middle- and upper-class women enjoyed their own versions of these clubs, which provided intellectual stimulation beyond domestic and church activities. The clubs typically met twice per month to discuss literature, history, and art (Volo and Volo 1998, p. 219).

In addition to literary societies and reading clubs, YMCAs also offered lectures to the public. By charging admission, usually 50 cents per person, the chapter could raise money to benefit the poor in their communities. A notice in the Weekly Raleigh Register on January 11, 1860, indicated that the proceeds from a lecture sponsored by the Raleigh YMCA would "be given to the poor, and want, and suffering to some extent be relieved by the tickets sold, while a rich moral and intellectual treat will be enjoyed." The lecture by Duncan K. McRae, Esquire, was a repeat performance, and McRae had agreed to repeat his lecture only if half the proceeds went to the poor. The YMCA responded by raising the ticket price to 50 cents and giving the entire proceeds to the poor.

These lectures were generally well received by the public. An editorial in the Daily Evening Bulletin of San Francisco, California, on January 13, 1860, extolled the virtues of public lectures and praised the YMCA as "calling upon 'superior men and men of high consideration to address the public in their name.'" The topics presented varied greatly, but were all educational in nature. The Philadelphia YMCA sponsored Dr. Henry M. Scudder to deliver a course of five lectures on India at the Musical Fund Hall, according to an advertisement in the North American and United States Gazette (January 21, 1860). The New York Herald reported on January 29, 1860, that a local chapter of the YMCA would sponsor Mrs. Ellen Key Blunt to give sacred poetry readings. A similar meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, featured the Reverend Dr. Deems, who lectured on "The Poetry and Ethics of Trade" (Weekly Raleigh Register, February 8, 1860). In addition to educational topics, the YMCAs also addressed social problems. The Boston Investigator reported on February 8, 1860, that a Reverend Dr. Miller gave a talk on "Bigotry in the Town Hall, Birmingham."

Charitable service was another focus of the YMCA. An advertisement in the Daily National Intelligencer on January 4, 1860, revealed that the Washington, DC, chapter was holding a Grand Concert to benefit the Western Mission Sunday School of the YMCA, and children of the school would participate in the concert. In late March 1863 the YMCA distributed bread, meat, rice, and other foodstuffs to the needy in response to a food shortage that developed in urban areas of the South (Volo and Volo 1998, p. 58).

The YMCA also held public prayer meetings. In 1857, in response to a "severe economic reversal" in the nation, the New York YMCA sponsored noonday prayer meetings at the Fulton Street Dutch Reformed Church, which "began drawing overflow crowds" (Moorhead 1978, p. 20). The Scioto Gazette (March 20, 1860), of Chillicothe, Ohio, advertised daily prayer meetings from 8:30 to 9:00 a.m. every day at the local YMCA, and the New York Herald (December 16, 1860) advertised meetings of prayer for the Union being held in Boston. The Daily Cleveland Herald reported on December 10, 1860, that members of the Cleveland YMCA went to the county jail to provide "religious exercise in company with the prisoners." They took a vote to determine if they should do it again, and "the prisoners were unanimous in favor of it."

Shortly before the Civil War broke out, the YMCA of Alexandria, Virginia, sent letters to various Northern chapters "imploring them to set apart the last Friday in January (1860) as a day of special prayer to Almighty God for the preservation of the Union of the States, and for the restoration of kindness and good feeling among the citizens thereof" (New York Herald, February 5, 1860). Though the Connecticut members refused to participate, the Detroit Free Press reported that the meeting held in that city "under the auspices of the Young Men's Christian Association, was quite numerously attended by citizens of all classes, a large number of clergymen, and many ladies" (quoted in the New York Herald, February 5, 1860). The one-hour meetings included reading of Scriptures, singing, and "brief, voluntary prayers by those who felt prompted to lead in these devotions." The editor of the New York Herald noted that in spite of the negative response of the Connecticut chapter, similar meetings were being held all over the country, and that "the influence of such meetings cannot but be good upon the whole country at the present time" (February 5, 1860).

Founding of the U.S. Christian Commission

When the Civil War broke out, many charitable organizations formed to provide assistance in response to the needs of the war. The United States Christian Commission was founded by delegates from YMCAs in the Northern states in 1861 to form " single national agency to minister to the spiritual needs of the Union soldiers" to win "the soldiers' souls to Christ" (Shattuck 1987, pp. 26, 24). George H. Stuart (1816–1890), a Presbyterian lay leader, was elected its first president in November 1861. The organization grew tremendously; by the war's end it had become a "vast interdenominational fellowship" of nearly 5,000 unpaid workers who visited the armies and led revival meetings, distributed tracts, and gave spiritual counsel.

Volunteers also wrote letters, helped to tend the sick and wounded, operated lending libraries to provide quality reading materials, and ran soup kitchens to provide additional nourishment beyond what the soldiers received from the government. According to James Moorhead, more than $6 million in cash, goods, and services were received and disbursed among the soldiers (1978, p. 66). Rufus Kinsley, a soldier in the Union Army, wrote about a visit from "two old ladies from Michigan" who were sent by the Michigan Christian Commission. The women visited the hospitals and camps, distributing "thousands of garments, and thousands of dollars worth of table fixings to the sick and suffering" (Rankin 2004, p. 149). Although some felt that the Christian Commission should leave "temporal matters" such as nursing the wounded to the Sanitary Commission, Stuart replied that "there is a good deal of religion in a warm shirt and a good beefsteak" (Shattuck 1987, p. 29).

Other Northern War Efforts

In addition to the work of the U.S. Christian Commission, the YMCA assisted the war effort in other ways. In May 1861 the New York Association formed the Army Committee. New York and Chicago YMCA chapters helped to recruit troops for the army, and were so successful that membership of local chapters dwindled as men went to join the troops. Some military units, especially in the South, started their own YMCA chapters, as did the federal prisoner-of-war camp at Johnson's Island in Sandusky, Ohio, for the purpose of looking after the prison hospital and holding weekly lectures. Beyond caring for wounded soldiers, their goal was to give the men hope. The Reverend R. W. Cridlin wrote about a Confederate captive who had arrived at Johnson's Island following the Gettysburg campaign and found "rampant profanity, gambling, slacking and other unchristian habits." The new prisoner initiated prayer meetings and Bible classes which soon grew in frequency and number (Lutz 2001). Though there were tensions between the Northern and Southern chapters of the YMCA, the Northern YMCA—U.S. Christian Commission workers at Johnson's Island were commended by forty-eight Confederate officers at the prison, who stated in a October 31, 1863, letter to the Confederate government in Richmond that the YMCA—U.S. Christian Commission workers "make no difference or discrimination between Confederate or Federal …. We trust, that the authorities at Richmond and elsewhere will treat any said delegates … with kindness justly due them and grant them speedy return to their Christian work" (Lutz 2001).

Southern Efforts

When nearly 3,000 soldiers were wounded in the Battle of Manassas in July 1861, the Charleston YMCA chapter asked the Richmond chapter to oversee the collection and distribution of supplies for the sick and wounded. The Richmond chapter responded by turning its building into a "supply depot" (Lutz 2001). In mid-August of the same year, three Richmond homes were converted into hospitals that were attended by physicians who were YMCA members. In addition, Southern chapters founded a lodge to provide food, shelter, and other supplies to transient soldiers. By the end of the year nearly 4,700 soldiers had passed through the facility. The Charlottesville, Virginia, YMCA also made wooden legs to distribute free to disabled soldiers (Lutz 2001). In winter 1863 to 1864, one Mississippi Brigade YMCA fasted once a week in order to send the saved rations to the poor in Richmond.

In addition to the relief efforts of Southern chapters, some army units formed their own chapters of the YMCA. James Street, a minister serving in the Ninth Texas Regiment, reported in a letter to his wife that "a Young Men's Christian Association, composed of fifty men of all denominations had been formed in his brigade" (Shattuck 1987, p. 101). He wrote that he had heard that the chaplains were attempting to form a YMCA in every brigade of the Army of Tennessee. He felt that this might lead to revival among the Southern troops, which in turn might "assure the triumph of the South" because "only God could give victory to one side or the other" (Shattuck 1987, p. 101).


"History of the YMCA Movement." YMCA Web site. Available from

Lutz, Stephen D. "Coffee, Bibles, and Wooden Legs: The YMCA Goes to War." Civil War Times Illustrated 40, no. 1 (2001): 32–37.

Moorhead, James H. American Apocalypse: Yankee Protestants and the Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978.

Rankin, David C. Diary of a Christian Soldier: Rufus Kinsley and the Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Shattuck, Gardiner H., Jr. A Shield and a Hiding Place: The Religious Life of the Civil War Armies. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987.

Volo, Dorothy Denneen, and James M. Volo. Daily Life in Civil War America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Sandra Johnston

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Young Men's Christian Association

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