1870  — 1949

David Willard Lyon

Pioneer YMCA missionary in China.

Born on a houseboat in China, the son of Presbyterian missionaries, Lyon graduated from the College of Wooster, Ohio, and McCormick Theological Seminary and also worked with John R. Mott. In 1895, his first year back in China, he founded in Tientsin (Tianjin) the first student YMCA. In 1930, after 34 years of continuous service as a YMCA secretary, he was honored by the speaker at a farewell dinner in Shanghai, who commented, “The ‘Y’ movement in China stands as a perpetual monument of Dr. Lyon’s life work.” Halfway through his first term, the Boxer troubles forced Lyon and his wife to seek refuge in Korea, where they founded the Korea YMCA movement. In later years he helped start the YMCA in the Philippines. In 1928 he gave an address at the Jerusalem meeting of the International Missionary Council.

During his later years of service in China, Lyon gave major attention to training Chinese YMCA secretaries and to developing literature for students. Various centers were organized where leadership training class were held. A loan library and a publications department, precursors of the Association Press, were started under his leadership. He began a college student newspaper that became a widely read student magazine, The Chinese Intercollegian (later called China’s Young Men). Always an advocate of indigenous leadership, he enlisted an eminent scholar, Zia Hong-lai, to develop the literature of the student movement. A gifted linguist, Lyon helped organize language schools and worked on the Mandarin Romanization Committee of the Chinese Christian Educational Association. He wrote The Christian Equivalent of War (1915) and edited for publication Mott’s China addresses. In his final years, he translated Tang Dynasty poetry into English. In 1949, on his last visit to China, Mott committed Lyon’s “sacred dust… to the deep at the mouth of the Yangtze.”


This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.


  • Willard D. Lyon, The First Quarter Century of the Young Men’s Christian Association in China (1920), and twenty-seven signed letters of various topics in the Chinese Recorder between 1896 and 1937. C. Howard Hopkins, History of the YMCA in North America (1951); Kenneth Scott Latourette, World Service: A History of the Foreign Work and World Service of the YMCA’s of the United States and Canada (1957). Lyon materials are in the archives of the YMCA, Univ. of Minnesota.

About the Author

Donald E. MacInnis

Formerly Director of the China Program, National Council of Churches in the USA, Coordinator for China Research of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, Maryknoll, New York, USA