Young Men’s Christian Association

Foundations of the YMCA

Twenty-two-year-old George Williams founded the first Young Men’s Christian Association in London, England in 1844 to address the needs of young men who, due to the growth of industrialization, had moved away from home and found themselves cut off from their religious ties. Less than a decade later, in 1851, the organization spread to the United States, where it became, in time, a household name. While we commonly associate today’s YMCA with athletics, sports were not a central part of its mission until the 1890s, when a growing movement called “muscular Christianity” emphasized the importance of developing the physical body in order to more effectively perform Christian duties.[1] In 1891, Association leader Luther H. Gulick convinced the YMCA to adopt the symbol of an inverted red triangle, with the three sides of the shape representing the three aspects—body, mind, and spirit—that a man should strive to perfect.[2]

The YMCA at War

The YMCA’s involvement with armed conflict dates back to the American Civil War, when volunteers traveled both the Union and Confederate armies, distributing food, clothing, and medical supplies as well as teaching soldiers to read and write.[3] The organization performed similar tasks at United States military installations during the Spanish American War, and, just prior to official American involvement in World War I, operated activity buildings for troops stationed on the Mexican border.[4] When urban reformer Raymond Fosdick visited the border to evaluate camp conditions on behalf of Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, he reported that the YMCA was the “best organized thing on the whole frontier,” seeing the organization’s activities as counteractive to the immoral conditions of army life.[5]

World War I


Figure 1. This UWWC poster for the YMCA and YWCA focused on the idea of providing a home-like atmosphere to soldiers overseas. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When the United States joined World War I, Fosdick became the head of the War Department’s Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) and chose the YMCA as the Commission’s first (and originally only) religiously affiliated civilian partner.[6] For the purposes of its war-related activities, the Association established their National War Work Council and named the general-secretary of the International Committee of the YMCA, Dr. John Mott, as its head.[7] The organization worked in military camps in both the United States and Europe, operating “huts” (anything from simple wooden structures in training camps to pre-existing buildings in leave areas to makeshift dugouts in the trenches) designed to uphold morale and morality among American and Allied soldiers. It also worked with prisoners of war on both sides of the conflict. Activities and services varied depending on the location of the hut, but included recreation (sports, films, concerts, and singing), library services, religious services, and the sale of refreshments, cigarettes, and other personal items.

Read a booklet written by John Mott to answer criticisms about the YMCA's war work.
Figure 2. Read a booklet written by John Mott to answer criticisms about the YMCA’s war work.[10] Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
As the main Protestant organization working with the Department of War, the YMCA did not face issues of acceptance in the same way as other religious groups like the Knights of Columbus or the Jewish Welfare Board. At the same time, the Association sometimes took its privileged position for granted as it claimed to be non-sectarian while not always living up to that claim. Under Mott’s leadership, the National War Work Council maintained his evangelical Protestant outlook, cooperating with the Commission on Training Camp Activities’ Catholic and Jewish affiliates while, according to complaints from the Knights and the Jewish Welfare Board, continuing to proselytize to non-Protestant secretaries and soldiers.[8] As the Director of the United War Work Campaign, Mott also pushed early on for the Protestant organizations to run a separate, earlier drive, leaving the smaller religious organizations to run a later appeal to a public already beleaguered by fundraisers. Eventually, he conceded to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker’s demand for a single drive by all seven of the Commission on Training Camp Activities’ civilian affiliates.[9] Although Mott ultimately proved a good leader for the United War Work Campaign, his failure to cooperate fully with minority groups contributed to tensions between them.

Meanwhile, one of the harshest and most common criticisms of the YMCA during the war—that the organization overcharged for items in the canteens it operated—was actually the result of misunderstanding and government failure. When the United States entered the war, General Pershing asked the Association to take charge of army canteens in order to free more personnel for combat. However, the War Department neglected to cover the charges for transporting goods overseas, and the YMCA was forced to charge higher prices just to break even. While the government eventually eliminated this problem, and the YMCA lowered their prices, the fix did not come before the Knights of Columbus had developed their slogan of “Everybody Welcome, Everything Free,” and created a sore point between the two organizations as well as with soldiers and the general public.

Regardless of the tensions and controversy surrounding the YMCA’s war work, the Association played a key role as the largest religious organization participating in the United War Work Campaign. The Association’s favored position within the United War Work Campaign, along with its size and level of funding, allowed it to create the most extensive programs of any religious organization involved. However, the YMCA’s failure to fully address the diversity of American soldiers, and of the American public, contributed to the criticism it received and an ultimate loss of popularity over the course of the war.


John R. Mott

Figure 3. John Mott. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At the time of the United War Work Campaign, John R. Mott was the general secretary of the YMCA’s International Committee and chair of the YMCA’s National War Work Council.

Born in New York in 1865 and raised by a devout Methodist family in Iowa, Mott first became involved with the YMCA as a college student, when he joined the organization first at Upper Iowa University and later at Cornell University.[11] Over the course of his life, Mott held a variety of positions with the YMCA, including multiple international positions.[12]

Overall, Mott held and expressed a particularly international vision of evangelism, a worldview which led him to organize and chair the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference. When World War I began, Mott maintained a connection with German missions leaders and attempted to prevent a devastating division between German and British Christians. Mott, however, was a close friend of President Woodrow Wilson, and as American sentiment and arms sales sided increasingly with the Allies, he found it increasingly difficult to maintain neutrality. Ultimately, when the United States officially joined the war in 1917, Mott’s political involvement helped to ensure the very division that he hoped to avoid.[13]

Meanwhile, after offering the YMCA’s services to the U. S. War Department’s Commission on Training Camp Activities, Mott became head of the YMCA’s newly created National War Work Council. In 1918, he became the Director of the United War Work Campaign. Though at times he favored the interests of the YMCA, Mott ultimately put immense effort into ensuring the success of the drive despite the outbreak of the influenza epidemic and the coming of the Armistice.[14]

Following the war, John R. Mott continued his evangelical work both in the United States and worldwide, and in 1946 was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He passed away in 1955 at the age of eighty-nine.[15]


          [1]Clifford Putney, “Luther Gulick: His Contributions to Springfield College, the YMCA, and ‘Muscular Christianity,’” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 39, no. 1/2 (Summer 2011): 146-7.

          [2]Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001): 70.

          [3]Richard C. Lancaster, Serving the U.S. Armed Forces, 1861-1986: The Story of the YMCA’s Ministry to Military Personnel for 125 Years (Schaumburg, Ill.: Armed Services YMCA of the USA, 1987), v, xi. Canadians also founded branches of the YMCA in 1851.

          [4]David M. Hovde, “YMCA Libraries on the Mexican Border, 1916,” Libraries & Culture 32, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 113–5.

          [5]William Howard Taft and Frederick Harris, Service with Fighting Men (New York: Association Press, 1924), 209 in Hovde, “YMCA Libraries,” 117.

          [6]Weldon B. Durham, “‘Big Brother’ and the ‘Seven Sisters’: Camp Life Reforms in World War I,” Military Affairs 42, no. 2 (April 1978): 58.

          [7]Jessica Cooperman, “The Jewish Welfare Board and Religious Pluralism in the American Military of World War I,” American Jewish History 98, no. 4 (October 2014): 241.

          [8]Jeanne Petit, “Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in World War I America: The 1918 United War Work Campaign” (Organization of American Historians Meeting, St. Louis, MO, 2015), 4.

          [9]Petit, “Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in World War I America,” 5-8.

          [10]John R. Mott, Criticisms about Y.M.C.A. War Work and Answers, John J. Pershing papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Room, Box 219, Folder Y.M.C.A. (1916-1919).

          [11]Mark Galli, “John R. Mott,” Christian History 19, no. 1 (February 2000): 36.; Charles Howard Hopkins, John R. Mott, 1865-1955: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 11, 30.

          [12]Hopkins, John R. Mott, 815.

          [13]Richard V. Pierard, “John R Mott and the Rift in the Ecumenical Movement during World War I,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 23, no. 4 (September 1, 1986): 602–17.

          [14]Hopkins, John R. Mott, 538-9.

          [15]Galli, “John R. Mott,” 36.