Chicago’s population had barely reached 5,000 in1840. Twenty years later, the city’s census recorded more than 109,000 residents. Chicago’s population increased more than 20 times over two decades. Most of the increase was due to an influx of young men; census data from 1850 showed that almost 50 percent of Chicago’s male population was between the ages of 15 and 39.
The city was in need of a place for young men to socialize and improve themselves. Several societies were founded: Chicago Lyceum, the Mechanical Institute and the Young Men’s Association among others. Most notable of these groups, the Young Men’s Association was created as a place for leisure and amusement away from the vices of gambling halls and saloons. Despite their good intentions, these organizations were unable to provide any answers to the problems young men faced. They were refuges for their constituents, but little more.
In 1853, after learning of Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCA) in other cities such as Boston, New York and Buffalo, Reverend Luther Stone published a series of articles calling for the creation of a YMCA in Chicago. According to the constitution of the YMCA, originally founded in London in 1844, the goal of the organization was “the spiritual and mental improvement of young men by any means in accordance with the Scriptures.” Stone, editor of a religious paper called the Watchman of the Prairies, brought together laymen from the Episcopal, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist and Presbyterian churches to discuss the creation of a YMCA in Chicago.
Despite their best efforts, the laymen were met with great opposition. In the summer of 1854, Chicago faced a cholera epidemic that left more than 1,400 people dead. This turned church officials’ attention away from the possible creation of a YMCA to the tragedy at hand. In addition, competition from the already well-established Young Men’s Association left little support for the hopeful YMCA backers.
Chicago, still in recovery from the cholera epidemic, faced a new crisis a few years later—this time, a financial one. A great recession swept the country, crippling the railroad and other previously booming industries. In response, the city experienced a religious and spiritual revival. Laymen and YMCA members in cities such as New York met to discuss ways of lessening the poverty that so many faced during the country’s recession.
On March 22, 1858, Chicagoans again gathered in an attempt to form a YMCA. After a series of meetings, a constitution was written and the first YMCA of Chicago was officially formed.