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YMCA religious work records

Identifier: Y.USA.49


Minutes, correspondence, conference materials, reports, pamphlets, and other printed materials documenting the YMCA's religious work. The collection includes administrative records from the YMCA's Religious Work Department as well as material documenting its work and programs, especially Bible study courses. Also included are records of later committees created to address the issue of the role of Christianity in the Y, such as the Committee on Christian Emphasis and the Committee on Christian Concerns and Ecumenical Relations. Much of the material documents the YMCA's relationship with other churches and organizations, particularly the Catholic church, and the World, Federal, and National Councils of Churches.


  • Creation: 1814-1984, 1992
  • Creation: Majority of material found within ( 1870s-1970s)


Language of Materials


Use of Materials:

This collection is protected by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). It is the user's responsibility to verify copyright, ownership, and to obtain all the necessary permissions prior to the reproduction, publication, or other use of any portion of these materials.


While contemporary Americans tend to associate the YMCA primarily with fitness and recreation, the organization's roots are firmly embedded in the missionary movement of the mid-19th century. A child of evangelical Protestantism, the YMCA at first considered itself a specialized agency for bringing young men to Christ. In 1855, eleven years after the founding of the YMCA in London, Ys from around the world met in Paris and adopted a statement of individual commitment as a basis for membership. Called the Paris Basis, it pledged the Y to unite young Christian men who "regarding Jesus Christ as their God and Savior 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." Initially and for much of the Y's history, religious work was primary and all other features were intended to contribute to it.

Although the early Y's mission was unabashedly religious in nature, the organization focused on method rather than doctrine or philosophy. Dominated by business men rather than professional religious leaders, the movement tended to emphasize facilities, expansion, practical usefulness, and specific influence. Early work included not only the distribution of tracts, Bibles and other Christian literature, but the creation of lists of respectable houses and places to obtain employment, community relief projects, and care for members who were ill. As early as 1857, the Brooklyn (N.Y.) YMCA added physical work to its programs, basing its effort on the belief that "bodily health is intimately connected with mental and spiritual activity and development." The YMCA saw physical work as a means of attracting to its Christian program young men it could not otherwise reach. In 1866, the New York association expanded its statement of purpose to include the word "physical," thus defining the fourfold purpose of the YMCA: "The improvement of the spiritual, mental, social, and physical condition of young men." This concept was formally endorsed by the Y movement as a whole at the Baltimore Convention in 1879.

The YMCA went on to pioneer such programs as vocational education, recreational camping, and support services to men and women in the armed services, invent the sports of basketball and volleyball, and become a key provider of recreation and social welfare services in cities across the country. Still, religious motivations, influenced heavily by the Social Gospel movement with its call for compassionate Christian response to issues of social justice, remained at the heart of YMCA programs. As YMCA leader Robert McBurney stated, "the primary object for which these societies have been established is the binding together of Christian young men and the leading to the savior of those who are ignorant of him. All other services, no matter how good, how great, or how desirable are but collateral and subordinate and should be engaged in only as they tend to secure this primary object." Until 1931, representation at conventions was limited to YMCAs that accepted the Portland Basis. This test, established in 1869, affirmed tenets held by most conservative Protestant churches of the day, such as the inerrancy of scripture, the divinity of Christ, and the centrality of the atonement using widely recognized scripture texts and statements of faith.

The International Committee (the governing administrative body of the YMCA in North America) formed the Religious Work Department in 1902, focused on Bible study and evangelistic work, with Frederic S. Goodman as its secretary. It published the first complete YMCA handbook of religious work methods and principles. Larger city YMCAs increasingly added religious work secretaries to their staffs. Although a separate department had been established, however, religious emphasis was expected to permeate the work of all departments of the International Committee and all local associations. A year later, Laurence L. Doggett, president of the YMCA-founded Springfield College, helped found the Religious Education Association, which dealt with problems of philosophy, methods, leadership, and materials in the field of religious education. Through this organization, many YMCA leaders first learned the concept of character building by way of educational and group activities. The YMCA's physical, social, and educational work seemed an ideal laboratory for testing these new ideas.

Following the vote in 1931 by the delegates to the 43rd International Convention to eliminate the Portland Test, the YMCA abandoned formal theological identification of any kind, adopting a more general statement of purpose: "The Young Men's Christian Association we regard in its essential genius, a worldwide fellowship of men and boys [changed in the late 1950s to "persons"] united by common loyalty to Jesus Christ for the purpose of developing Christian personality and building a Christian society." The delegates also proposed "a program of social and Christian education with the view of helping to educate public opinion for the purpose of reconstructing our social order in the light of, and upon the basis of, the teachings of Jesus." In 1937, a committee on Christian Emphasis and Method, chaired by Dr. Rolland W. Schloerb, was established by the National Board. The committee was charged with "specific tasks connected with preserving the Christian emphasis and with devising methods of infusing it into the program as a whole."

The 1931 statement of purpose was reaffirmed by the annual meeting of the National Council in 1963, and again by the National Council meeting in 1983. Even so, the Y did become increasingly ecumenical and pluralistic as the years went by. Throughout the years, local YMCAs have negotiated between the the Y's evangelical heritage and the desire (and in many cases, need) to broaden its constituency, accounting for the diversity that existed within their own membership but attempting to remain consistent with the spirit of the national statement. A 1952 study conducted by the Program Committee of the National Board on the basic characteristics of the YMCA reported that it was characteristic for the YMCA to "demonstrate what it meant to be a Christian in one's daily life and to welcome persons of various religions, provided they respected the Y's Christian purpose." In 1967, the same year that the National Council banned racial segregation in the YMCA, it also recommended "Guidelines for Ecumenical Education in the YMCA." These guidelines called for "laymen and staff to free themselves from religious prejudice and increase their knowledge and respect for diverse religious traditions," as well as that membership in YMCAs and boards "be open to qualified persons of all Christian affiliations, as well as to Jews and to persons of other religious faiths who wish to join." In 1983, the National Council amended the YMCA constitution by adding the word "religion" to the list of categories on the basis of which discrimination is banned. In 1990, the National Board approved the following positioning statement for the YMCA of the USA: "We will position the YMCA as a community service organization that meets community needs and is open to people of all ages, all abilities, and all incomes; that meets health and social service needs of the family; and that emphasizes the development of values -- the encouragement of moral and ethical behavior based on Christian principles"

Quoted largely from: John C. O'Melia, Jr, Christianity and the YMCA: A Review of the Significant Dates, People, and Events Related to Christian Development in the YMCA, (June 1992). Information also taken from C. Howard Hopkins, History of the YMCA in North America, (New York: Association Press, 1951).


25 Cubic Feet (25 boxes)


Minutes, correspondence, conference materials, reports, pamphlets, and other printed materials documenting the YMCA's religious work.

Physical Location

See Detailed Description section for box listing.

Processing Information:

Processed as part of Fast Processing Project II, 2009 as collection FP0069. Material is minimally processed.

Catalog Record ID number: 5594683

An Inventory of Its Records
Finding aid prepared by Davis Svingen and Lara Friedman-Shedlov.
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Collecting Area Details

Contact The Kautz Family YMCA Archives Collecting Area