Category Archives: Regular Posts

The Sins of Memory

I wrote last week about my incorrect memory about some car repair work I thought I had had done, which was disproved by a check of the actual invoices. I wondered what else I was wrong about. It isn’t just me, nor just that time. I am not alone in this forgetting, or misremembering. I just caught it. 

In February 2015, Brian Williams, news anchor for MSNBC, was suspended over “lies” he had told concerning his time in Iraq in 2003. He claimed to have been in a helicopter with troops when it was shot down with an RPG in Iraq. He was actually in a helicopter about a half hour behind the helicopter that did indeed get shot down. Did he lie, perhaps in order to embellish his image? Or was he mistaken in his memory? We can’t say for sure, of course, but many who study memory suspect that he was not lying, but really believed he remembered the story as he was telling it. As evidence they point to how Williams’ telling of the story changed over time. Closer to the event he told it much closer to the verified facts. The story only grew over time into the version that got him in trouble[1].

It turns out this is what memory does. Our memories are not recordings; they are quite changeable. Many studies have been published over recent years that demonstrate this. Some even show that it is possible to implant memories in people’s minds. In one study researchers were able to shape someone’s recollection of an accident simply depending on the words they used to describe it to them.[2 ]

Dale Allison, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, summarizes the matter, “Because human memory ‘leaks and dissociates,’ all of us are, to one degree or another, fabulists, even when we try not to be.”[3]

In his book he summarizes what are called “The Sins of Memory”, the ways that our memories betray us and behave in unexpected ways:

– Our memories are reconstructions and not simply recordings. They do not function like a video recorder, but rather, our memories rework and alter specific memories imaginatively.

In what ways do we change and rebuild our memories?

1) We add information to our memories after the fact. If we learn more about the event from another source, or others tell us what they remember, we rework our own memories to incorporate that information. In this way we can even come to “remember” things that we never experienced. Think about how you remember the events of 9/11. Our memory of an event so widely experienced and talked about has probably changed over time, especially as we heard those close to us share their memories.

2) We project our current opinions, ideas, and morals onto our memories. We change them according to what we think we should have done or thought, or how it ought to have happened, or what I should have been thinking when the memory happened.

3) Memories dim over time, becoming less distinct and less emotionally intense. 

4) Time is relative in memories. The order of memories in time can shift dramatically.

5) We change our memories in ways that support who we think we are and what we are about. We alter our memories to justify or explain ourselves, or to fit in with a group.

6) The memories we tell tend to be the ones we, or our group or community, approve of. We are more likely to forget those memories of which we are ashamed of or disapprove of in some way. Groups do this too, collectively forgetting inconvenient memories.

7) Since we often share memories as stories, we reshape the memory as a story, giving it a clear beginning and end, casting people in the story more as characters in a story. This reshaping can actually change the memory; the recreation becomes the original.

8) And, finally, vivid, compelling memories are no more secure from alteration than others.[4]

I first heard of these “sins” last Fall when I took a course with Dr. Allison on the Historical Jesus. In his book, Constructing Jesus, he considers the Gospel accounts of Jesus from the perspective of recent memory study. How did these strange behaviors of memory affect the writing of the Gospels? While these behaviors of memory do, as Dr. Allison summarized (if I remember correctly!), cast doubt on any one particular story or teaching recorded in the Gospels, they also support the fact that patterns of memory must be based on truth. Just as witnesses of a car accident may tell very different accounts of what exactly happened, yet they is agree that an accident happened, so also, the fact that there are so many stories of Jesus healing, casting out demons, and teaching certain things, must mean that Jesus did really heal, exorcise, and teach such things. Memory study shows that patterns of our memory are reliable, if not the specifics of each memory. For a professor that once was part of the Jesus Seminar, this is a big change of opinion.

I ran into an interesting way that memory works in these ways in churches a few years ago. Over the course of several months I dug out all the historical documents of the church, even going downtown to the Presbyterian Historical Society where are archives are located. I read everything I could find. Annual reports. Meeting minutes. Directories. Then we held a board retreat where I shared with the elders a lot of what I had learned. As part of that retreat we also told stories about the church. It was fascinating what memories came out easy, and which ones what been suppressed over the years. I’ll give you two examples.

First, the recent memory of the tragic death of a pastor from cancer was in the process of being forgotten. The pastor prior to me had, after only a short time in the church, been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He underwent treatment for some time, finally having to go out on disability. He did not recover and died six months before I started at the church. Now, this board retreat was held about 8 years or so after he died so you think the memory would be still fairly fresh. Actually it was already receding. We realize during our discussions that newer members, some of whom were on the board, had no idea such a thing had ever happened. The pastor’s name, even, was unknown to them. Here is a case of a group forgetting a difficult memory; the event was disappearing from our history.

The second example was even more fully lost. Back in the 1950’s there was a tremendously awkward conflict between the session (that is the board in Presbyterian churches) and the current pastor. It involved his wife and some women in the church as well as the elders and pastor. In my years at the church up to that point I never heard this story, nor had I even heard the pastor’s name mentioned. Yet, when I told this story to the elders, and later to some of the long-time members of the church, a few of them nodded their heads, remembering the events. Yet no one ever spoke of them and most people had no idea of the events.

Through re-remembering these stories at the retreat we were able to see some patterns in our life together as a church. We were also able to learn how we tended to handle conflict and difficult situations. Yet, forgetting these events had prevented us from learning these lessons.

Memory is a tricky thing. It’s “sins”, it’s ways of working, can make getting to what really happened quite difficult. But this also points out the importance of sharing our memories, telling our stories and listening to others. The truth is best discerned in the company of one another. 


[3]: Dale C. Allison, Jr. Constructing Jesus: memory, imagination, and history. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2010, p. 2.

[4]: Constructing Jesus, pp.2-8.


What C.S. Lewis Can Teach Us About Historical Thinking

I have, in the last few weeks, come to doubt my memory. It is not that I am losing anything. It is that I am not sure I ever had it. Most of the time I carry on as though what I remember is actually real. But I have come to suspect such certainty.

A few weeks ago I took my car into the shop to get inspected. While it was there I asked my mechanic to check the spark plug wires and to see if he could figure out why I have to get them replaced every time I bring the car in. I had, six months earlier, replaced them myself when the car was running terribly and it cleared right up, just as in the past when my mechanic had replaced the wires. So why did this keep happening? Except that it wasn’t, and hadn’t happened. He said he never replaced the spark plug wires on this car. I said he had indeed. Then he pulls up on the computer all the invoices going back to when I had purchased the car from him. Nope. No spark plug wires. Now I keep my own records too, so I quickly looked in them, which I had on my phone in Evernote. Nope. No spark plug wires. I have such a clear and distinct memory of him changing the wires several times. Enough so that I came to the conclusion six months before that that was the way to fix the rough running of the engine.

This shook me, honestly. If I could be so spectacularly wrong about something so clear in my mind, what else was I plain wrong about.

So reading this article here about memory and history, and grief, sure strikes a nerve.

the way of improvement leads home

LewisOver at his thoughtful blog Faith and History, Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College offers some insight into the nature of historical thinking from the writings of C.S. Lewis.

Here is a taste of his post:

It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything from my commonplace book, so I thought I’d pass along a couple of passages from Lewis that I copied just this morning.  They come from his short book A Grief Observed, a set of reflections that Lewis recorded as he was dealing with the death of his wife Helen…

…hidden early in Lewis’s “map of sorrow” are ruminations that spoke to me as a historian, for they wonderfully capture a challenge that I face every day.  When I ask students what causes them to admire a particular history book or history teacher, what I hear most commonly is that the book or teacher in question makes the…

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Great lesson drawn from the true history of the Pilgrims and quite relevant for us today. Read the whole series at the author’s blog.

Faith and History

Only ONE more day until Thanksgiving. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday this month I have been posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory.  My goal this week is to point out positive lessons we might learn from a more accurate encounter with the Pilgrims’ story.  Today I tackle the question of why the Pilgrims really came to America and what we might learn from their experience.  


Before we rush off to the mall tomorrow, the more traditional among us will honor the day by reminding our families of the story of the Pilgrims. And in keeping with tradition, we’ll get quite a bit of the story wrong. Most of the inaccuracies will be trivial. In our mind’s eye, we’ll remember the Pilgrims decked out in black suits and enormous silver buckles, seated at…

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Love, The Real Marriage Revolution

It was a pretty game. Saturday a week ago pitcher Cole Hamels no-hit the Chicago Cubs in his last game as a Phillie. It was great. Embarrassing, perhaps, for the Cubs, especially when, in the top of the eighth, two runs scored on a throwing error following a deflected pop-up. But that didn’t matter. The Phillies won the game with Ryan Howard’s 3-run home run in the third inning.

Many see the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage as a home run, winning the game for gay rights in America. In truth, it’s just the double that adds on a few more runs to a game already won. The victory for same-sex marriage was won a long time ago, 200 years or so, when the real revolution, the idea that marriage should be based on love, gained a foothold and made the legalization and embrace of same-sex marriage inevitable.

I recently finished reading Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. Her main idea is that marriage has undergone a profound shift, not so much in these last several years, but in the last two centuries. (Coontz’ wrote the book in 2005, when only Massachusetts permitted same-sex marriage, but she is responding to much of the debate going on at that time about the importance of marriage and the government’s role in upholding the institution.) The shift has been from marriage based on practical and economic factors to marriage based on love.

For most of human history you married because you needed to. There was simply no way to survive as a single person.  You needed the help of another person and the work of the children the marriage produced. Marriage was also an important way of strengthening and protecting communities. Families were allied through marriage, gaining each other’s support and assistance for living. Whole communities were united, even nations when royal families intermarried to establish bonds of peace. Marriage was especially crucial for women, who had no means of self-support or even safety without it. It was far too important a business to leave to the vagaries of love so marriages were usually arranged. If the couple did love one another that was an added bonus to be envied. But if not, perhaps they would learn to love one another.

All this began to change in the 18th and 19th centuries, as economic conditions shifted to allow couples to live more on their own, without the need of extended kin. With industrialization, and with new opportunities for women to earn money on their own, without a husband, marriage became much less necessary for survival. Legal rights of women and of children also altered the landscape of marriage and family. And so the idea of marrying for love became a much more achievable goal, and eventually was seen as really the only good reason to marry.

Today, when many delay marriage, or simply don’t marry, is a new and unique moment in human history. We have an unprecedented ability to live alone. We can control the size and timing of our families as never before. A single man does not need to cook to survive. A father does not need to know how to build a house. Sexuality can more safely be expressed outside of a marriage commitment because of birth control. And even if a child is born out-of-wedlock, that child no longer lacks the full legal rights of any other citizen; the different legal status of children once called “bastards” is a thing of the (not so remote) past.

In this brave new world of marriage, I did not need to get married because I had to. I got married because I fell in love.

Coontz says that this new love-based marriage explains the divorce “epidemic”. It is easy to equate being in love with the feeling of being of love, and if the feeling passes I may conclude that I should not stay married. In fact, it could seem almost wrong to do so. At the same time, although love-based marriages are inherently weak, being based on what we often regard as no more than a feeling, we also derive more pleasure and joy from our modern, love-based marriages than our ancestors could have imagined possible.

Finally, if marriage is now about love, and not about economics, or family connection, or even all about having biological children, then how can we deny the right to marry to two people who romantically love each other? On the logic that we have adopted over the last two centuries, we really can’t.

Those of us who do not support same-sex marriage and believe instead that marriage is for one man and one woman have entered the debate too late, and on the wrong basis. If we want to stand for truly “traditional” marriage, which is not marriage as practiced in the 1950’s but that which the world knew before the 1700’s, then we need to oppose the love-based marriage. It is that shift to love being the main thing in marriage that has led to the prevalence of divorce, and to the acceptance of same-sex marriage. If we want to “save” marriage we need to turn away from the ideal of romantic love.

And yet, who really wants to do that? We have fully adjusted to the real revolution in marriage and expect people who marry to love each other. Love has indeed won.

The 1997 movie Titanic exposes the shift in marriage quite well. The dilemma that threads through the movie is whether Rose, the scion of an upper-crust family down on its luck, should go ahead and marry her fiancé, the much richer and classy Caledon Hockley, so her family might regain its stature, or whether she should follow her heart and marry young peasant, Jack Dawson, with whom she has fallen in love. It’s a no-brainer at any time. Prior to the 20th century, the majority of people would say she needs to marry the better man, Cal. How can she put her own ephemeral happiness above the well-being of her family and future? But today, we root for Jack, the poor urchin, telling Rose to follow her heart, family be damned. Love must win.

The Supreme Court did not redefine marriage with their ruling. Marriage was redefined many years ago, as a relationship based on love. That’s the real revolution.

Charles Spurgeon and Depression, part 1

Here is a great blog post on depression. Very powerful to learn about how one of the greatest and most successful preachers in history also struggled with depression. Thanks for sharing this @Sch0larly!

Making History Now


Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) hit the headlines young and never left them. He could quote whole sections of the New Testament from memory. He had a library of 10,000 books and had read them all. In his teens he could understand deep theological points that confused many adults.  At only 19 years of age, he was invited to pastor a respected Baptist church in London.

Large crowds came to hear him. His biblical prowess was obvious but his style unorthodox, his sermons more like stories. He quoted from the newspapers and took everyday situations, making spiritual points out of them, so that anyone could understand his message. He became a sensation, becoming known as ‘the Prince of Preachers’.

Disaster was to strike, however. In 1856, when he was preaching at the 10,000-seat music hall of the Royal Surrey Gardens, a prankster shouted “Fire!”. In the stampede, 7 people were…

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Socrates Read the Bible? Conclusions from a dubious translation.

Last week, following a reading plan of reading through the Harvard Classics, I was reading Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, where he tells of the last days of Socrates, and, characteristically, Socrates talks a lot, explaining why he is not afraid of death, to which he has been sentenced by the authorities of Athens for “corrupting” youth by teaching them to think. Frankly, I found it pretty dry reading.

But my attention was grabbed when I read the phrase Socrates/Plato uses when he is talking about the realities that lie behind all that we see. He said that we see true realities “through a glass darkly”. It was there with the quotation marks too, as if Plato/Socrates (it’s hard to say how much Plato is quoting Socrates or simply writing his own teaching) was quoting some other source. What struck me was that this phrase is from Paul, the Apostle, in 1 Corinthians 13:12. Was Paul quoting Socrates, or were Paul and Plato quoting a common source? I was in a seminary library at the time so I hit the shelves to see if I could figure it out.

But first, of course, I Googled it. I only found some blog posts that were written by people who had noticed the same thing. No one seemed to know where the phrase was from besides the New Testament, which was written well after Plato’s dialogue. Some suggested that the phrase was added by later Christian copyists who preserved Plato’s writings. Others assumed some unknown, unnamed source that both writers were quoting, or maybe that Paul was quoting Plato. A few found in this odd phrase reason to question the entire concept of revealed writing or the existence of God. I was unconvinced.

So I hit the commentaries. After looking in about dozen commentaries on First Corinthians, I was surprised that none of them addressed my question. A few of them delved into the possible Platonic background of Paul’s thought in 13:12, but did not even mention Phaedo among the references.

“Looking at them in images.” Not “through a glass darkly.” No mirrors/glasses here.

Confused about why I could find no scholarly source that addresses this shared language of Socrates and Paul, I decided to go to the Greek. I pulled out the Loeb Classics copy of Phaedo and…my question was answered. The reason I could find no scholarly source to explain the shared language, “through a glass darkly”, was that there was no shared language. Shared idea? Perhaps. Identical wording? Not at all.

Here is what Plato wrote, literally:

“he who studied realities by means of conceptions is looking at them in images“. This is the Loeb translation, by Harold North Fowler.

Here is the Harvard Classics translation, by Benjamin Jowett: “He who contemplates existence through the medium of ideas sees them only ‘through a glass darkly’“.

The emphasized words are the translating the same Greek words.

And what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12 is, literally, “For now we see through a mirror indirectly.”

The “through the glass darkly” wording is from the King James Version of the Bible, which apparently was prominent in Mr. Jowett’s mind. “Through a glass darkly” is a nice image to express a similar idea that Socrates had, that we do not see the realities directly but indirectly, but the choice of importing a quote from the New Testament into an Ancient Greek writing causes a lot of confusion, especially in the blogosphere.

So why does this matter? This odd translation choice, when simply accepted for what it appears to be, has misled people in some big ways, revealed by my brief Google search. Simply reading another translation would have indicated that something fishy was going on, but I only knew what was going on by being able to read the Greek well enough to verify what was actually written by Plato.  And this is why we bother to learn the original languages. In the Presbyterian church we learn the original languages so that we can read the Bible in the original, rather than being wholly dependent on translators. It makes a difference, and not only with the Bible.

3 Tough Questions (and Lessons) for Men’s Ministry

The purpose of my foray into Muscular Christianity has been to find some guidance on how to approach Men’s Ministry. In light of the challenge of getting men more involved in the church can we present the Gospel differently? Can we have programs and ministries focused on men? Can we do something outside of the church? Perhaps a more important question: should we do these things?

A Little Humility is In Order

First off. What good did the movement do? Here we are, a century later, still asking the same questions, struggling with the same issue that Muscular Christianity was supposed solve. So, it didn’t turn the tide.  This is a warning that it’s probably over ambitious to think we can reverse the long-standing lack of greater involvement of men in the church.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. Our goal in the church is not really to shift history but to save the individual man and to build up the existing church, namely our own. So we try, so that someone may be saved.

The history of the Muscular Christianity movement reveals some dangers to be aware of when we try to develop ministries specifically for men. Let’s take a look at two big ones.

What Does it Mean to be a Man?

Behind the idea of Men’s Ministry is the assumption that there is something homogeneous about men, a certain ideal manliness that we can hold up as God’s call to the Christian man. What is it that we want to make men into? What behaviors do we want to see the men in our church stop and what to begin? The danger here is that we begin to press men into a certain mold that may or may not be God’s mold for them.

Muscular Christianity sought to engage men in the church again, to turn back what it saw as a tide of feminizing. But in doing so, it defined manliness in a way that seems limited and selective. It held up the ideal man as physically strong and in shape, athletic, and primitive (which had mainly to do with being able to survive in the woods; this was part of the impetus for the Boy Scouts, and the Christian Camp movement among others). Being “civilized” was not manly. While being well-rounded was desirable, it seems if you were talented academically in college, but not on the football team, you were not manly. And if you were a pastor, who wasn’t also a baseball player or boxer, or someone, like Billy Sunday, with a muscular physique, then you also were not manly. If you had to choose one or the other, being strong in mind or body, real men chose the body.

This may be a bit interpretive, but in rejecting “Manichaeism” and asceticism because those ideas devalued the body, Muscular Christianity swung too far to the other side, exalting the body and devaluing the mind and the spirit. It also incorporated a very black and white view of the world. If you weren’t manly, then you were part of the feminizing of the church.

Then there was the unsettling racial side to it. American Muscular Christian leaders warned that because of its physical decline, the Anglo-Saxon race was becoming weaker, while the immigrants from European countries were more physically vigorous. The assumption seemed to be that the physically strongest would rule ( a social Darwinism perhaps?) so Anglo-Saxons better toughen up. (see note below)


One kind of manliness…

So, Lesson #1 is: Before we develop ministries for men, we best take a close look at our assumptions about manliness. What does it mean to be a man, not in our society, but according to God? If we do not define that, we will aim at whatever our culture says, or we will react against it. And we may wind up advocating something against God’s will.

The Idol of Power

One consistent part of “manliness” as many define it, including me, seems to be a focus on the right use of a man’s strength. Men are generally physically stronger than women, and of course, through much of history, have held greater authority and power. A good part of men’s ministry focuses on the right use of that power. But by its very nature power is a difficult thing to channel and control. Power can quickly be used to justify anything and can be easily redefined.

Early on in Muscular Christianity much was made of the power and strength of men as a means to evangelize the world. It was the great century of western missions, and if the Christian Church was to send missionaries to remote countries, it needed strong, vigorous men to do it. That was why you needed to get in shape, for the cause of spreading the Gospel.

But it is interesting how that noble purpose morphed in time to the need to be stronger than other races, to dominate others. It is also interesting to see how the emphasis on sports as a means to become stronger so that you may fulfill Gods purposes didn’t take long to change into an exaltation of sport for sport’s sake. Far from holding up the missionary as the model of a man, the ideal of manhood became the professional athlete, someone who participates in sport for no other reason than to play, be paid, and entertain others. Sound familiar? The nobility of manhood soon declined as power’s sights were lowered. Man himself became the idol that worked for himself and no longer for his god.

So here is Lesson #2: Strength and power are ultimately self-serving, and, far from being something that builds up the community, left to their own devices, they become a way to exalt the self against all others. Men’s Ministry needs to change the way men view strength and power.  This is not to deny that men possess strength and power, but how can we succeed where Muscular Christianity failed? An emphasis on being a good father or husband, to take charge at home, can easily be used to dominate those who are weaker, like a man’s wife and children. It can also be very easily co opted into the superhero/Lone Ranger mentality of men. “I am strong and powerful. I need no one else. And God has called me to save the world,” is a script we men are prone to.

...and a greater kind

…and a greater kind

We need to somehow not deny the strength and power of a man, but instead to redefine it according to the Scriptural call to love, which means to do good, to serve others, all others, especially those most in need.

But to take this a little further, in Lesson #3, it is perhaps wiser, and more in accord with the Gospel, to not speak of strength and power at all, to not focus on them, but rather speak only of the call to serve and to love as Jesus served and loved us. If men do this with their whole heart, they will naturally use their strength and power to accomplish them. But to dwell on one’s strength and power leads inevitably to an over-focusing on those, which inevitably leads to misuse. Strength and power are a man’s means to achieve God’s purposes, not the ends.

 The Use of History

A knowledge of history here allows us to get a sense of the pitfalls and possibilities of a ministry. We can see the whole run of Muscular Christianity, and can see how it changed over time and how it connected with the events of the time. It allows us to chart our path with greater awareness of how easily such movements can be hijacked by other goals and fears, and derailed by events around us.

There are no doubt other “men’s movements” in history that would be instructive. We could investigate monasticism, some of the different approaches to ministry found in Roman Catholic orders as different as the gentle, loving Franciscans and the militant Jesuits, and more. But this is a blog, not a book. And I suspect these observations would hold after reflecting on these other examples.

To summarize: The story of the Muscular Christianity Movement raises some very important questions for the church that wants to start a Men’s Ministry:

1)  What is it that we want men to become? Or what does it mean to be manly?

2)  How will we call men to acts of love and service employing their strength and power without becoming too focused on that strength and power?

3)  How will we connect men to a community of faith and to the wider fellowship beyond fellow men, a fellowship that includes those who men may be tempted to view as “weaker”?

Note: There was, in the U.S., a Muscular Christian movement among the African-American Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which was largely immigrant, and among Jewish Americans. I limited my consideration to the much larger and socially dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant movement, although it seems that Muscular Christianity went in different directions among the other ethnic and religious groups. 

If You Only Knew the Troubles I’ve Seen…[Cartoon!]

As you may be able to tell, I love history. Not so much for the facts and the details, or just for the subject itself, but because I find it so helpful to know what has happened before today, how life has been lived before, how others have tried to solve the problems and challenges that we are still trying to conquer. The whole idea, The Big Idea, of this blog, is that history can really help us as we do ministry today. History is empowering.

But, history can also be enabling, and crippling. I saw this cartoon in a recent issue of The Week. It captures how our own history, or at least our own recollection and re-telling of our history can became an excuse and a justification of our current actions. We do it as nations and peoples, and not just the Israelis and Palestinians. We do it as individuals: “if you knew the kind of childhood I had you wouldn’t judge me.”

On the other hand, here is one of my favorite quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  That is, when we know their history we can understand who they are and what they do better.

The question is: When does our history cease to inform, instruct, and perhaps explain us and begin to move into the dangerous territory of justifying our bad actions and assisting us in avoiding change and growth. When is our history an excuse for not accepting responsibility for what we do today? 

Earl, Teddy, and Billy: Manly Men for Jesus

A while ago, I asked how the church can get men more involved. This is not the first generation in the church to find that women are more likely to be involved in the church than men. In fact, the dilemma is as old as the Church itself. To gain some insight into how to address this challenge, I find the Muscular Christianity movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries very helpful. In this post I will try to summarize what the movement was about, why it became a big thing, and what happened to it. Then, in a future post, what do we learn from it about getting men involved.


He came to be known as “Earl”. That was the name the students of Princeton University gave him in the 1920’s. His real name was “The Christian Student”. He was a statue erected in 1913, “a bronze embodiment of manly character, athletic prowess, intellectual force and fine spiritual fellowship.”(Putney, 195)  Earl, or The Christian Student, commemorated Princeton’s involvement with the Student Volunteer Movement, the YMCA movement, and the World Student Christian Federation. He was a tribute to the “Muscular Christianity”, promulgated widely through those organizations and others, that became prominent among White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in England and America in the previous 4-5 decades.

“Muscular Christianity” was the term by which a reviewer of the 1857 novel of British author Charles Kingsley described this new Christianity. It taught thought the Christian Church had become too feminine, and men too soft. It was opposed to asceticism and to a “Manichaeism” that exalted the spirit of a man over the body. It used sports, exercise, and outdoor activities to “primitavize” men and boys.

Victorian England was at that time obsessed with health. Coupled with this new view of Christianity, this led to an incredible growth of sports, invented, imported, and practiced with great gusto.

But it was “in America that muscular Christianity and its institutionalized cult of youth…found the widest acceptance.” (Putney, 19).


One great American model man and populizer of Muscular Christianity was Teddy Roosevelt. He told his own story of “redemption” in “The Strenuous Life” written in 1901. He was “an asthmatic, spectacled child descended from a patrician New York family” who, after “a searing adolescent experience during which he was beaten up by two boys” remade himself through gymnastics, boxing and shooting into a real man. (Putney, 33-34) And after his manly leadership on San Juan Hill, he became the great man who would become the youngest (and most macho?) President to ever lead the nation.

The growth and popularity of Muscular Christianity was a reaction to over-civilization in the Industrial Age, as men left farms and worked in factories, and as sedentary middle management and executive jobs became more prominent in the gilded age. Leading to a decline in men’s fitness and physique, this was seen as a big problem in light of the growth of immigrant populations who were more physically vigorous. To summarize the fear, in uncomfortable terms, white Anglo-Saxons were committing race suicide through their sissifying.

It was also a reaction to the perceived feminizing of the church as men left leadership in the church, opting for business in the mid 1800’s meaning women became more prominent in leadership and life in the church.


Another model man of Muscular Christianity, and one that has special interest for me as a Presbyterian, was Billy Sunday. The popular, yet largley forgotten, evangelist of the 1920’s was ordained by the Presbytery of Chicago despite having no ministerial education. He was a professional baseball player, though, and he was ordained on the basis of his “muscular physique” and effectiveness in evangelism. The Presbytery had drunk the Koolaid (not the first or the last time IMHO).

Muscular Christianity was quite prominent in mainline Protestantism for several decades, but largley disappeared after World War 1. It went the way of many other idealisms in the face of that terrible dream-dashing war. Grand plans and ideas rang hollow after such inhumanity, and Muscular Christianity was one of these. As the founders died and the mainline denominations began their decline, as hopes turned away from religion as a way to make a better world, and to psychology and therapeutic healing as ways to cope, Muscular Christianity seemed something from the old order that had failed.

It’s effects are still with us, though. Groups like the YMCA, although leaving their religious heritage behind, grew strong because of this movement. Professional sports as we know them today came into existence in connection with it. Christian organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Youth for Christ, and Promisekeepers have carried the torch in some ways. The place of Christian Camps, physical education in schools, and even the sport of basketball all came into being through Muscular Christianity.

Earl, in Hiding

As the fortunes of Muscular Christianity went, so did Earl’s, the Christian Student. During the 1920’s the students began to repeatedly vandalize the statue and gave him his name in mockery of the ideals for which he stood. Finally, the school removed him in 1931 and put him in storage. There he sits, a forgotten relic of a forgotten age.



Putney, Clifford. Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America 1880-1920, Harvard, Cambridge, 2001.

Watson, Nick J., Stuart Weir, and Stephen Friend. “The development of muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain and beyond.” Journal of Religion and Society 7.1 (2005): 1-25.

The first celebration of July 4th was by some pietist, pacifist Moravians in North Carolina

Grateful to the dead

Civil War era Moravian band Civil War era Moravian band – this pietist group has always been known for its music

Great piece today over at the Daily Beast on the very first July 4th celebration. A sample:

They also had a strong pacifist tradition, dating to their founding amid the religious struggles of the 15th century as a “peace church.” Members were forbidden to serve in the military. They lived by the teachings in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

It’s little wonder that by 1783, the Moravians in Salem were thrilled that the battles were over. During the Revolution, both British and rebels harassed them, collected fines, and even attacked them physically. Some young men hid in the forest to escape being pressed into service. A few did join with the rebels; the church forgave them later.

Too, the Moravians, despite their reluctance to bear arms, were pleased to be part of the new country…

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