Is it a Christian’s duty to be strong and muscular? Does strength equate with Godliness? How should a man behave? These were just some of the questions that permeated the 19th and early 20th century in Victorian England and the United States. They were the questions at the forefront of a movement better known as Muscular Christianity. In the maiden article for this website, we briefly introduced the idea of Muscular Christianity but today we will look at it in greater detail.
So what is Muscular Christianity and when did it emerge?
Put simply Muscular Christianity is a Christian commitment to health and manliness. Advocates of Muscular Christianity in the 1800s traced the movement’s back to the New Testament, which sanctioned manly exertion (Mark 11:15) and physical health (1 Cor. 6:19-20). It was always there but for many centuries people hadn’t paid much attention to it. The Church occasionally praised health and manliness, but the salvation of men’s souls was a much bigger concern. While the priority placed on the salvation of souls was admirable it was not without criticism. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century there emerged a counter movement in the Church spearheaded by Protestant ministers in both England and the US. Their message? Men were not truly Christians unless they were muscular Christians. Muscular Christianity was born and its birthplace was in Great Britain.
The phrase Muscular Christianity originated in a review of Charles Kingsley’s 1857 novel Two Years Ago (1857). One year later in 1858, the phrase was used to describe Tom Brown’s School Days, an 1856 novel about life at Rugby by Kingsley’s friend, Thomas Hughes. Soon the media in England latched onto the word and it grew in popularity. A new genre of writing would emerge featuring adventure novels packed to the gills with high principles and manly Christian heroes. Hughes and Kingsley were at the forefront of this movement.
For men like Hughes and Kingsley Christianity had become too effeminate. Asceticism and ‘feminine traits’ had weakened the Anglican Church. The British Empire was still controlling large tracts of the world and it needed a church suitable for British ruling. Thus in Great Britain the Muscular Christianity movement was greatly influenced by the expansion of the British Empire and a reaction to a perceived growing effeminacy of British society.
The rise of Muscular Christianity was slightly different in the United States as it took much longer to establish itself. Hughes and Kingsley had attempted to export their campaign for health and manliness through religion in the pre-civil war US but their movement failed. Protestant opposition to sports and the popularity of feminine iconography within mainstream Protestant churches meant people were reluctant to adopt the ideals of Muscular Christianity. Things were to change in the aftermath of the Civil War.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, changes in American society placed ideals of health and manliness at the forefront of many white Anglo-Saxon leaders. The Civil War had sparked concerns about the fitness and manliness of American troops. A remedy was needed and both religious and political leaders saw Muscular Christianity as the solution. Social Gospel leaders such as Josiah Strong and even Presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, saw American society as faltering. Factors such as urbanization, sedentary office jobs, and non-Protestant immigration were perceived as threats not only to American health and manhood but also to social standing of US elites. In response to such societal changes US citizens were urged to revitalize themselves by embracing a ‘strenuous life’ replete with athleticism and aggressive male behaviour.
Churches too were affected. They were told to abandon the supposedly enervating tenets of “feminized” Protestantism. Evidence of a ‘woman peril’ in US churches was self evident for psychologist G. Stanley Hall who pointed to the imbalance of women to men in the pews. Women’s influence in churches had led to an over abundance of sentimental hymns, effeminate clergymen and sickly-sweet images of Jesus. ‘Real men’ were repelled by such things and it was argued that Muscular Christians would avoid such churches until the situation was rectified. It is interesting to note the gender concerns here of the US white males.
Muscular Christianity’s peak in the US lasted roughly from 1880 to 1920. It was during this time that new sports such as basketball and volleyball emerged. The Men and Religion Forward Movement was created seeking to fill Protestant churches with men, and churches emerged in US civil society taking the lead in the organized camping and public playground movements. Physical Culture emerged around this time also giving the advocates of Muscular Christianity training methods and ideals upon which to base the muscular ideal. The Muscular Christianity movement took a tight hold in US society right up until the outbreak of the First World War . These efforts to make muscular Christianity an integral part of the churches lasted throughout World War I. It was not to last and by the time the 1930s came around, Muscular Christianity was widely derided by Social Commentators in the US and seemingly faded into obscurity.
While Muscular Christianity as a movement has largely disappeared, its ideals arguably still exist. Common is the story of the athlete who has sacrificed much, who has pushed himself beyond what was possible and who has emerged a better person because of it. Likewise we still have societal preconceptions about what manliness and femininity mean. Yes Muscular Christianity is gone, but many of its ideals still exist in Western States. So next time you’re training, do one more rep for Jesus. It’s what men like Hughes and Kinglsey would have wanted.