Muscular Christianity and the colonizing power of modern sports

David Titterington

One little-known men’s movement of the late Victorian Era that seriously contributed to the way English imperialism and American identity were formed was Charles Kingsley’s and Thomas Hughes’s Muscular Christianity. This project oversaw how musclemen took back the churches from women, developed and implemented modern sports, and directed the contours of colonialism. J.A Mangan argues that Christianity became a universal religion largely as a result of the popularity of Muscular Christianity and modern sports. It was far from merely a religious position; its inherent male-centeredness, homophobia, sexism, and sports ethic are still at work within our American male bodies in particular, and the colonial “body” in general.

The term itself is attributed to T. S. Sanders, who coined it in a review of Charles Kingsley’s 1857 popular novel Two Years Ago. It was later used to also refer to Thomas Hugh’s internationally popular Tom Brown’s Schooldays of 1856.Hughes liked the term so much he used it himself in the sequel Tom Brown at Oxford of 1860. Soon the press in general was calling both writers Muscular Christians and applied that label to the literary genre they inspired: adventure novels filled with high principles and manly Christian heroes.

These two authors and their critics traced Muscular Christianity’s origins to the New Testament, namely Mark 11:15 (which sanctions manly exertion with Jesus’s rampage in the temple), and 1 Cor. 6:19–20, which proclaims our bodies as temples and to “therefore honor God with your bodies.” To them, a muscle-man mentality, ethic, and gender behavior was written by God himself, who was also a muscle man.

It appears muscular imagery had always been a part of Christianity, but it had not always been a major part. The Church was more concerned with a salvation not of this body or of this world, and it preached that men could achieve it without being healthy and husky. Moreover, popular images of Christ/God showed a skinny, effeminate “bearded lady”, with dainty hands, girly hair, and pretty eyes. The church itself was also feminine insofar as its behavior was submissive. The great symbol of male power and authority in the world was also the “bride” of Christ. If this wasn’t emasculating enough, by the early 20th century the majority of participants in both American and English churches were women. This feminine (and decidedly “false”) form of Christ Almighty and his inherently submissive religion, on top of the appearance of an idle and effeminate “dandy,” midwifed by modernity’s office jobs and homosexuality, encouraged Hughes and Kingsley to place the revitalization of muscular manhood at the forefront of their life’s work.

Charles Kingsley was incredibly influential during the Late Victorian era. He was chaplain to the Queen, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, and a best-selling author. His rise to national prominence in the 1850s coincided with a series of crises involving Britain’s status as a world power. Kingsley’s view of a “manful” Christ (he often called Christ the “prince of war” and the “general who is fighting by your side”), games ethic (“sports and body-building are character-building”), and patriotism quickly spread throughout the English world of public schools and universities, encouraging the imperialist agenda, and acting as an instrument of colonial rule, so much so that former Consul-General of Serbia, James George Cotton Minchin, in 1901 remarked, “If asked what our muscular Christianity has done, we point to the British Empire.” Together with Hughes, Muscular Christianity would inspire missionaries whose purpose was “to create a universal Tom Brown: loyal, brave, truthful, a gentleman, and if possible, a Christian.”

Muscular Christianity was premised on the physical superiority of males: if God made men physically superior to women, muscular Christians knew that extra advantage must be developed to the maximum in order to be “faithful stewards of God’s gifts-to fight in His service, to protect the weak, to conquer nature.” According to Kingsley, it was also a man’s duty to develop a healthy form of what he called “animalism”, and to fulfill his sexual function by the procreation of children. Sexual denial was in fact a “disease” that resulted in the dehumanizing of man. Kingsley describes in Westward Ho! how a celibate Jesuit priest, “being neither man nor women”, is not human but is instead a “thing” without a soul.

Muscular Christians are best known for their celebration of bodies. Whether it was Kingsley’s rejection of celibacy and belief in the inseparability of spirit and flesh (he says “the soul secretes the body like a snail secretes its shell”), or Hughes’s formation of Christian Manhood on the Rugby playing fields, the centrality of the body within the muscular Christian philosophy cannot be overlooked. The equation of spirit, flesh, and sport is at first glance “progressive,” rooted curiously in modern evolutionary sciences (Kingsley was a Darwinian socialist) and ancient religious texts. However, it becomes problematic considering that the inevitable degeneration of the body implies a resulting degeneration of the spirit–a spirit which was supposed to be eternal, transcendent, and unchanging. Also, its reliance on the dual-sex theory of the body and biological determinism was problematic. Like a dying star after a supernova, Kingsley and Hughes’s Muscular Christianity can be said to have eventually sputtered out. However…

Across the ocean, Kingsley was doing book tours. His charisma, alongside the disappearance of men in church, the rise of large corporations, and the appearance of the idle and effeminate “dandy” with his mixture of masculine and feminine markers and his rejection of labor power, fueled the rise of American Muscular Christianity and the proliferation of sports. Jeffery Hantover argues that the Boy Scout movement also reflected this middle-class crisis over its masculinity.

By the late 19th century only about one-third of American men attended church regularly, while nearly one-half of all American women did, and ministers were afraid that long-term effects of the “feminization of the church” would be marginalization of the church, depleting its power. In order to transform the churches “from havens of faithful women into strongholds of spiritual men”, Muscular Christianity developed strategies designed to appeal to men’s (supposedly) more aggressive nature. “Jesus the teacher had become Christ the competitor…From the pulpit, preachers prayed for a winning season, striking there sermons with so much athletic symbolism that they sometimes sounded like color commentators on TV sport broadcasts.” By the end of the Civil War, the term Muscular Christianity penetrated American Society, and in 1886 one writer said, “We like this phrase…because it expresses the idea of that robustness and vigor which ought to characterize those who are strong in the Lord and the power of His might.” Soon after the Civil War, the first sports leagues and team sports with managerial structures developed in American cities, and “Muscular Christians living in an industrialized, urban culture capitalized on this development and served as catalyst to help make modern sport possible” (Ladd and Mathison: 17). Thus, the societal agents significant in the emergence of muscular Christianity in nineteenth century America were the same ones that affected the rise in sport. “As the United States was developing into a world political power, as industry boomed, and as the frontier closed, Muscular Christians oversaw the development of modern sport.” The core organization that oversaw and progressed sports and sportsmanship was the YMCA.

The YMCA was a Christian organization that demanded the “evangelical test” for all voting members; any male in good standing in any evangelical church could join. A brief look at a few of its key contributors is telling. Robert J. Roberts (1849–1920) was a devout Baptist and YMCA member who in 1876 became a gymnastic superintendent for the Boston Association where he coined the term “bodybuilding.” Luther H. Gulick was another great YMCA philosopher who felt that the gymnasium was “a fundamental and intrinsic part in the salvation of man.” Henry Ward Beecher (arguably Muscular Christianity’s first national preacher) claimed, “nothing can come more properly in the sphere of Christian activity than the application of the cause of physical health in the community. If general health is not religion, if it is not Christ, it is John the Baptist; it goes before him.” Stanly Hall, first president of the American Psychological Association, would praise the YMCA for “carrying the gospel to the body,” and Dwight L. Moody, who founded the Moody Church, was president of the Chicago branch of the YMCA and is credited as the instigator of the indigenous, American brand of muscular Christianity.

Presbyterian minister James Naismith is another important evangelist and Muscular Christian. For Naismith, basketball was more than a new game; it was a means to evangelize people about morality and Christian values. Milton Katz describes basketball as a way to “inculcate the Christian values for which the YMCA stood.” Ladd and Mathisen see basketball as “the essence of American Muscular Christianity.”

Even though muscular religious charismatics like Billy Graham are a dying breed, the spirit of Kingsley and Hughes’s project can be seen in Muscular Christian groups such as the KKK, the Westburo Baptist Church, the NRA, the Republican Party, as subjects for ultraviolent bad-boy movies such as Red State(2011) and Pulp Fiction (1996), and in the locker rooms of Penn State. Kimmel argues that the Catholic Church still promotes Muscular Christianity in the athletic programs of schools such as Notre Dame, as do evangelical Protestant groups such as Promise Keepers, Athletes in Action, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes…groups many people have never heard of, leading Kimmel to conclude that this particular form of Christianity has sputtered out. However, its remaining embers burn deep. MacAloon argues that Muscular Christianity has far from sputtered out. On the contrary, only the self-consciousness about the dominance of Muscular Christianity in the US public discourse has sputtered out, and this is because it has become so normalized, and fails to stand out as anything unusual. MacAloon says, “not only sports departments but the entire moral economy and discourse of American public schools…remain largely derived from the legacy of muscular Christianity and the games ethic.” Bruce Kidd sees that in Canada, for example, youth obesity, drugs, disillusionment and violence still inspires the YMCA and various other corporate foundations to reinvest in sports and cultural languages “that echo the muscular Christian intervention.”

Anthropologist Anthony Wallace explains how a culture at the edge of extinction explodes into a “revitalization movement.” When rugged manliness was dwindling during the mid to late Victorian era, Muscular Christianity appeared, recasting Jesus as a muscle man and revitalizing British imperialism in the world. Cultural historian William Irwin Thompson calls this phenomenon “the sunset effect.” In America, the manly Christians, too, were dealing with a vanishing of not only Christian masculinity but also men in church. Taking cues for Kingsley and Hughes, they developed body-building and sports to help evangelize the country and save its churches from feminization. Therefore, the radiant sunset of masculinity in England became the growing sunrise of sports in America. That bright sunlight still blinds us today.

David Titterington

Written by

Painter and Art Instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University

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