In the nineteenth century, reformers began to worry about the increasing number of young men who were leaving their family farms for jobs in the nation's growing cities. Whatever they had expected, many found harsher working conditions than they had known at home — 12-hour days, six days a week, spent indoors, in offices, shops, factories, or warehouses. Most lived in crowded tenements or rooms above the company shop.
Reformers were not just concerned about physical health; they worried, too, about the young men's spiritual well being. Away from their families and people they had known all their lives, they were easy prey for urban thugs, beggars, prostitutes, gamblers, and drinking companions. Who would protect their virtue and their Christian values? In Boston in the 1830s, evangelical churches sponsored reform and missionary societies to get sailors, apprentices, clerks, and other young men involved in Bible study groups and other religious activities.
European cities had similar problems. In the 1840s, a 20-year-old English farm boy named George Williams came to London to work in a shop. Appalled by the conditions he found in the city, he gathered a group of other young men to study the Bible and pray together; this first Young Men's Christian Association proved to be the beginning of a movement that grew rapidly. In less than a decade, there were 24 YMCAs in Great Britain, and the idea was spreading to other countries.