This is the day that … George Williams was born in Somerset, England, in 1821.
He was the youngest of the eight sons of Amos & Elisabeth Williams, of Ashway Farm.
His farming days came to an end when he drove a horse and cart laden with hay into a ditch, overturning the lot, himself included. Father and brothers decided young George should move to the city and earn a living there.
In doing so he was part of the massive 19th century shift from rural life to the dominance of the burgeoning English cities.
“I entered Bridgewater,” wrote George at a later date, “a careless, thoughtless, godless, swearing young fellow.” But his employer, Mr Holmes, a draper, was a Christian. And it was expected that all his employees attend the non-conformist chapel each Sunday morning.
Thus it was, at the age of 16, he was saved. “I cannot describe to you,” he writes, “the joy and peace that flowed into my soul when I first saw that the Lord Jesus had died for my sins and that they were all forgiven.”
From that moment on, Williams’ motto became: ‘It is not how little but how much we can do for others’. This led him to both evangelical and social enterprises.
Concerned with the many young fellows similarly employed, but with no interest in the things of Christ, George gathered 10 believers around him in his bedroom – 6 June, 1844 – and formed an association “for the promotion of the spiritual welfare of young men engaged in the drapery and other trades.”
The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was brought to birth. In its early days the evangelical witness was foremost. Regular activities included Bible classes, Gospel meetings, street meetings and devotions before most activity programs.
He also became active in improving conditions for the 150,000 London shop assistants in 1841 whose lives were still little removed from that of a slave. They were kept in the unhealthy atmosphere of the shop from six or seven o’clock in the morning until ten or eleven o’clock at night. The early-closing movement owes much of its success to the support Williams gave and also to the example he later set as an employer.
As a successful businessman he gave away the greater portion of his income to assist those in need. “What is my duty in business?” he asked. Then answered, “To be righteous. To do right things between man and man. To buy honestly. Not to deceive or falsely represent or colour.”
Sir George Williams (he was knighted in 1894) never ceased to preach the gospel. His very last words, which he spoke while at the 1905 World YMCA Jubilee, were: “…if you wish to have a happy, useful, and profitable life, give your hearts to God while you are young.” He was then carried to his room and died.
George Williams was 84 when he died and he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.