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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Youth Movements, Protestant

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The origins of Protestant youth movements in America are traced to the singing classes or schools of the early 18th century. There is record of one in Boston, Mass., in 1717, and by 1800 more than 60 different songbooks had been printed for such choral group. Somewhat later, young men were prominent in the temperance societies that sprang up to combat the ill effects of alcoholic addiction. In 1829 in New York State alone 1,000 such organizations were counted, with 100,000 members. About the same time, the missionary movement gathered momentum, expressing itself in a wave of organized activity that appealed to the young; it was typified by the Baptist Youth’s Missionary Assistant Society of New York City, founded in 1806.

History. The most direct ancestor of the modern youth fellowship, however, was the *Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), begun in London (1844) and introduced to the U.S. shortly after. The association was domesticated in the church in 1860 by Dr. Theodore Cuyler, Presbyterian pastor in Brooklyn, N.Y., who started a YMCA-type youth organization within the local congregation. Cuyler inspired Dr. Francis E. Clark, Congregationalist pastor in Portland, Maine, to establish the first *Christian Endeavor Society (1881). Within 6 years more than 7,000 similar groups came into existence throughout the world. As conceived by Clark, Christian Endeavor was to help young people “pray and read the Bible every day” and “endeavor to lead the Christian life.” The society was interdenominational in nature. By mid-2Oth century two organizations carried on the work: the International Society of Christian Endeavor and the World’s Christian Endeavor Union, both with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.

As the various Protestant churches observed the activity of Christian Endeavor, they decided to found societies of their own. As a result, the Epworth League was established by the Methodists in 1889; the Baptist Young People’s Union, in 1891; and the Luther League, in 1895. Behind the formation of these groups was the initial impulse stimulated by the Christian Endeavor Society and a widespread dissatisfaction among churches with a strong denominational tradition about membership in a nondenominational society.

Typical of a large-scale denominational program is the Methodist Youth Fellowship, inaugurated in 1941, 2 years after the merger that created the Methodist Church. The fellowship is composed of all the youth from the church from 12 through 23 years of age. In its statement of purpose is expressed a combination of aims: “to live clean lives; to give our loyalty and service through the Methodist Church; to hold the ideals of unselfish service before us and in simple trust, to follow Jesus as our Savior and Lord.” Its program of areas includes Christian Faith, Witness, Outreach, and Citizenship. Smaller churches often combine these areas and one fellowship takes care of all of them. Larger congregations sometimes grade the organization into three departments: intermediate (ages 12 to 14), senior (15 to 17), and older youth (18 to 23). Each section is governed by a youth council composed of elected officers. Adult leaders meet with the council and participate in discussion, but only the young people vote on officers and policy questions. The Methodist system has been adopted by most of the 40 denominations in the United Christian Youth Movement, the organization through which the denominational fellowships operate.

Academic and Nondenominational Aspects. Parallel with the development of church-affiliated societies arose an academic counterpart to the mainly devotional Endeavor Society. In 1895 John R. *Mott founded at Vadstena, Sweden, the World Student Christian Federation to bring together the existing student organizations of the U.S., Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries, and Germany. Chosen as its general secretary, Mott remained in that position for 25 years. The purpose that he envisioned remained the guiding charter of the World Federation: “to unite student Christian movement organizations throughout the world; to collect information regarding religious conditions of the students of all lands; and to promote the following lines of activity: to lead students to become disciples of Jesus Christ as only Savior and as God, to deepen the spiritual life of students, to enlist students in the work of extending the kingdom of Christ throughout the world.”

Historians of the *ecumenical movement credit the World Student Christian Federation with a prominent role in furthering the cause of Christian unity in modern times. Mott directed the Advisory Council for the first Oxford Conference on Faith and Order and became one of the presidents of the later *World Council of Churches.

A subsequent development in the field of youth work was the summer conference and summer camp movement, which assumed significance, with an estimated 5,000 church camps and conferences that are directly sponsored by American Protestants. As publicized by one major denomination (Lutheran Church in America), recreation and learning are combined in experiences that encourage the young person’s growth as a Christian. He is helped toward “a deeper commitment to Jesus Christ, a growing sense of what it means to be a Christian, and a growing appreciation of God as the Creator of the world,”

With increased ecumenical relations among Protestant churches, youth movements are taking on more nondenominational forms. This is further accelerated by the situation in such areas as secular university campuses, where efficiency often requires a merging of programs to care for a variety of church affiliations. The National and World Councils of Churches support such ventures through several agencies, and commentators on Christian education consider these cross-sectional operations the vanguard of Protestant reunification. Sectarianism, they say, decreases with increased intercommunication among the youth.

Bibliography: National Council of Churches, United Christian Youth Movement Newsletter (New York; monthly), Yearbook of American Churches (New York 1915- ). C. H. Hopkins, History of the Y.M.C.A. in North America (New York 1951). C. Hummel, Campus Christian Witness (Chicago 1958). R. Schroeder, Youth Programs for Christian Growth

(Nashville 1957). C. P. Shedd et al., History of the World’s Alliance of Young Men’s Christian Associations (SPCK; London 1955).

New Catholic Encyclopedia
Vol. 14, 1967, pp. 1079-1080

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
No reproductions shall be made without prior written permission.

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