Sport The Origins Of Muscular Christianity

Core: How To Connect With Your Masculine Energy

Real Masculinity and Manhood

Get Instant Access

The emergence of a symbiotic relationship between Protestantism and sport dates to the nineteenth century. If Puritanism can be judged to be representative of the movement as a whole, early Protestantism was characterized by a virtually unrelenting hostility toward any form of sport, which was seen as a waste of time and effort and a diversion from the more serious things in life.41 Yet such a uniformly negative attitude eventually proved unsustainable as the value of sport for public health and personal development became increasingly accepted. During the nineteenth century, a new attitude toward sport began to emerge in both Britain and the United States as its potential as a tool of Christian witness and social formation came to be appreciated.42

The term "muscular Christianity" appears to have first made its appearance in England during the late 1850s to describe the values embodied in two Victorian novels: Charles Kingsley's Two Years Ago and Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's School Days. The British popular press picked up the phrase, using it to refer to adventure novels that advocated and exemplified high moral principles and manly Christian heroes. A new paradigm of Christian existence was emerging as Protestants broke free of the somewhat sentimental attitudes toward religion that had settled in within much of Victorian church life.

In part, this development reflected a growing concern that Christianity was becoming feminized. Church congregations seemed increasingly to be made up of women—an observation that led many men to wonder what role masculine values might play in the ministry and mission of the church.43 Alarmed by statistics in the early 1890s suggesting that the membership of Protestant denominations was becoming increasingly female, many pastors wondered how the church could be reconnected with masculine values. For some critics, including powerful lay figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller, the problem lay with the pastors themselves, who were seen by some as little more than "thin, vapid, affected, driveling little doodles" who found it easier to take tea with women than to encounter men on their own territory. What congregations needed, they said, were more "men whose blood coursed strong and hot through their veins, fine specimens of muscular, soldierly Christianity."44 Protestant clergy and lay leaders of the "muscular Christianity" movement abandoned the sentimentality and "feminine" forms of religion that had gained the upper hand in the Victorian era, opting for a new model that stressed action rather than reflection and "masculinity" rather than gentility. An active Christian presence in sport seemed to be the answer to this problem.

The origins of this perhaps surprising development—given the long-standing Puritan hostility toward sport—lay in the English love for cricket, and especially the social respect given to its heroes. In the late nineteenth century, three gentleman Victorian cricketing brothers demonstrated the potential of sport as a means of Christian outreach. The three Studd brothers were all educated at Eton and Cambridge University, which was at that time experiencing an evangelical revival, partly through the activities of the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, founded in 1877.45 Sir John Edward Kynaston Studd (1858— 1944), George Brown Studd (1859-1945), and Charles Thomas Studd (1860-1931) were all converted in the summer of 1878 during the Moody-Sankey missionary campaign in England. All were gifted cricketers, each captaining the Cambridge University cricket team in successive seasons from 1882 to 1884.

Their importance to the history of English cricket is legendary, not least on account of Charles's involvement in the famous Ashes test match against Australia in 1882. Yet their greater significance for our narrative is in their forging of a link between sporting excellence and evangelistic outreach in the United States, where sport increasingly became seen as a socially acceptable means of developing personal fitness and discipline and propagating the faith. The most significant developments followed in the wake of John Studd's visit to America in 1885, when he toured various American colleges and planted the basic ideas of "muscular" Christianity. (It must be remembered that cricket was widely played in the United States at the time; its total displacement by baseball as America's preferred team sport had yet to take place.46) The values of muscular Christianity resonated well with the YMCA's emphasis on physical well-being as a goal of the Christian life and helped create a more positive and accommodating attitude toward sport within conservative Protestantism and the broader American culture. The association of healthy bodies with healthy faith inevitably pointed to sport as a means of physical and spiritual enrichment.

The YMCA itself gave rise to one of America's most popular sports— basketball. This was invented in December 1891 by James Naismith, a physical education teacher at the YMCA International Training School at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts. Confronted by bored students unable to undertake sports outside in the cold weather, Naismith developed an indoor ball game suited to the limitations of a gymnasium, based on some articles he had read in a Christian missionary magazine about traditional Mesoamerican ball games.

Not content with inventing this new sport, Naismith developed the notion of coaching, which he viewed as a form of spiritual mentoring or discipling. During his time at the University of Kansas, Naismith did much to lay the intellectual and spiritual foundations of the notion of coaching. It is easy to argue that there is a direct link between the evangelical origins of basketball coaching and the values seen in the career of a Bill McCartney—the evangelical University of Colorado football coach who founded the "Promise Keepers" movement.47

Naismith's philosophy was based on the idea that sport was in itself an activity embodying the values of Protestantism, so that basketball could be seen as a means of transferring, actualizing, and nourishing Christian character within a masculine context. While this ethos persists, it has arguably been displaced by growing interest in using sport as a gateway into the Christian faith. Gil Dodds, one of the preeminent American runners of the 1940s, became part of Billy Graham's outreach team and used sporting prowess as a means of commending the gospel. Similarly, Bill Glass, the former member of the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns, evangelized his fellow sportsmen and saw football as an effective means to reach American youngsters.48

So is this emphasis on sport alien to the spirit of Protestantism? Its advocates rightly point out that the New Testament frequently uses sporting illustrations and metaphors to encourage discipleship—such as running a race (1 Corinthians 9:24; Hebrews 12:1). Yet the link between Protestantism and sport has not been without its problems and dangers. Activism, after all, is not a purely male concern. The same dynamic that gave rise to the Boy Scouts also gave rise to its female equivalent. Nor is sport a purely Protestant concern: Catholicism can equally well be said to promote muscular Christianity, at least to some extent, through the athletic programs of such leading schools as the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

There are deeper issues that should also be noted. After the First World War, American Protestant leaders such as Harry Emerson Fosdick and Sherwood Eddy blamed muscular Christianity for encouraging militarism and thus contributing to the disaster of the war. The new world order seemed to demand a more accommodating, less aggressive attitude on the part of men.49 It has also been pointed out that during its early years in America muscular Christianity existed in a tense and often ambivalent relationship with regnant ideologies of male domination and white supremacy. Equally significant, in more recent times Protestantism's relationship with sport has proved to be akin to riding a tiger: sport, in the view of some cultural analysts, has emerged as a religion (or at least a religious activity) in its own right, threatening to displace Protestantism in the struggle for the soul of the American male.

Conservative American attitudes toward sport can be seen as a mirror of its relationship with culture in general. While all generalizations are open to criticism, three broad phases can be discerned since 1890. In the first period, which flourished until the end of the First World War, evangelical Christians were encouraged to take part in competitive sport and to bear witness to the gospel, both through their sporting prowess and their moral integrity. The rise of fundamentalism led to a major disengagement with sport throughout the 1930s; this period of disengagement did not come to an end until the Second World War ended in 1945. Thereafter, the diminishing influence of fundamentalism and the rise of neo-evangelicalism led to the emergence of a wide range of sport-identified mission organizations (including Sports Ambassadors, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Athletes in Action), sports chaplaincies (such as Baseball Chapel and Pro Athletes Outreach), and sports programs at evangelical mega-churches. In Britain, Christians in Sport has played a significant role in advocating a Christian presence across the spectrum of sporting activities. Protestant attitudes toward sport, as toward culture in general, seems dependent on its prevailing theological and cultural assumptions. It is therefore unsafe and unwise to predict what the future holds.

Having considered the complex and constantly changing interaction between Protestantism and the arts, we now consider its relationship with the natural sciences.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Responses

  • clarence
    What is the importance of muscular christianity in american history?
    7 months ago
  • marco
    How does muscular christianity relate to campus recreation?
    5 months ago
  • cara
    How did muscular christianity refelct upon american attitudes?
    4 months ago
  • ILDA
    What is muscular christianity sport?
    5 days ago

Post a comment