In the early 1800’s, America was swept by religious revivalism and many people were converted in the wake of the newly born religious fervor. The movement reached Williams College in the early years of the century resulting in the formation of a succession of student religious societies.
Meetings of the Theological Society, founded in 1805, revolved around discussions and critiques of religious topics such as readings from The Bible or sermons. The Society maintained strict rules for admission because of their strong belief in high standards for morality and behavior. They wanted to grow closer to God through prayer and reflection. This group had over three hundred members in its forty years of existence. In 1849, the Theological Society combined with the Mills Society of Inquiry to form the Mills Theological Society.
The Society of Inquiry was established in 1820. Its revised constitution states: “the object of the Society shall be to make inquiry with regard to missions, and to devise and execute measures for inducing young men to engage in them.” The Society of Inquiry required that its members “devote their life to a domestic or foreign mission.” In 1833, this society became the Mills Society of Inquiry in honor of Samuel Mills, its primary goals remaining the same. At that time, it numbered one hundred and thirty members. In 1849, the Mills Society of Inquiry combined with the Theological Society to become the Mills Theological Society.
Under the continued influence of Samuel J. Mills’s philosophy, the goals of the Mills Theological Society emphasized “a mission to [bring God to] the heathen.” The tenets of the new constitution, developed in 1849, professed its members’ desire “to increase our knowledge of the Scriptures and Theology and to make inquiry with regard to Missions and to encourage one another to engage in them.” There were over three hundred members of this group in thirty-odd years. In 1873, the Mills Theological Society became the Mills Young Men’s Christian Association which, in turn, became the Williams Christian Association in 1908.
The Mills Young Men’s Christian Association, founded in 1873, met on a weekly basis, attracting anywhere from thirty-nine to three hundred people. It focused on serving the needs of the community. The constitution states: “Although one of the great purposes of the Association is to organize and render more efficient the voluntary religious work of the Undergraduates in particular, its’ ideal is to enlist the cooperation of the Faculty and the Alumni also in serving the religious needs of the college and vicinity.” This was the first religious organization at Williams to target groups other than students for membership.
The requirements for membership in the Mills YMCA were active participation in an evangelical Church and “to organize and render more effective the voluntary Christian work of Williams College.” The association published a Student Handbook which provided freshmen with valuable information about Williams College and Williamstown. They also instituted many programs designed to serve the community such as the Boy’s Club, Employment Bureau, etc. In 1908 the name was changed to the Williams Christian Association. Williams President Harry Garfield remarked in 1913: “I regard the work of the Christian Association the most valuable of all the undergraduate activities.”
The Williams Christian Association started a program in China in 1920, and they took over the responsibility of the work of the YMCA in Soochow. Their main goal was raising funds to support a Williams representative, Egbert Hayes, at the YMCA. This project was initiated in an effort to “combine educational work with social, religious, and athletic projects.” The Williams fund was devoted to “securing and financing proper American leadership for the program.” As the project is not mentioned in the Annual Reports after 1923, it is presumed that it was discontinued.
In the mid 1950s the Williams Christian Association combined with the Chapel Committee to become the Williams College Chapel organization. This new group worked “to develop an attitude of self-sacrifice and service to the community as well as the college.” Today the Williams Christian Fellowship serves the needs of students, faculty, staff, and community.
By Elizabeth Johnson (Class of 1993)
View the guide to the Williams Christian Association Records