How many today realize that George Williams was the Billy Graham of the 19th century? When he crossed the Atlantic Ocean, he made a point of personally sharing Christ and giving out literature to everyone on the ocean liner.(1)
Powerful movements, especially those touching youth, can usually be traced to one visionary individual who sets the “genetic code” of the future movement. Lord Baden-Powell did that for Scouting. Sir George Williams, at age 22, also did that as founder of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). (1) Sadly, many today have no idea what the “C” in YMCA even means. Williams was a leading proponent of the Muscular Christian movement, which sought to holistically integrate body, mind and spirit. Basketball and volleyball were both invented and popularized by William’s YMCA movement. The YMCA motto “That They All May Be One” is take from the Gospel of John 17:21.
For many Canadians, the name “Sir George Williams” stirs a memory of the former name of Concordia University in Montreal. (2) The very first YMCA in North America was started in Montreal on November 25th, 1851 (two weeks before the American YMCA began in Boston).
Paul Dampier, who wrote the Centennial book Courage and Conviction about the Vancouver YMCA, comments that his:
great grandfather used to visit Sir George Williams…when he travelled from London, Ontario to England. On one of these trips, Dampier’s great-grandfather took along his son, to whom Sir George presented a small pocket Bible inscribed with a prayerful hope that the promises of this book may be His joy.(3)
In the first Annual Report of the Vancouver YMCA, activities described included Bible classes, Sunday afternoon Gospel meetings, and street meetings.(4) Before each gym class began, a five-minute prayer service was held.(5)
The YMCA & YWCA in Vancouver have always been part of my family’s heritage. My mother worked as a secretary for the Downtown Vancouver YWCA in the late 1940’s. I attended the Alma, Cambie, & Downtown Vancouver YMCAs, as an active member of the Stamp Club, the Coin Club, the Chess Club, and the Flying Shark junior life- saving team. In the summer, I went as a YMCA camper to Camp Howdy on the Indian Arm, and Camp Elphinstone on the Sunshine Coast, where I ended up working as a handyman and camp counsellor. I even gained first-hand YWCA experience, by doing a Social Work field placement at the inner-city Pender YWCA.
Sir George Williams was the youngest of the eight sons of Amos & Elisabeth Williams, of Ashway Farm, Dulverton, in the county of Somer- set. He was born on October 11th, 1821. George Williams represented the massive 19th century shift from the rural to the burgeoning English cities.
Williams said, “I entered Bridgewater a careless, thoughtless, godless, swearing young fellow.”(6) But the town of Bridgewater where he first learned the draper(clothing-goods) trade had a lasting impact on him:
“I first learned in Bridgewater”, said Williams, “to love my dear Lord and Saviour for what He had done for me…I was on the downward road…I said, ‘Cannot I escape? Is there no escape’ They told me in this town of Bridgewater how to escape—Confess your sins, accept Christ, trust in Him, yield your heart to the Saviour. I cannot describe to you the joy and peace that flowed into my soul when I first saw that the Lord Jesus had died for my sins, and that they were all forgiven.”(7)
From that moment on, Williams’ motto became: “It is not how little but how much we can do for others.”(8)
J.E. Hodder said: “it was impossible to resent his cheerful, unaffected sincerity; his manly directness; his courageous simplicity.”
Williams not only shared about Jesus Christ, but also fought for improved conditions for labour. The lives of the 150,000 London shop assistants in 1841 were still little removed from that of a slave. They were penned up in the unhealthy atmosphere of the shop from six or seven o’clock in the morning until ten or eleven o’clock at night.(10) Everywhere men were looking for a leader. The success of the early-closing movement owes much not only to the support Williams gave, but also to the example he afterwards set as an employer.(11)
Williams was a keen and brilliant businessman, who understood the art of delegation and ongoing accountability. From his growing and prosperous clothing-good business, he regularly gave away two-thirds of his income, in order to help others.(12) Williams once said:
What is my duty in business? To be righteous. To do right things between man and man. To buy honestly. Not to deceive or falsely represent or colour.(13)
Williams notably prayed:
Oh Lord, You have given me money. Give me a heart to do your will with it. May I use it for you and seek to get wisdom from you to use it aright.(14)
In Williams’ room hung a framed card illumined with the words “God First.”(15) George Williams had learned from Dr. Charles Finney that everything worth doing needed to begin with, and end with prayer.(16) His very last words, which he spoke while at the 1905 World YMCA Jubilee, were:
…if you wish to have a happy, useful, and profitable life, give your hearts to God while you are young.(17)
He was then carried to his room and died.
My prayer for those reading this is that the example of Sir George Williams may inspire each of us to make a difference in someone else’s life.
Rev Dr Ed & Janice Hird
Co-authors of the Blue Sky novel
Sir George Williams, Father of the YMCA | Light Magazine — Read on lightmagazine.ca/2021/03/05/sir-george-williams-father-of-the-ymca/
- J.E. Hodder Williams, The Life of Sir George Williams (New York: YMCA, 1906), 27, 249 “When (George Williams) crossed the Atlantic, he made a point of speaking to every soul on board from the Captain to the stroker, from the poker players in the smoking room to the emigrants in the steerage.”
- World YMCA Website, “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.” (accessed 03-o5-2021).
- Sir George Williams University History website, “The history of Sir George Williams University began with the establishment of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Montreal in 1851. (…) In 1873, the association inaugurated evening courses in vocational and general education. This system was known as the Educational Program and, later, the Montreal YMCA Schools. In 1926, the Montreal YMCA Schools changed its name to Sir George Williams College in honour of the founder of the YMCA (London, England, 1844) (…) In the late-1960s, Sir George Williams University severed ties, financial and otherwise, with the YMCA. (…) IN AUGUST 1974 SIR GEORGE WILLIAMS UNIVERSITY MERGED WITH LOYOLA COLLEGE TO FORM CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY.” (accessed 03-05-2021).
- Paul Dampier, Courage and Conviction: The YMCA in Vancouver 1886 to 1986, (Vancouver YMCA, 1986), https://www.abebooks.com/products/isbn/9780969240105?cm_sp=bdp--ISBN10--PLP (accessed 03-05-2021), 9.
- Dampier, 12.
- Dampier, 23.
- Williams, 21.
- Williams, 27.
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- Williams, 90.
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- Williams, 248.
- Williams, 32-33.
- Williams, 305.