The YMCA story begins in the mid nineteenth century. At that time the wholesale drapery houses employed large numbers of young men, many of them under 20, who were provided with board and lodging at their places of work.

Hours of work were long and little care was taken to secure decent living conditions. This was the London of the late Industrial Revolution, the London to which young men from the country were still coming in search of a wealth that few of them found; the London about which Charles Dickens were writing, exposing the evil and suffering, as well as the humour, behind the prosperous Victorian facade.

It was also the London to which there came, in 1841, a 20 year old draper's assistant named George Williams. George Williams had been born and brought up in Dulverton, Somerset, his was a farming family, but at the age of 14 he had moved to Bridgwater to serve his apprenticeship in the drapery trade.

The state of affairs, which he found in the St Paul's district of London was a challenge to action, and he first set to work in the drapery establishment of Hitchcock & Rogers where he was an assistant. It had some 140 assistants, and it was not long before George Williams obtained permission to hold prayer meetings in his bedroom.

From this beginning the YMCA was founded by a small group of young men on the 6th June 1844. These pioneers happened to belong to four different church denominations; this happy chance proved valuable because it gave the Association the ecumenical character that has been a source of strength ever since. It allowed the development by the members of a vision of the one Church Universal; yet it left the Movement free from control by any Church.

Any doubts about the need for the YMCA were quickly dispelled by the speed with which it spread. Meeting at first in a coffee house, it rapidly outgrew a whole series of meeting rooms. Prayer and Bible study were at the heart of the work, but George Williams and his friends quickly recognised that they were called to serve all young men, not Christians only, and to meet all their needs, not only their need for 'religion' in the narrower sense. This recognition was expressed in three early decisions, each of which is still important for the Movement today.

By its fifth meeting a name had been chosen. The short-list included 'Christian Young Men's Society'. This was rejected in favour of 'Young Men's Christian Association' presumably because it was the Association, its leadership and its purpose which were to be Christian and not necessarily all the young men served by it.

Within a few months, the young Association's statement of purpose was changed. At first it had read 'the improvement of the spiritual condition of young men engaged in the drapery and other trades'; now it became 'the improvement of the spiritual and mental condition of young men'. So began the educational programme of the YMCA; the physical and social programmes were to follow in time.

In 1850 came the decision to admit as Associates (later known as Associate Members) those who wanted some share in the YMCA's activities without being committed to the Christian faith. At first Associates were allowed only the use of the library and reading room for which they paid £1.00 per year; before long they were to enjoy all the activities, being excluded only from a voice in the policy-making committees.

The Paris Basis 1855

By the early 1850s there were a number of young men's movements and societies in various countries, different in origin and different in name, but with no organic link between them. Under the influence of men like Henri Dunant (who was later the founder of the Red Cross) they made contact with each other and began to link themselves not as separate societies but as one movement. The vision of one world movement became a reality when, in Paris in 1855, 99 young men from nine countries met to found the World Alliance of YMCAs. As they represented the evangelical tradition their statement of the basis of membership of the new alliance might easily have required local YMCAs to accept a detailed statement of evangelical doctrine.

With great wisdom, they refrained from such a statement and limited themselves to one sentence:

"The Young Men's Christian Association seeks to unite those young men who, regarding Jesus Christ as their God and Saviour 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."

This remains the basis on which YMCAs in different parts of the world come together. Any National Movement must accept it before being admitted to the World Alliance. In many countries each local YMCA must accept it before being affiliated to the National Movement. In Great Britain and Ireland the basis of union for YMCAs recognises the place of women and girls and so the statement now reads:

"The Young Men's Christian Association seeks to unite those who, regarding Jesus Christ as their God and Saviour 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."

Aims & Purposes 1971

One of the great virtues of the Paris Basis has been that it is so concise as to leave room for tremendous variety between one YMCA and another. Since 1855 the Paris Basis has been the basis for unity in diversity. However, in 1969 the National Council of Great Britain and Ireland decided that the time had come to review the total work of the YMCA in these islands. A commission was appointed and in 1971 reported its' findings to a special conference in Manchester. It was here that, after re-affirming the Paris Basis, that the present day 'Aims and Purposes' were adopted as a more modern interpretation.

The YMCA is a Christian Movement:

At its centre are Christians who, regarding Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, desire to share their faith with others and make Him known, believed, trusted, loved, served and exemplified in all human relationships. It welcomes into its fellowship persons of other religious faiths and of none.

Accordingly the YMCA stands for:

A world-wide fellowship based on the equal value of all persons. Respect and freedom for all, tolerance and understanding between people of different traditions. Active concern for the needs of the community. United effort by Christians of different traditions.

The YMCA aims to:

Provide a welcome to members for themselves, in a meeting place which is theirs to share, where friendships can be made and counsel sought. Develop activities which stimulate and challenge its members in an environment that enables them to take responsibility and find a sense of achievement. Involve all members in care and work for others. Create opportunities for exchanging views, so that its members can improve their understanding of the world, of themselves and of one another.

The Paris Basis expresses that Christ is the centre of the Movement, which is conceived as a world-wide fellowship uniting Christians of all confessions. It is consistent with an open membership policy, involving people irrespective of faith, age, sex, race and social conditions.

The Basis is not designed to serve as a condition of individual YMCA membership, which is deliberately left to the discretion of constituent Movements of the World Alliance. The Basis makes clear that the constituent Movements of the Alliance have full freedom to express their purpose in other terms designed to correspond more directly to the needs and aspirations of those whom they are seeking to serve, provided these are regarded by the World Alliance as being consistent with the Paris Basis.

The Kampala Principles 1973

In 1973, at a meeting in Kampala, the Movement sought to acknowledge and apply the Paris Basis to the character of the Association as it then operated across the world. The Kampala Principles lays upon the various Associations and their members as fellow members with God such imperatives as:

  • To work for equal opportunity and justice for all.
  • To work for and maintain an environment in which relationships among people are characterised by love and understanding.
  • To work for and maintain conditions within the YMCA and in society, its organisations and institutions, which allow for honesty, depth and creativity.
  • To develop and maintain leadership and programme patterns which exemplify the variety and depth of Christian experience.
  • To work for the development of the whole person.