Muscular Christianity

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Statue of Thomas Hughes at Rugby School. Hughes's 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, characterized by a belief in patriotic duty, discipline, self-sacrifice, masculinity, 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.[1] American President Theodore Roosevelt was raised in a household that practised Muscular Christianity and was a prominent adherent to the movement.[2] 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.[3] It is influential within both Catholicism and Protestantism.[4][5]

Origins and background[edit]

Caring. Honesty. Responsibility. Respect. "For physical training has some value, but Godliness has value for all things." 1 Timothy 4.8.
A mural in a YMCA emphasizing godliness and physical health

Until the Age of Enlightenment, the aesthetics of the body within Christianity were concerned chiefly with holy suffering.[6] Asceticism, and the denial of bodily needs and beauty, was of interest to laity and clergy alike in Antiquity and the medieval period.[7] A key tenet of asceticism is believing the flesh to be a distraction from divinity. Sects such as Catharism believed the flesh to be wholly corrupted.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

Definitions and etymology[edit]

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.[9][11] The term had appeared slightly earlier.[12] Kingsley wrote a reply to this review in which he called the term "painful, if not offensive",[13] but he later used it favorably on occasion.[14]

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".[15] 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."[16]

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.[17] For another, a clergyman at Cambridge University horsewhipped another clergyman after hearing that he had said grace without mentioning Jesus because a Jew was present.[18] A commentator said, "All this comes, we fear, of Muscular Christianity."[19]

Thomas Hughes[edit]

Kingsley's contemporary Thomas Hughes is credited with helping to establish the main tenets of Muscular Christianity in Tom Brown at Oxford, which were physical manliness, chivalry and masculinity of character.[20] In Tom Brown at Oxford, Hughes stated that "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."[21] The notion of protecting the weak was related to contemporary English concerns over the plight of the poor, and Christian responsibility to one's neighbour.[1]

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 are "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."[22]


The idea of Muscular Christianity first started in England amidst industrialization and urbanization. Like their American counterparts, Christians in England were worried about the decrease in manliness among their followers as a result of Puritan influences, including passive virtues like love and tenderness,[23] causing Muscular Christianity to become a cultural trend. It was not started by any specific person, but rather supported by churches and many individual Christian 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. Christians increasingly 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 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.[24]

These associations became very popular and YMCAs began appearing across the country. In 1894, an Anglican vicar, Reverend Arthur Osborne Montgomery Jay, built a gymnasium with a boxing ring in the basement of his East-End London church—Holy Trinity Shoreditch, organized a boxing club, and hosted large and popular boxing tournaments. Similar boxing outreach programs were established in the late-19th and early-20th centuries by Christian churches of various denominations in poor or working class areas of Britain and America. These outreach efforts drew in many men, particularly younger men, to not only box but to be ministered to as well.[citation needed]

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."[25] 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.[26]

United States[edit]

In the United States, it appeared first in private schools and then in YMCA and in the preaching of evangelists such as Dwight L. Moody.[27] Scholar Iren Annus linked the growth of Muscular Christianity in the United States to broader societal changes which were occurring throughout the country, including the emancipation of women and the influx of immigrants who worked blue-collar jobs while white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men became increasingly white-collar. These factors contributed to increasing anxiety over masculinity among white males in the United States.[28] Parodied by Sinclair Lewis in Elmer Gantry (though he had praised 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.

Baylor University scholar Paul Putz summarises the purpose of Muscular Christianity as a mode to sanctify sports, positing that Muscular Christianity "sanctioned the physical activity of sports by giving it moral and religious value. Muscular Christians said that sports were not inherently sinful, nor were they simply entertainment and recreation; instead sports could be a way to develop and grow Christian character. You could become a better Christian through sport participation."[29] An early pioneers of Muscular Christianity in the US was Amos Alonzo Stagg, a Yale-educated football coach, who in the 1880s sought to promote "Christian ideals" anchored in US middle class values such as "cooperation, belief in God, initiative, self-discipline, loyalty, respect for authority, courage, honesty."[29]

At the same time, it made a significant impact on Evangelicalism in the United States, and was promoted by organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and the Promise Keepers.[30] Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most prominent adherents of Muscular Christianity in the United States.[31] 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.[32]

An example sometimes given for US Muscular Christianity was the Men and Religion Forward Movement, organized by Fred Smith, a YMCA leader, in 1910. The movement held a mix of muscular, revivalistic and social gospel sensibilities, with work directed to evangelism, bible study, boys' work, mission, and social service. The organization hosted large revivals and campaigns throughout the US. Some 1.5 million men attended 7,000 events.[33][34]

Muscular Christianity's popularity declined notably after World War I, when the horrors of the war caused disillusionment with Christianity in general. It appeared to be "mindless strenuosity tied not to social reform but to what cereal king J. H. Kellogg called the new religion 'of being good to yourself'", that is, "such newly accessible leisure-time pursuits as automobiling and listening to the radio."[23]

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.


Elwood Brown, physical director of the Manila chapter of the YMCA, heavily promoted Muscular Christianity in the Philippines, and co-founded the Far Eastern Championship Games which ran from 1914 to 1934.[35] Japanese scholar Ikuo Abe argued that the modern sports ethic and sport culture in Japan was heavily influenced in its infancy by Christian missionaries and Western teachers during the 19th and 20th century. According to Abe, Japan's sport culture developed as a hybridization of Muscular Christianity and Bushido ethics.[36] Muscular Christianity was also an influence on Swami Vivekananda's ideology of "muscular Hinduism" and Hindu nationalism, particularly his emphasis on physical prowess and masculinity.[37]


According to Peter Alegi, muscular Christianity reached Africa through colonial mission schools during the late 19th century.[38] Sports were incorporated directly into many mission schools to promote muscular Christianity, as administrators and missionaries believed sports such as football shared many of the same values.[38] The effect mission schools like Adams College in South Africa had was seen through the demographics of football players, as a significant number of members at the earliest sports clubs in South Africa were Christian Africans.[38] Over time these practices moved away from specific sports and more towards general physical education.

Muscular Christianity became widely noticed throughout Africa due to colonization. Men were meant to be the head of their households and it was viewed that this structure was deteriorating. It was the establishment of Western-style schools across the continent that brought about Muscular Christianity along with the introduction of European football teams. Soccer was thought to teach young boys self-restraint, fairness, honor, and success.[39] It was also to develop them into disciplined, healthy, and moral citizens.[38] The purpose behind these soccer clubs was not just to bring idealized traits to the young boys, but to make them into strong soldiers and advocates for the Western world.[38] Missionary schools were among the first to incorporate football into their programs, to make sure every student was playing. This was to blend the African and Western culture to transition the African students more easily into the world of Christianity.

Adams College, known as Amanzimtoti Training Institute before 1914, was one of the first and largest missionary schools in southern and central Africa. This school was important due to its football team, the Shooting Stars. This team was successful in competing against other teams throughout the area. Other missionary schools were known more for their success in other sports, like cricket or rugby.[38]


According to Nicholas Watson, the ideology of Muscular Christianity contributed to the development of the Olympic Games. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, was greatly influenced by Muscular Christianity, and this was one of his primary inspirations alongside the Ancient Olympic Games of Greece.[40]

In the 21st century, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of Muscular Christianity, driven by the disproportionately high number of men becoming atheist or agnostic, and by a perceived "crisis of masculinity".[41] In the United States, Muscular Christianity is best represented by athletes such as Tim Tebow, Manny Pacquiao, Josh Hamilton, Christian McCaffrey, and Jeremy Lin.[42] These athletes frequently speak and write about their faith, and share their beliefs with their fans.[43][44]

New Calvinist pastors such as John Piper have pushed for an emphasis on a masculine Christianity and concept of Christ. Piper claimed that, "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 further claimed that "God has given Christianity a masculine feel."[45]

Michael Kimmel argues in his book Manhood in America,[46] 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 six criteria for Muscular Christianity. Notre Dame's football team, for example, are Catholic men who believe their bodies are a gift from God. Therefore, they train their bodies in the name of God.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Sport, Spirituality, and Religion. MDPI, Basel. 2019-11-22. doi:10.3390/books978-3-03921-831-8. ISBN 978-3-03921-831-8.
  2. ^ Andres, Sean (2014). 101 Things Everyone Should Know about Theodore Roosevelt. Adams Media. pp. 31–32. ISBN 978-1440573576.
  3. ^ David Yamane; Keith A. Roberts (2012). Religion in Sociological Perspective. Pine Forge Press. ISBN 9781412982986. 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.
  4. ^ Alister E. McGrath (2008). Christianity's Dangerous Idea. HarperOne. ISBN 9780061864742. 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.
  5. ^ Michael S. Kimmel; Amy Aronson (2004). Men and Masculinities: a Social, Cultural, and Historical Encyclopædia, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781576077740. 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.
  6. ^ CHRIST, T. Michael (2008). The Noetic Effect Of Sanctification: An Application Of Van Til's Epistemology To Personal Sanctification Through Colossians 1:15 - 3:10 (Thesis). Theological Research Exchange Network (TREN). doi:10.2986/tren.036-0395.
  7. ^ Hanson, Sarah (2009). "Connections between Body and Soul: the Asceticism of Medieval Saints". The UCI Undergraduate Research Journal. XII: 23–34.
  8. ^ Peters, Edward, ed. (1980-01-01). Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe. doi:10.9783/9780812206807. ISBN 978-0-8122-7779-1.
  9. ^ a b Watson, Nick J. (2007). "Muscular Christianity in the modern age". Sport and spirituality. Taylor & Francis. pp. 81–82. ISBN 9780203938744. Athletic metaphors attributed to Paul the Apostle: 1 Corinthians 6:19; 1 Corinthians 9:24–25; 2 Timothy 4:7.
  10. ^ Watson, Nick J.; Weir, Stuart; Friend, Stephen (2005). "The Development of Muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain and Beyond". Journal of Religion & Society. 7. para. 7. Archived from the original on 2011-11-28.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Watson, Weir & Friend 2005, para. 6
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ 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).
  16. ^ Anonymous (1895). "'Rob Roy' MacGregor". The London Quarterly and Holborn Review. 84: 71–86. Retrieved 2012-03-14.
  17. ^ "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.
  18. ^ "News of the Week". The Spectator. 34 (1702): 124. Feb 9, 1861. Retrieved 2012-01-30.
  19. ^ "Argumentum Baculinum". The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art. 11 (276): 141–142. Feb 9, 1861. Retrieved 2012-01-30.
  20. ^ Schwer, Mary Angela (1998), Day, Gary (ed.), "Imperial Muscular Christianity: Thomas Hughes's Biography of David Livingstone", Varieties of Victorianism: The Uses of a Past, Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 25–39, doi:10.1007/978-1-349-26742-2_2, ISBN 978-1-349-26742-2
  21. ^ Chapter 11, quoted by Ladd and Mathisen.
  22. ^ Meyer, Andrew (2010). "Contemporary American sport, muscular Christianity, Lance Armstrong, and religious experience".
  23. ^ a b Putney, Clifford (2003). Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America 1880-1920. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 200, 201.
  24. ^ Magazine, Smithsonian; Eschner, Kat. "The YMCA First Opened Gyms to Train Stronger Christians". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2022-03-25.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ Heather, Hendershot (2004). Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture. University of Chicago Press. p. 226. ISBN 0-226-32679-9.
  28. ^ Eschner, Kat. "The YMCA First Opened Gyms to Train Stronger Christians". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2020-02-22.
  29. ^ a b "Muscular Christianity and Moral Formation Through Sports". THE FAITH & SPORTS BLOG. 2022-01-31. Retrieved 2022-12-20.
  30. ^ Putney, Clifford (2001). Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880–1920. Harvard University Press. pp. 205–206. ISBN 0-674-01125-2.
  31. ^ Moore, Jack (2015-05-08). "Muscular Christianity and American sport's undying love of violence". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2020-02-22.
  32. ^ "Muscular Christianity: Its History and Lasting Effects". The Art of Manliness. 2016-09-13. Retrieved 2019-05-06.
  33. ^ L. Dean Allen, "Rise Up, O Men of God: The 'Men and Religion Forward Movement' and the 'Promise Keepers' (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002)
  34. ^ Fred Smith, ed. A Man's Religion (New York: Association Press, 1913)
  35. ^ Hübner, Stefan (2015-06-01). "Muscular Christianity and the Western Civilizing Mission: Elwood S. Brown, the YMCA, and the Idea of the Far Eastern Championship Games". Diplomatic History. 39 (3): 532–557. doi:10.1093/dh/dht126. ISSN 0145-2096.
  36. ^ Macaloon, John J. (2013-09-13). Muscular Christianity and the Colonial and Post-Colonial World. Routledge. pp. 14–38. ISBN 978-1-317-99792-4.
  37. ^ Macaloon 2013, pp. 59–76
  38. ^ a b c d e f Alegi, Peter (2010). African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World's Game. Ohio: Ohio University Press. pp. 8–9. ISBN 978-0-89680-278-0.
  39. ^ Alegi 2010, p. 8
  40. ^ "'Muscular Christianity' Influenced the Creation of the Modern Olympics". 8 February 2018. Retrieved 2020-02-22.
  41. ^ "Putting the "Muscular" Back in Muscular Christianity". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2020-02-22.
  42. ^ "Tim Tebow's 'Muscular Christianity'". New York Magazine. 31 August 2012. Retrieved 2020-02-22.
  43. ^ 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.
  44. ^ Mary Jane Dunlap (March 13, 2012). "KU professor researching Naismith, religion and basketball". University of Kansas. Archived from the original on October 29, 2012. Retrieved March 14, 2012. "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.
  45. ^ Murashko, Alex (2012). "John Piper: God Gave Christianity a 'Masculine Feel'". Christian Post.
  46. ^ Kimmel, Michael S. (2018). Manhood in America: A Cultural History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190612535.

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