SIR GEORGE WILLIAMS & THE YMCA
Once a year, Easter is pulled out of the closet with all its bunnies, chocolates, flowers, and crosses. Because Easter has never been as commercialized as Christmas, more of its true meaning has the potential to break through. As Canadians, however, we seem to suffer from nation-wide amnesia regarding much of our heritage and roots. For example, I have spoken to a number of Deep Cove teens who have never once heard that Easter is in any way connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Recently I have noticed that many teens today have no idea what the "C" in YMCA refers to. Powerful movements, especially those touching young people, 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 did that as founder of the Young Men’s Christian Association.
For many Canadians, the name "Sir George Williams" stirs a memory of the former name of Concordia University in Montreal. The very first YMCA in North America was started in Montreal on November 25th, 1851 (two weeks before the American YMCA began in Boston). The YMCA & YWCA in Vancouver have always been part of my family’s heritage. My mother worked as a secretary for the Downtown YWCA in the late 1940’s. I attended the Alma, Cambie, & Downtown YMCA’s, 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.
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.’ In the first Annual Report of the Vancouver YMCA, activities described included Bible classes, Sunday afternoon Gospel meetings, and street meetings. Before each gym class was held a five-minute prayer service.
Sir George Williams was the youngest of the eight sons of Amos & Elisabeth Williams, of Ashway Farm, Dulverton, in the county of Somerset. He was born on October 11th, 1821.. George Williams represented the massive 19th century shift from the rural to the burgeoning English cities.
"I entered Bridgewater", said Williams, "a careless, thoughtless, godless, swearing young fellow". 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." Williams commented: "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."
From that moment on, Williams’ motto became: ‘It is not how little but how much we can do for others’... J.E. Hodder said that "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 in the unhealthy atmosphere of the shop from six or seven o’clock in the morning until ten or eleven o’clock at night. 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.
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. 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." He once 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."
In Williams’ room hung a framed card illumined with the words "God First". George Williams had learnt from Dr. Charles Finney that everything worth doing needed to begin with, and end with prayer. Williams’ early YMCA gatherings were quite similar to the 35 North Shore Prayer Care groups, which meet to pray for the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of their neighbours. 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." He was then carried to his room and died.
My prayer for those reading this article is that the example of Sir George Williams may inspire each of us to make a difference in someone else’s life.
Rev. Ed Hird
Rector, St. Simon’s Anglican Church
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