Tag Archives: U.S. Presidents

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.


Last month Christan Century’s Then & Now blog had an interesting post on the effect Reagan’s victory and Carter’s defeat in the 1980 election had on the resurgence of the “Religous Right” and the decline of “Progressive Evangelicalism.”

The 1980 presidential election represented a turning point in U.S. political history. The Reagan landslide heralded not only the Republican capture of the White House and a Republican Senate, but Carter’s defeat also signaled the eclipse of progressive evangelicalism in favor of a political agenda virtually indistinguishable from the Republican Party itself. 

This has had, of course, a pretty profound effect on Evangelicalism from that point on, with significant political and cultural effects as well.

I remember Carter (I was 7 when he was elected), but never heard of this other dimension of what was at stake in 1980.

Here is the link:   Jimmy Carter and the demise of progressive evangelicalism

Lincoln vs. Everett: A Public Speaking Smackdown


English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth Presid...

English: Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. Latviešu: Abrahams Linkolns, sešpadsmitais ASV prezidents. Српски / Srpski: Абрахам Линколн, шеснаести председник Сједињених Америчких Држава. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


On this 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, we preachers and speakers are reminded of an important lesson.  Its what you say, not how long you speak.

Lincoln’s famed address, easily the most famous speech in American History, takes less than 2 minutes to speak.  Edward Everett, a local preacher well-respected for his oratory, spoke for two hours before Lincoln, and did so with great impressiveness.  But no one remembers he spoke, let alone what he said.  It was Lincoln’s day to shine!  Everett himself was impressed with Lincoln’s speech, saying, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

Let preachers take note, we who often feel the need to fill a certain space of time when we preach.  Speak the message, and be done.  Thus did Father Abraham.

And here is the speech, short enough for a brief blog post, in case you haven’t read it yet today:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Drawing from the Bottom of the Barrel: 3 Things a Failed President Taught Me

In my previous post I wrote about Andrew Johnson, the man who became President after Lincoln was assassinated. Here I share what I learned from a reading of his life in Hans Trefousse’s biography of Johnson.

English: President of the United States of Ame...

English: President of the United States of America Andrew Johnson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)  Convictions can blind us. Generally, one’s strengths are also one’s weaknesses. Johnson’s stalwart, devil-may-care clinging to his beliefs, led him to act unilaterally in restoring the country as he thought should be done. Being sympathetic with the South, and not a supporter of the ex-slaves, he set a very low bar for re-admission to the Union. Actually he believed that the southern states never truly seceded at all since in his reading of the Constitution a state could not legally remove itself from the Union. So as long as they ratified the 13th Amendment and made a vague promise of loyalty, they could come back. Congress generally thought otherwise, and fought against the President. It was a confusing time, and I don’t claim to understand it, although I am looking forward to learning more as I read Grant’s biography. But it is clear to me that it was wrong for Johnson to claim sole authority to bring about restoration, ignoring the many opinions and ideas being circulated. He was certain he was right, and refused to consider the ideas of others. And the country suffered for it.

2)  How do we use the power we have? We all have beliefs and convictions. When do we stand by them “to the death,” and when do we compromise and strive to work with those who have other convictions or beliefs? As a pastor, I certainly have my non-negotiables, and many of these I share with the leadership of the church I serve. But beyond those, my responsibility is to lead with, not over, the lay leaders. I may have strong opinions about what we should do in a certain area, but so do my leaders. It is not for me to simply enforce what I want, even if I can. My calling is to work together with the leadership to find solutions and to make decisions. And the more crucial the decision, the more important that is. The future of our church, not unlike the future of the country, is not solely up to me to decide. Nor was it Johnson’s. And when you act as though it is your decision, you may find yourself impeached, just like Johnson.

Use the power you have, but don’t exceed it, not just for your own good, but for the good of the church too. Johnson, because of his bullheadedness, squandered the opportunity the country had to do Reconstruction right. Instead, the course was set for a future of continued racism, white supremacy, and Jim Crow.

The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the T...

The Senate as a Court of Impeachment for the Trial of Andrew Johnson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3)  Integrity under fire, even when you deserve to burn. Andrew Johnson deserved to be humbled for his arrogance and his over-stepping, but he was acquitted of the charges brought against him in his impeachment. There was no evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors”. And everyone really knew that. But, drawing on that inner well of conviction, Johnson weathered the storm with integrity. He continued to do his job, did not strike back at his enemies, and kept the course he had always followed. After his generally failed presidency, he even had the wherewithal to get elected to the Senate again. That impresses me. Is that well of conviction in me strong enough to see me through adversity, deserved or undeserved, and keep me working for what I believe in?

I don’t want to do what Andrew Johnson did, and I don’t think I will.  But my certainty of that may be simply because I know I don’t have the strength of conviction that he had. Does that make me stronger? Or weaker?

Drawing From the Bottom of the Barrel: Lessons on Success from a Failed President

Andrew Johnson, Hans TrefousseSome years ago I embarked on the odyssey of reading a biography of every U.S. president. After watching a program on the American Revolution I was intrigued by the story of Benedict Arnold and got a book out of the library on his life. That led me to read a biography of George Washington. And I was hooked. Reading biographies teaches me much about history, but also about living and working in the world. I just finished Andrew Johnson, by Hans L. Trefousse, a well-written and readable biography of one of lowest ranked presidents. Andrew Johnson is famous for being the Vice President left with the daunting task of picking up the pieces after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and for being the first U.S. President to be impeached. While no one could have effectively followed Lincoln, one of our greatest presidents, Johnson did a really poor job of it. He deserves his low rank among our presidents because he squandered the opportunity to integrate ex-slaves into the nation. Instead he entrenched the racism that would yield the Jim Crow south that would reign until the Civil Rights era. Still, I learned a lot from reading about his life, and I do think of him more highly than some of the other presidents whose biographies I have read. I actually found much to admire about Johnson. One of the oddities of presidential history is that some great men have been mediocre, or even bad, presidents. It all depends on what they face, and how they face it. Johnson was a natural leader and an effective politician. He rose from poverty, not exactly to riches, but certainly to prominence, being first a renown tailor in Greeneville, Tennessee. He quickly moved into local political leadership and then served 10 years in Congress. He was elected Governor and then Senator. Through it all he consistently pursued economic responsibility and championed the cause of the farmer and tradesman, his people. Even at the federal level he stuck to that program even when he had much to gain by “compromising”. This won him the support of the people, something he always believed he retained, but also made enemies of many of his fellow Congressmen and Senators. Johnson became Lincoln’s second Vice-President because of his stalwart support of the Union even as the south seceded and the war began. He refused to go along with the South not because he was against slavery, for he was not, but because he believed the challenges the country faced could be solved by working within the Constitution. He was willing to defy most of his own state, at great personal danger, in this belief. Lincoln noticed and first installed him as Military Governor of Tennessee, and then made him his running mate for his second term. Not long after the election, and the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson became President.

A political cartoon of Andrew Johnson and Abra...

A political cartoon of Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln, 1865. The caption reads (Johnson to the former rail-splitter): Take it quietly Uncle Abe and I will draw it closer than ever!! (Lincoln to the former tailor): A few more stitches Andy and the good old Union will be mended! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have never really thought much about the challenges the country faced after the Civil War ended. What do you do after half the country has rebelled and then lost? How do you rebuild? What do you do with the rebel leaders? These are the difficult questions of Reconstruction. One of the great “what-if’s” of history is what if Lincoln had not been killed? What would he have done to rebuild the nation? No one really knows. But Johnson believed he knew. And he did it no matter what anyone else, even Congress thought. Next time we’ll look at the lessons I learned from Johnson, from this bottom-of-the-barrel President.