Protestants, Sports, and Manhood

This is one in a series of guest posts authored by students in an undergraduate course I taught during Spring 2014, “Protestantism and the Development of American Culture.” Each student’s task was to write an informative essay explaining some way that Protestants have shaped (or tried to shape) American culture. Students knew that their essays would be posted to this blog, so they would have a real-world online audience.

Students are entirely responsible for the content and quality of their essays; I am merely the vehicle for broadcasting them (though on the whole I’m reasonably pleased with the results).


Protestants, Sports, and Manhood
By Andrew Roussos

Every year as summer rolls in children get out of school and have months to play and enjoy their adolescence. Some ride their bikes, others go swimming but many young boys take to the baseball diamond for a season of competition. Parents cheer on the bleachers after every hit ball and stolen base as they pass the time chatting with neighbors. It is a truly communal activity which has deep roots in almost every town in America. But little do these children know they are engaging in activities used to promote and idea of “Christian manliness”. Around the turn of the century Protestants promoted a competitive sporting and physical education culture to create this idea of Christian manliness. Through this Protestants helped shape many aspects of sports which are today considered norms.

Muscular Christianity

The idea of a manly Christian is as old as the religion itself although not always at the center of it. We can look at the bible and find references to this idea of strength and health. In first Corinthians chapter 6 verses 19-20 we see a clear example of this “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies”. This is a direct calling to Christians to maintain their body in honor of their God.

With the birth of Protestantism by Marin Luther in 1517, Christians’ views on labor and physical work was brought more into focus. This was mainly due to Calvinists. This group of Protestants emphasized the importance of hard work. Czech theologian Johann Amos Comenius suggested dividing the day into three periods “eight hours for sleep, eight hours for work, and the remaining eight hours for eating, cleaning, and recreating the body” (Goldbach 291).Though Calvinist did not approve of sports, more liberal protestants saw physical activity as a way that men can build up their bodies so that they may work harder during the next day. Even Martin Luther was a propionate of exercise “for the reason of public health and national defense” (Putney 51).

This prayer from the 1906 story The Apostate by Jack London is a great example of how Protestants viewed work. “Now I wake me up to work. I pray the lord I may not shirk. If I should die before the night, I pray the Lord my works’ all right.”

Although roots of Christian manliness trace back thousands of years the now popular term Muscular Christianity is relatively new. It first came about in a “1857 English review Charles Kingsley’s novel Two years ago” (11). From then it was used in many different writings. The term was also used to describe a genre of writing “adventure novels replete with high principles and manly Christian heroes. Muscular Christianity did not have just one definition. Many theologians and authors had slightly different takes on what this term should represent. Kingsley for example viewed it as “a cleaver expression spoken in jest” (15) whereas English author and writer Thomas Hughes view a muscular Christian as “someone who used their bodies for the advancement of all righteous causes” (15).

Rise of Sports in the Church

It wasn’t until a few decades before of the century that Americans paid any attention to organized sports. The first collegiate sports team was formed around this time. Yale, which at the time was a strict protestant college started a rowing team. Soon followed by other (protestant) Ivy League schools Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth & Penn. This gave rise to the “first intercollegiate competition between Yale and Harvard on Lake Winnipesaukee” (46) in 1852. This was a new ear for American culture. Organized sports were starting to gain attention. Many historians understand the “post-bellum years a golden age for athletic competition” (44).

The saying “body as temple”, taken from the Bible verse from first Corinthians began to take hold in “prep school addresses, college sermons and YMCA periodicals” (56). The Protestant church liked this idea but wanted also include “moral leadership in athletics” (57). Thus the church began to associate with organized sports to promote these values.

Churches began to build their own facilities such as gymnasiums, baths & swimming pools. Decades earlier this would have not even come into question. It shows the modernization of the more liberal end of the Protestant church. They used these facilities to not only help increase their membership but also to keep youths out of trouble by giving them an alternate solution to their recreational time.

The Young Men’s Christian Association

You might now this organization as the YMCA. A classic American Christian group with athletic facilities in almost every city in America. The YMCA we know of today is vastly different than its original makeup. It was founded in England in 1844 and came to America seven years later. The YMCA was trying to provide a “home away from home” (65) for young boys. Usually including a library, rooms for scripture reading and discussion, and furniture for relaxation.

It wasn’t until a major expansion by the YMCA did the youth organization begin to resemble the athletic clubs we know today. Starting in 1878 wealth businessmen donated millions of dollars in an effort to “Christianize the laboring man” (66). With this expansion came a shift in ideals, putting more emphasis on the building of character rather in young men rather than keeping them from sin. This was done by having a strenuous and “hard” environment.

Outdoor camping was one way they strove to achieve this, trying to create a manly man who can live in the outdoors. Another was exercise. This is a practice used in every high school football team in America. Training young men & pushing them to their limits in the hop of building tough men with character. By the turn of the century four hundred and fifty-five YMCAs had fully operational gyms in use.

Basketball, a sport that is outrageously popular throughout all ages of men in America was conceived and spread thanks to the YMCA. Reverend James Naismith developed the game of basketball in 1891 at the request of Luther Gulick the superintendent of the physical education department of the International YMCA Training School. Soon after the game spread quickly thought the YMCAs across the nation. Giving birth to a sport which has been played by young men for over 100 years.

Having the YMCA shift its focus to physical activity and education, changed how thousands of young men viewed sports and competition. This Christian organization directly affected the popularity of organized sports though the values they instilled in youths. Luther Gulick stressed the relationship between religion and athletics. He stated in a bible study in 1915 that “the risen Jesus is a member of every gymnasium class, of every athletic team in which there are Christians, whether we are conscious of it or not” (71).

 From Boys to Men

Although the YMCA has strived to toughen young boys into men with character, during the progressive era many middle aged Protestants feared that their male children would not be able to compete in a world where females were gaining professional ground and with the large influx of immigration. They were worried their boys would become “social parasites” rather than “social assets” (100). Citizens blamed schools and churches, accusing them of failing in their responsibilities to properly educated young men.

The most influential organization in improving the character of these boys were mainline Protestant churches. They help create “boys’ boarding schools, out-door camping, and the Boys’ Brigade” (116). It was also the churches close ties with the Boy Scouts of America which helped keep young boys involved in church. Many churches sponsored Boy Scout troops, which turned out to be a great alternative to Sunday school which had a “ultra-feminine atmosphere” according to Fred Smith leader of the Men and Religion Forward movement.

The ability for the church to help raise these boys also proved its worth to the community. They are saving the children from poor morals and ideals. Rather than the previous method of amusing boys in order to gain attendance the church switched to service. Investing in young men so that they might become strong Christian heroes in the future. The essences of muscular Christianity.

The Legacy of the Church

Sports and athletic culture are deeply imbedded into American life. From boyhood to manhood, males are constantly playing and competing in organized sports. So much of these emphasis is the legacy of the Protestant church. From the development of the mainly Christian and the roots it has in scripture to the development and spreading of new sports. Basketball a multibillion dollar industry has stood the test of time thanks to the Protestant YMCA. As first Corinthians says “Body as temple” American society reflects this today more than ever.

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