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Christian Faith and Social Action

The Young Women's Christian Association movement began with the formation of non-denominational prayer circles of “women of leisure” in the 1850s.  These all-female meetings allowed women to conduct their own religious rituals in an era when they were otherwise excluded from leading formal religious rites.  Because of their Christian purpose, it was acceptable for these non-denominational groups of lay women to develop completely woman-oriented and woman-run organizations outside the control of the male-dominated church hierarchy.

Initially, the ultimate aim of the work was to convert young women to evangelical Protestantism.  But the “enrichment and new understanding” brought by interactions between “all kinds of women and girls” transformed the YWCA's Christian purpose from moralistic evangelism into an expansive, ecumenical force for discerning and living Christian ethics.

Eager to make the Association a “shining power for righteousness,” the YWCA adopted ambitious social justice goals as its Christian duty.  These goals challenged American society to examine some of its most deeply embedded assumptions.  Threatened by such fundamental questioning emanating from a Christian organization, one of the most effective responses proved to be to dismiss the YWCA as a socialist and later Communist organization.

Photograph, undated
“An Extension Bible class of girls from stores and factories,” Toledo, Ohio, undated

“We have been awakened out of that religious serenity which was ours when we could contemplate with satisfaction the gathering of a few kindred-minded young women on a Sunday afternoon for spiritual fellowship and count it a successful vesper service.  We are now far too conscious of the ‘other sheep’ which are not in this ‘fold’ to be content with such a limited ministry.”

from “Religious Meetings in City Associations” by Charlotte H. Adams, 1914

“Perhaps nearest to our hearts of late has been our effort to ring out the call that the Association should seek as an organization to affect social conditions.  We have come to the time when the Association must take its part in civic movements and become the shining power for righteousness.  Most of this will necessarily have to be done by a cooperative effort, but surely we may also hope to pour a stream of individuals into the community so inspired and motivated that all blocks to lives of purity and freedom shall be removed”

from the 1913-1914 Biennial Report of the Department of Method by Louise Holmquist

Socialist Ideals of the Churches

The Social Ideals of the Churches developed by the Federal Council of Churches, an umbrella group of liberal Protestant churches.  With prompting from its Industrial Club members, the YWCA Convention agreed to adopt the Social Ideals as its social platform in 1920.

Newspaper, 1920

Major YWCA donor Helen Gould Shepard resigned from the National Board in protest of the Social Ideals and other “liberalizing“ actions of the 1920 Convention. from Literary Digest, May 29, 1920

Publication, 1920s

Attacks on the YWCA were so common that the national Association began developing tools
and training to help local Associations respond constructively as early as the 1920s.

Article, 1938

Article from the YWCA's magazine,
The Womans Press, January 1938

Photograph, 1950s

One of a series of photographs taken for a publicity campaign in the late 1950s.  The official caption reads, “Being a part of the YWCA is a deep spiritual experience.  Here, YWCA board and staff members bow their heads reverently in a traditional before-meeting prayer.”

“…It is because of our nature that we always find ourselves entangled in controversy….

“Being then – ideally – a democratic, Christian cross-section of our community, we inevitably find ourselves, within ourselves, lined up on directly opposite sides.  For example, we may have a theoretical pacifist and the wife of an owner of a munitions plant sitting on the same board discussing the international section of the Public Affairs Program.  We may have the wife of a mill owner and one of the strikers (both YWCA members) trying to decide whether or not the union may meet in the YWCA building….

“The YWCA can really be considered a testing ground for democracy.  If all these different kinds of people cannot work out their problems together in an organization whose avowed purpose is to help build a better society based on Christian ideals and Jesus' love for all people, then there does not seem to be much chance for democracy to succeed in a larger world.  Every time an Association has supported its industrial members in their fight to achieve better working conditions, every time we have supported our Negro members in their struggle to unearth and correct some misjustice, every time we have upheld the right of a group to express itself freely, we have done a small share toward setting up the Kingdom of God on earth.  That is certainly a goal worthy of our time, our strength and our best effort.  ”

from “Handling Controversial Questions” by Cecil Scott, in The Womans Press, January 1938

“This is love – not saving your own skin, but hungering and thirsting after righteousness, knowing that you cannot have real security yourself while others are insecure.  This truth is inescapable… We may see that, where people are doomed to live in disease and crime-breeding slums, the health of the whole community is lowered – and yet not lift one finger to secure wage standard to make it possible for people to live in more wholesome surroundings.  We may suffer over Hitler's treatment of the Jews and yet never question the right which the white race has assumed to tell Asiatic where they may or may not settle, and Negroes where to live in our communities.  We may see that in the mind of God there is no distinction between the races and that equality of behavior is required of those who worship Him and yet not see the sin of our own communities that have more and better equipped schools for white than Negro children, and that have a harsher law for Negroes in their courts than for whites.”

from “Christian Faith and Social Action” by Rose Terlin, 1940

Rose Terlin, 1941

Rose Terlin, Economic Secretary for the National Association and later Editor of the Womans Press, was a perennial target of attack.  Her writings focused on the connection between religion and economic justice.

Christian Faith and Social Action

YWCA Pamphlet, 1940

“We often hear it said that what is needed among Christians is more personal religion and less dealing with controversial issues.  We often hear the materialism of our own concern with working conditions, child labor, etc. decried in the name of a need for more emphasis on spiritual values such as Christian fellowship.  There is an antagonism implied here between personal and social, between material and spiritual.  This antagonism is not rooted in the Christian religion but rather is the product of the individualism that has characterized western civilization since the break-up of feudalism.

“The Christian faith is a realistic combination of the personal and social.  It deals with persons – and their achieving of life and wholeness – but also with the religious importance of their relations with other people…”

from “Christian Faith and Social Action” by Rose Terlin, 1940

“If we dared to be Christians, really to believe in and practice our ethic of love, how we should transform our common life! Dare we to be as single-minded in our devotion to the God of our love as our religion demands and our social and economic life needs if it is to be saved?

“We who call ourselves Christians, who claim to be committed to the will of God, have a greater responsibility than anyone else to stand for justice, equality and the right of all human beings to share in the fruits of the earth…[Christianity] lays upon us the inescapable responsibility to judge fearlessly the moral issues involved in the present world crisis and to act realistically for the achievement of a new world order.  Such a task is not all sweetness and light.  It demands all we have and then more.  But to them that are willing to do his will, God gives strength and power and life.”

from “Christian Faith and Social Action” by Rose Terlin, 1940

Affadavit, 1939

In 1939 a witness before the Dies Committee testified that Rose Terlin was a member of the Young Communist League and had attended a Communist Party training school.  Though Terlin quickly submitted a sworn affidavit to the contrary, the bogus charge was regularly raised as evidence of the Communist infiltration of the YWCA.  Read more…

A Report, 1948

This 1948 pamphlet by Joseph P. Kamp subtitled, “A Report on the Extent and Nature of the Infiltration by Communist, Socialist and Other Left Wing Elements, and the Resultant Red Complexion of Propaganda Disseminated In, By and Through the Young Women's Christian Association” was one of the most widely distributed Red Scare era attacks on the YWCA.

“Statement Regarding ‘Behind the Lace Curtains of the YWCA’” by Mrs. Arthur Forrest Anderson, President of the National Board of the Young Women's Christian Associations of the U.S.A., October 13, 1948.  Read more…

“The Young Women's Christian Association has taken its Christianity seriously.  It has refused to put institutional security before the practice of justice.  It has been unafraid of controversy, if it be that the application of Christian principles to concrete situations develops controversy…. The YWCA, clear in its enunciation of the Christian principle that all human beings are of infinite worth because they are children of God, has called upon its members to build a society fit to be called the Kingdom of God.  And its contribution has been of extraordinary worth because it has brought the mind of the mother to the problem of the home for humanity….”

from “The YWCA is Unafraid” by G. Bradley Oxnam, ex-President of the Federal Council of Churches, in The Womans Press, September 1946

Memo, 1948 The Red Streak, 1949

YWCA memorandum to National Board and Staff Members, October 13, 1948

“The Red Streak” from The Sunday School Times, March 5, 1949

“The real reason why religion is concerned for economic rights, above and beyond the meeting of essential living requirements, is that the souls may indeed be free to pursue its higher aspirations.  Sufficient economic security to make the economics less important and to free the spirit for the other and varied interest is part of our aim.  That is why one of the main tasks of religion at present is to help secure those social and economic rights which will free people to larger concerns.”

from The Bible and Human Rights by Kathleen MacArthur, 1948

from The Womans Press, 1948

Next: the Industrial Awakening of the YWCA

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