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.