YMCA historical figures

Sir George Williams (1821 – 1905)

George Williams

Founder of the first YMCA

George Williams was born in Somerset, England on 11 October 1821. In 1836 he moved to London to work as an apprentice to a Draper, and by 1841 was working as a Draper. He stayed in the accommodation provided by the firm in the same building, and became one of the 150,000 young men like him that crowded the city of London

On 6th June 1844, George Williams, together with ten Christian young men, established the YMCA. “Our object is the improvement of the spiritual condition of the young men engaged in houses of business, by the formation of Bible classes, family and social prayer meetings, mutual improvement societies, or any other spiritual agency.”

Williams was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1894, and after his death was commemorated with a stained-glass window in the nave of Westminster Abbey. Sir George Williams is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Henry Dunant (1828 – 1910)

Henry Dunant

Founder of YMCA Geneva

Henry Dunant, who was born in Geneva on 8 May 1828, came from a devout and charitable Calvinist family. Motivated by his strong sense of faith and desire to help others, as a young man, Dunant began organising prayer groups and Bible studies from his home. He went on to co-found the YMCA of Geneva in 1852.

The driving force behind the international YMCA Movement, Henry Dunant then played a pivotal role in the growth of the international YMCA Movement.

He became a fervent spokesperson for the YMCA, promoting it all over the world, and visiting emerging YMCAs across Europe and North Africa. He was also in regular correspondence with YMCAs around the world, updating them on YMCA work in each country. By 1852 he was corresponding with YMCAs in nearly 30 different towns.

In 1855 when leaders of YMCA Paris suggested holding an international meeting with other francophone YMCAs, Dunant expressed his disapproval and his wish to have a more inclusive international gathering with YMCA representatives from England, Scotland and Holland for example. His enthusiasm and passion to have a truly international movement led to the first ever International YMCA Conference held in Paris in 1855.

Henry Dunant would later go on to found the International Committee of the Red Cross, and win the first ever Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

John R. Mott (1865 – 1955)

John R. Mott was born in New York on 25 May 1865. In 1885 he became a student at Cornell University, where as President of the student YMCA, he increased membership threefold, and raised money for a University YMCA building. He graduated in 1888 with a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and history, and immediately began a service of 27 years as Secretary of the Intercollegiate YMCA of the USA and Canada. From 1915 to 1928 he served as General Secretary of the International YMCA Committee (that would later become the World Alliance of YMCAs) and as President of the World Alliance from 1926 to 1937.

As a student, Mott also participated in the first ever international interdenominational student Christian conference. After graduating, Mott organised the World’s Student Christian Federation in 1895 and as its General Secretary went on to organise national student movements in India, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, parts of Europe and the North East.

During World War I, when the YMCA offered its services to President Wilson, Mott became General Secretary of the National War Work Council, receiving the Distinguished Service Medal for his work.

He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for his work in establishing and strengthening international Protestant Christian student organisations that worked to promote peace.