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Since I was a child, I’ve been obsessed with sports. That’s mainly because my father was a rabid Philadelphia Phillies and Eagles fan. The word “fan” is derived from “fanatic”, and that was my dad. He watched every game he was able to on TV and listened to the rest on the radio. The outcome of those games could determine his mood for the rest of the day.
I not only became a sports fanatic myself but participated in competitive games and athletics as often as I could. Sports became one of my lifelong passions. As far as the history and traditions of the games I played, I’d vaguely known that America’s most popular team sports—baseball, football, basketball, and hockey—were not invented until fairly recently. But, their origins didn’t concern me.
I have wondered about what men did to burn off testosterone before those sports were invented. I assumed it must have been peaceful substitutes for warfare such as foot racing, horse racing, throwing objects like javelins, boxing, archery, and jousting. Maybe warfare was the inspiration for all of our current sports and many are still retained in the Olympic Games today.
If I had to guess, I would have linked the nineteenth century sports explosion in the US to the resurrection of the Olympic Games in 1896. The Greeks held their first Olympic Games in 776 BC. Thereafter, they continued those celebrations of athleticism every four years until 393 AD. Emperor Theodosius I was the man who ended the games at that time because he was in the process of turning the Roman Empire into a Christian theocracy. His goal was to cleanse the empire of all pagan influences, and the Olympic games were “tainted” because of their association with the Greek god Zeus.
After some research, I discovered that one factor leading to the reestablishment of the Olympic Games was the 1776 rediscovery of the site where the ancient games were held. There were other factors as well. The Greeks were trying to restore their national identity after enduring 370 years of Ottoman Turkish rule. The didn’t regain their independence until 1830.
Also, the newly established countries of Germany and Italy were trying to unite their provinces and city-states into nations. What better way than for mutual participation on sports teams? Then, there was the altruistic opportunity for athletes and coaches to meet and befriend people from other cultures and hopefully dissolve many long-held stereotypes that had separated them. The renewal of the Olympic Games was a very noble cause and I’m not surprised that people were excited about the return of the games.
The development of team sports
Recently I read an article in Sojourners Magazine titled “The prophets who won’t shut up and dribble”. That’s when everything came into focus for me. The article was about “muscular Christianity”, a term introduced in 1857 by English barrister (lawyer) Thomas Collett Sandars. I learned that although the introduction of team sports in the US coincided with the revival of the Olympic Games, the two events didn’t share the same origin.
Before the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment, many Christians had been taught to deny their bodily needs and focus on the afterlife. Their future heavenly lives were what was really important and their physical life was only a necessary period of testing and faith-building. In 1762, the influential French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote about how physical fitness was important in building moral character. He stressed the connection between body strength and the mental health, an unusual connection in that era.
The Second Great Awakening occurred in Great Britain and the United States in the early 1800s. It was a wide-ranging evangelical Christian revival, one of those events where Christians realized they were not living up to God’s expectations and needed to reinvent themselves somehow to gain his approval. That was exactly what the Old Testament referred to the Jews doing over and over again. The “Awakenings” of that era were enormous events lasting years to decades. They were all-out efforts to get people back to church and clean up vices in society.
Rousseau’s words and advice from others filtered down to Christian leaders. At that time women attended church at a much higher rate than men. Because of that, much of the clergy had turned into bookworms who preached to women—not the ideal example of masculinity. That feminization of men was in line with the Victorian concept of being a gentleman.
Men had to be brought back into the flock
The clergy needed to do something to increase male church attendance. There was no widely-organized effort, but a general realization of what was needed. Men needed to see Christianity as more of a masculine religion. The whole society needed to change since many men had left physical labor behind and taken less strenuous city jobs.
Those who set the agenda began to emphasize the idea that the human spirit could not be strong unless the body was also strong. Nineteenth-century sermons began to weave the body and spirit into a mutually-dependent relationship. If someone needed to find a biblical precedent for that message, they needed to look no further than the Apostle Paul. He often used athletic metaphors in his writings. So, manly men decided that other Christian men and the emaciated Jesus in Christian art needed to become brawnier.
There was also a somewhat irrational fear among Christians that if the “good guys” weren’t strong, the “evil guys” could take over society. Muscular Christianity arrived in the US from England in the 1870s and the idea snowballed. Clergy preached that men involved in athletic pursuits would be better able to handle male tasks like charitable and missionary work. Physical fitness and sports would build character by promoting cooperation, sportsmanship, honesty, and delayed gratification. It would be a substitute for violent crime, a preparation for war, and a way to evangelize non-Christians. The goal was to turn Christian men into a fusion of gentlemen and Conan the Barbarian.
Churches come onboard
Churches that were at first resistant to the new movement began to come around in the 1880s as the concept gained popularity. Since men wanted a more masculine Christianity, churches began to hire more virile ministers. They instituted more man-focused sermons and hymns, and made Jesus look more masculine in artwork. Another aspect of the muscular Christian movement was to build stamina to better serve the community. That included fighting against crime, poverty, unemployment, child labor, unsafe food and drinking water, and poor education. It was a progressive movement based on science and technology.
The creation of “our” team sports
In England, one of the results of this new philosophy was the creation of the Young Men’s Christian Association, the YMCA in 1844. The “Y” became a huge success. By 1869, a New York City Y opened their first gymnasium, and by 1900, there were over 450 individual YMCAs in existence.
In the US, the baseball promoters wrote the Knickerbocker Rules in 1845, establishing what became America’s “national sport”. Baseball stemmed from stick and ball games played in Europe since Medieval times. By the end of the century, it would be the most popular team sport in the country.
In 1875, Canadians in the city of Montreal played the first indoor game of ice hockey. That sport was not just derived from the stick and ball games in Britain and Ireland, but also from the Indigenous American game of lacrosse.
James Naismith, a physician, and Christian chaplain invented the game of basketball and wrote its first rulebook in 1891 while on the staff of the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA. Then he transported the game to the college level at the University of Kansas where visitors can still see his original rules.
Other promoters introduced American-style football, a fusion of soccer and rugby. It was played at the college level in 1896 in a game between Rutgers and Princeton.
So, it appears that in the short period between 1844 and 1896, sports enthusiasts created the YMCA and invented or adapted all the team sports we Americans love so much today. And we seem to owe it all to muscular Christianity. Who would have known?
Other aspects of Christian Awakenings
The Second Awakening introduced other social movements beside muscular Christianity. Devout Christians attacked everything they saw as vice in US society. One of their targets was booze and that would lead to the prohibition of alcohol production and sales in 1920.
By 1929, male participation in churches almost caught up with the female percentage. But, according to recent surveys, it appears the churches has become more feminized again. The Church needed a newer “sales strategy” to motivate men.
Our latest Muscular Jesus Movement
Now we’re experiencing another cycle of remodeling Jesus into the physique, skin color, and facial features that satisfy a certain sub-culture of Americans. This one appears aimed at men who are inclined to aggressiveness, but maybe not so much to sports. Kristin Kobes Du Mez wrote about this latest trend of masculine Christianity in her best-selling book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. This current version of Christian male virility is much more threatening than the nineteenth-century version. That’s because it isn’t focused as much on sports as it is on actual combat.
In her book, Du Mez pointed to authors like John Eldredge, who in 2001, proclaimed the need for a more manly Christianity in his book, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. That and other comparable books have motivated vast numbers of Christian men to shed the images of compassion, humility, and gentle-Jesus-hugging-a-child. Instead, writers and preachers encouraged American men to embrace their inner, testosterone-driven “male instincts”. That’s so they could stand up for their beliefs and take care of their families needs, including protecting them from whatever might threaten them. Since then, according to Du Mez, they have increasingly followed manly role models like the “Duke” (John Wayne), and expected their Jesus to do the same. Some of us have seen their posters and t-shirts depicting Jesus hugging an automatic rifle instead of a child.
They follow the Prince of Peace?
This recent concept of Christianity promotes aggressiveness in both church and society. It’s actually a bullying and intimidating Christianity more than a muscular Christianity. We’ve already seen its results on January 6, 2021 during the insurrection at the US Capitol Building. Those weren’t the only violent crimes committed by men who have bought into the idea that they should beat anything that opposes them into submission. The macho, taking-no-shit-from-anyone image that many US Christians men are trying to embody has no place in gymnasiums, arenas, or the playing fields. It also has no place in a Christian church or in society even though they say it does. It comes from dualistic thinking, “we’re good, they’re bad”, “we’re right, they’re wrong”, with no examination of why people believe and act the way they do.
There are many evangelical preachers who set examples by talking tough. That suits their style of preaching, but is it good for Christianity? Mark Driscoll, a recent “rockstar” in Christian preaching, once said, “I can’t worship a hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” Need I say more about this kind of mentality?
Author Michael Camp sums up the situation very well in his book, Breaking Bad Faith: Exposing Myth and Violence in Popular Theology to Recover the Path of Peace. In the book, he focuses on permitted Christian violence in the past and present, and how the peaceful message of Jesus has been gradually warped and lost over the centuries by a large number of people who call themselves Christians.
What is the ideal in modern masculinity?
In real life, to be effective at dealing with people who have different opinions, men and women must have the gifts of respectfulness, rationality, patience, and the ability to compromise. That’s if they intend to solve problems in a civilized and permanent way. I guess if they think compromise is too much trouble or it takes too long, they feel they must resort to intimidation and brute force to accomplish their goals.
Historically, that’s no different than the way aggressive men have behaved for thousands of years. We’re still waiting for evolution to work a miracle by making humans more peaceful. What has all that aggression accomplished other than to create more suffering, hatred, and vengefulness in the world? The brutes get to walk away feeling smug and victorious, but I suppose that’s their main goal.
Comparison of the two movements
The muscular Christian movement of the nineteenth century produced many positive results. It promoted fitness, which is so important to overall health. It provided the sports and athletic facilities we are still enjoying today. But, one thing I hadn’t been aware of was that it gave us an inspirational example of using our energy and talents to promote social justice through humanitarian efforts. They didn’t wait for God to take care of the underprivileged and control the health of our society. They took those responsibilities for themselves.
The differences between that version of muscular Christianity and what we see today couldn’t be any more obvious. Today’s movement has twisted Christian doctrine again. BTW, Christian doctrines are easy to twist because as Camp pointed out in his book, the Old and New Testaments continually contradict each other.
Today’s “intimidating Christianity” movement is nothing but selfishness. They desire political power so they can dictate how all Americans live and squash anyone who opposes them. That was not Jesus’s message and hopefully many who have bought into this new cause will realize that before it’s too late.