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Muscular Christianity

Statue of Thomas Hughes at Rugby School. Hughes' 1857 novel Tom Brown's School Days did much to promote muscular Christianity throughout the English-speaking world.

Muscular Christianity is a philosophical movement that originated in England in the mid-19th century, characterised by a belief in patriotic duty, discipline, self-sacrifice, manliness, and the moral and physical beauty of athleticism.

The movement came into vogue during the Victorian era as a method of building character in pupils at English public schools. It is most often associated with English author Thomas Hughes and his 1857 novel Tom Brown's School Days, as well as writers Charles Kingsley and Ralph Connor. American President Theodore Roosevelt was raised in a household that practiced Muscular Christianity.[1] Roosevelt, Kingsley, and Hughes promoted physical strength and health as well as an active pursuit of Christian ideals in personal life and politics. Muscular Christianity has continued through organizations that combine physical and Christian spiritual development.[2] It is influential within both Catholicism and Protestantism.[3][4]


A mural in a YMCA emphasizing godliness and physical health.

The Muscular Christianity movement was never officially organized. Instead, it was a cultural trend that manifested in different ways and was supported by various figures and churches. Muscular Christianity can be traced back to Paul the Apostle, who used athletic metaphors to describe the challenges of a Christian life.[5] However, the explicit advocacy of sport and exercise in Christianity did not appear until 1762, when Rousseau's Emile described physical education as important for the formation of moral character.[6]

The term "Muscular Christianity" became well known in a review by the barrister T. C. Sandars of Kingsley's novel Two Years Ago in the February 21, 1857 issue of the Saturday Review.[5][7] (The term had appeared slightly earlier.)[8] Kingsley wrote a reply to this review in which he called the term "painful, if not offensive",[9] but he later used it favorably on occasion.[10] Hughes used it in Tom Brown at Oxford; saying that it was "a good thing to have muscled, strong and well-exercised bodies," he specified, "The Muscular Christians have hold of the old chivalrous and Christian belief, that a man's body is given to him to be trained and brought into subjection, and then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of all righteous causes, and the subduing of the earth which God has given to the children of men."[11]

In addition to the beliefs stated above, Muscular Christianity preached the spiritual value of sports, especially team sports. As Kingsley said, "games conduce, not merely to physical, but to moral health".[12] An article on a popular nineteenth-century Briton summed it up thus: "John MacGregor is perhaps the finest specimen of Muscular Christianity that this or any other age has produced. Three men seemed to have struggled within his breast—the devout Christian, the earnest philanthropist, the enthusiastic athlete."[13]

Despite having gained some support, the concept was still controversial. For one example, a reviewer mentioned "the ridicule which the 'earnest' and the 'muscular' men are doing their best to bring on all that is manly", though he still preferred "'earnestness' and 'muscular Christianity'" to eighteenth-century propriety.[14] For another, a clergyman at Cambridge University horsewhipped a friend and fellow clergyman after hearing that he had said grace without mentioning Jesus because a Jew was present.[15] A commentator said, "All this comes, we fear, of Muscular Christianity."[16]

Introduction and Growth of Muscular Christianity in AmericaEdit

The Catholic Church traditionally focused on spirit over body and did not tend to emphasize athletics or physical training. Other groups like Puritans didn’t oppose sports, just the actions that accompanied them, like gambling or drinking. Most Catholics were more concerned about sports becoming a distraction of one's faith. However, when “The Crisis of Masculinity” became a theory in the Catholic Church, physical strength was strongly encouraged as Catholics felt that they needed to prove their manhood because the Church was becoming “weak”. Boys were being raised and taught by Catholic women, which many believed was making the boys too feminine. They were then taught to be gentlemen so they, “could button up their collars but not roll up their sleeves”.[17]  Many wondered if there were to be a societal crisis, whether these Catholic men would be able to protect them. This then changed what a Catholic man should be as members of the church felt that with the changing society, masculinity needed to be restored. Theodore Roosevelt believed that, “There is only a very circumscribed sphere of usefulness for the timid good man”, a sentiment echoed by many at the time. Followers of Muscular Christianity ultimately found that the only solution to this was to connect faith to the physicality of the body.[17]

The idea of Muscular Christianity first started in England amidst industrialization and urbanization. Like their American counterparts, Catholics were worried about the decrease in manliness among their followers, causing Muscular Christianity to become a cultural trend. It was not started by any specific person, but rather supported by churches and many individual Catholic figures, who then spread it to other congregations. At the time it was believed that physical training built stamina necessary to perform service for others and that physical strength led to moral strength and good character. Catholics felt that athletics could be a good outlet for burning off steam rather than finding a less moral outlet. Sports also helped to recruit new members into the church. Churches began forming their own sports teams and had the associated facilities for them built in or around the churches themselves. This is how the YMCA (Young Men's Christian Association) began in 1844 in London, although it did not yet have sports facilities until 1869 with the establishment of New York City’s YMCA. These associations became very popular and YMCA’s began appearing across the country. In 1894, boxing rings were being built above London churches. The addition of these boxing rings drew in many more followers, not only to box but to listen to services as well. Boxing became a way for Catholic men to vent anger or frustration in a morally acceptable way.

The spread of Muscular Christianity led to many changes within the Catholic Church. The services were changed to cater more towards men and priests were required to be of a certain “manly” stature.[citation needed] Priests who looked like this were thought to draw in more men like them. Protestant ministers in England and America argued that men were not truly Christians unless they were Muscular Christians. Muscular Christianity did later decline in some Protestant churches, but it never did disappear from the American religious landscape.


By 1901, Muscular Christianity was influential enough in England that one author could praise "the Englishman going through the world with rifle in one hand and Bible in the other" and add, "if asked what our muscular Christianity has done, we point to the British Empire."[18]

The American football player George Wilson prays before a game. Wilson "says he always carries his Christian faith with him"[19] and has received awards for service to the community.[20]

Muscular Christianity spread to other countries in the 19th century. It was well entrenched in Australian society by 1860, though not always with much recognition of the religious element.[21] In the United States it appeared first in private schools and then in the YMCA and in the preaching of evangelists such as Dwight L. Moody.[22] (The addition of athletics to the YMCA led to, among other things, the invention of basketball and volleyball.) Parodied by Sinclair Lewis in Elmer Gantry (though he had praised the Oberlin College YMCA for its "positive earnest muscular Christianity") and out of step with theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, its influence declined in American mainline Protestantism. Nonetheless, it was felt in such evangelical organizations as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and the Promise Keepers.[23]

In the 21st century, the push for a more masculine Christianity has been made by New Calvinist pastors such as John Piper, who claims, "God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother. Second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male." Because of this, Piper contends "that God has given Christianity a masculine feel."[24]

In 2012, athletes such as Tim Tebow, Manny Pacquiao, Josh Hamilton, and Jeremy Lin have also exemplified Muscular Christianity through sharing their faith with their fans.[25][26]

Richard Andrew Meyer, a professor of Baylor University, explains Thomas Hughes's six definitions of Muscular Christianity through six criteria. Meyer wrote a dissertation about Thomas Hughes's notion of Muscular Christianity by analyzing the career of Lance Armstrong. The criteria is  “1) a man’s body is given to him (by God); 2) and to be trained; 3) and brought into subjection; 4) and then used for the protection of the weak; 5) for the advancement of all righteous causes; 6) and for the subduing of the earth which God has given to the children of men.”[27]

Kirk Cousins said in a CBN News interview that “...when you know God has His hand in He has a plan, it takes much of my worry and much of my doubts, and it takes them away because I trust that He brought me here for a reason”[28]

Michael Kimmel argues in his book Manhood in America,[29] that University of Notre Dame showcases Muscular Christianity because the school practices Catholicism. Male athletes on the varsity teams are thought to practice Thomas Hughes's’ 6 criteria for Muscular Christianity. Notre Dame’s football team for example, are Catholic men that believe their bodies are a gift from God. Therefore, they train their bodies in the name of God.

Like in Russell Wilson’s photo on Instagram, teams, and athletes will have prayer circles before a competition to get their minds in the right space. It often makes them feel better and is an open display of what they believe in. Muscular Christianity is an open display of God’s purpose and will for these athletes.

Big track meets often sell shirts and merchandise related to track and field. At the Hershey National Track and Field Championships in 2018, shirts could be customized to your liking. There were prints that had Bible scriptures and other Christian sayings that could be printed on the shirt any way the athlete wished. Although this is a more subtle version of Muscular Christianity, its influence is still seen.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Andres, Sean (2014). 101 Things Everyone Should Know about Theodore Roosevelt. Adams Media. pp. 31–32. ISBN 978-1440573576.
  2. ^ David Yamane, Keith A. Roberts (2012). Religion in Sociological Perspective. Pine Forge Press. Retrieved 1 August 2011. Muscular Christianity's main focus was to address the concerns of boys directly, not abstractly, so that they could apply religion to their lives. The idea did not catch on quickly in the United States, but over time it has become one of the most notable tools employed in Evangelical Protestant outreach ministries.
  3. ^ Alister E. McGrath (2008). Christianity's Dangerous Idea. HarperOne. Retrieved 1 August 2011. Nor is sport a purely Protestant concern: Catholicism can equally well be said to promote muscular Christianity, at least to some extent, through the athletic programs of such leading schools as the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
  4. ^ Michael S. Kimmel; Amy Aronson (2004). Men and Masculinities: a Social, Cultural, and Historical Encyclopædia, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. Retrieved 1 August 2011. As neo-orthodoxy arose in the mainline Protestant churches, Muscular Christianity declined there. It did not, however, disappear from American landscape, because it found some new sponsors. In the early 2000s these include the Catholic Church and various rightward-leaning Protestant groups. The Catholic Church 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.
  5. ^ a b Watson, Nick J. Muscular Christianity in the modern age. Sport and spirituality (2007), pages 81–82.
    Athletic metaphors attributed to Paul:
  6. ^ Watson, Nick J.; Stuart Weir; Stephen Friend (2005). "The Development of Muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain and Beyond". Journal of Religion & Society. 7: paragraph 7.
  7. ^ Ladd, Tony; James A. Mathisen (1999). Muscular Christianity: Evangelical Protestants and the Development of American Sport. Grand Rapids, Mich.: BridgePoint Books. pp. 13–14. ISBN 0-8010-5847-3.
  8. ^ Anonymous (December 1852). "Pastoral Theology: Power in the Pulpit". The Eclectic Review. IV: 766. Retrieved 2011-04-19. The article is a review of a book of lectures by the theologian Alexandre Vinet.
  9. ^ Watson, Weir, and Friend, paragraph 6.
  10. ^ Kingsley, Charles (1889). Letters and Memoirs of His Life, vol. II. Scribner's. p. 54. Quoted by Rosen, David (1994). "The volcano and the cathedral: muscular Christianity and the origins of primal manliness". In Donald E. Hall (ed.). Muscular Christianity: Embodying the Victorian Age. Cambridge University Press. p. 17. ISBN 0-521-45318-6.
  11. ^ Chapter 11, quoted by Ladd and Mathisen.
  12. ^ Kingsley, Charles (1879). "Nausicaa in London: or, The Lower Education of Women". Health and Education (1887 ed.). Macmillan and Co. p. 86. Retrieved 2011-06-13. Quoted by Ladd and Mathisen).
  13. ^ Anonymous (1895). "'Rob Roy' MacGregor". The London Quarterly and Holborn Review. 84: 71–86. Retrieved 2012-03-14.
  14. ^ "Reviews: Essays Sceptical and Anti-Sceptical on Problems Neglected or Misconceived, by Thomas DeQuincey". The Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Science, and Art (2159): 538–540. June 5, 1958. Retrieved 2012-01-30.
  15. ^ "News of the Week". The Spectator. 34 (1702): 124. Feb 9, 1861. Retrieved 2012-01-30.
  16. ^ "Argumentum Baculinum". The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art. 11 (276): 141–142. Feb 9, 1861. Retrieved 2012-01-30.
  17. ^ a b "Muscular Christianity: Its History and Lasting Effects". The Art of Manliness. 2016-09-13. Retrieved 2019-05-06.
  18. ^ Cotton Minchin, J. G. (1901). Our Public Schools: Their Influence on English History; Charter House, Eton, Harrow, Merchant Taylors', Rugby, St. Paul's Westminster, Winchester. Swan Sonnenschein & Co. p. 113. Retrieved 2009-11-09.
  19. ^ McNeil, Harold (2010-11-20). "The faith behind football: Bills players talk to city's youth about God's role in their success". The Buffalo News. Retrieved 2011-03-27.
  20. ^ Major, Andy (2010-01-05). "George Wilson wins Walter Payton Man of the Year". The Official Website of the Buffalo Bills. Retrieved 2011-03-27. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  21. ^ Brown, David W. (1986). "Muscular Christianity in the Antipodes: Some Observations on the Diffusion and Emergence of a Victorian Ideal in Australian Social Theory" (PDF). Sporting Traditions: The Journal of the Australian Society for Sports History. 4. Retrieved 2011-12-04.
  22. ^ Heather, Hendershot (2004). Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture. University of Chicago Press. p. 226. ISBN 0-226-32679-9.
  23. ^ Putney, Clifford (2001). Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880–1920. Harvard University Press. pp. 205–206. ISBN 0-674-01125-2.
  24. ^ Murashko, Alex (2012). "John Piper: God Gave Christianity a 'Masculine Feel'". Christian Post.
  25. ^ Christine Thomasos (2012). "Tim Tebow Brings In a New Wave of Christian Athleticism". The Christian Post. Tebow inspired a new term by ESPN, known as “muscular Christianity.” The QB showcases his faith by wearing bible verses on his face, tweeting scriptures and publicly admitting his love for Jesus Christ, while drawing fans’ attention on the football field.
  26. ^ Mary Jane Dunlap (March 13, 2012). "KU professor researching Naismith, religion and basketball". Kansas University. “Less well-known is that his game also was meant to help build Christian character and to inculcate certain values of the muscular Christian movement.” Although times have changed, Zogry sees analogies between the beliefs and activities of 19th-century sports figures such as James Naismith and Amos Alonzo Stagg, a Yale divinity student who pioneered football coaching, and those of 21st-century athletes such as Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin.
  27. ^ Meyer, Andrew (2010). "Contemporary American sport, muscular Christianity, Lance Armstrong, and religious experience". Retrieved 2019-05-06.
  28. ^ "20 athletes who are vocal about their faith". Retrieved 2019-05-06.
  29. ^ Kimmel, Michael S. Manhood in America: a cultural history. ISBN 9780190612535. OCLC 982390277.

External linksEdit