ABSTRACT: In the mid-nineteenth century, a growing number of Christians looked at the church and noticed a distinct lack of both men and masculinity. Women outnumbered the men in seemingly all quarters, and many of the men who remained seemed feminine, emasculated by an industrialized society and a church that catered to the female sex. In response, some Protestant leaders began a movement that would come to be called Muscular Christianity. Muscular Christians sought to reach and reclaim men with a focus on practical religion and physical strength. The movement dwindled in the years after World War I, but its secularized legacy remains today, and the questions it asked still look for answers from churches facing many of the same problems.
This is the story of a time when Christianity wanted more muscle and more men. The ancient and true religion had, in the eyes of more than a few, grown flabby and soft. One prescription in the nineteenth century read, “More discipline, more mission, more muscle.” The Muscular Christianity movement, finding its peak physique in America from 1880 to 1920, concerned masculinity. As proponents saw it, “masculinity” (a term they coined to describe the rugged side of maleness) roamed the church as an increasingly endangered species.
The movement, originating in England, originally among liberal Protestants, gained momentum in America and sought to pump more testosterone into Western Christendom. Proponents attempted to treat with one cure both men’s glaring absence from the church and the thin virility of the few lads who remained.
To understand the XY-mindset of Muscular Christianity, we must first view the state of manhood as they saw it. Then we can explore the movement’s response, analyze its legacy and downfall, and finally glean a few lessons for manhood within the church today.
Before we look at the perceived deficiencies in the Victorian man, consider him first in his context. His detractors cited one major accelerant to his downfall.
Accelerant, because the crisis of masculinity in the Western church, both in its disproportion of women to men and in the quality of men it produced, predates the nineteenth century.1 Yet something significant hastened Western Christianity’s man-problem in the 1800s. “If the seeds of Christianity’s feminization were planted in the Middle Ages,” posit Brett and Kate McKay, “those seeds came to full fruition in the 19th century. The fertilizer? The Industrial Revolution.”2
Several significant shifts occurred as the West mechanized. Men left their homesteads and the untilled fields of an agrarian society for the hustle and bustle of the city. This fractured the home base, introducing the splintered modern household we know as the norm today.
Yet this move also “sapped white-collar virility.” One writer illustrates the shift, contrasting his day in 1889 to just one hundred years prior:
There was more done to make our men and women hale and vigorous than there is today. Over eighty percent of all our men then were farming, hunting, or fishing, rising early, out all day in the pure, bracing air, giving many muscles very active work, eating wholesome food, retiring early, and so laying in a good stock of vitality and health. But now hardly forty percent are farmers, and nearly all the rest are at callings — mercantile, mechanical, or professional — which do almost nothing to make one sturdy and enduring.3
“The race,” one man lamented, “was dying; dying of its own stupidity; dying from in-doorness.”4 The new professional and managerial revolution fluffed the spirit of masculinity in particular and atrophied its body. This shift away from the hard-working farmer’s ethic to urban life — with its factories, specialties, and inert office spaces — corrupted, in many minds, what came to be known as the Victorian gentleman.5
The common complaint of those top hats glancing down at pocket watches held in gloves covering trimmed nails is summarized nicely in one word: overcivilized.
“Overcivilization,” writes historian Clifford Putney, “meant excessive, body-denying intellectualism, the fruit of which was emasculation — physical and cultural.”6 Overcivilization dried the sweat and smoothed the callouses of men, leaving refined tastes, sensibilities, and decorum in their stead.
Future president, muscular Christian, and author of The Strenuous Life (1901), Teddy Roosevelt (1858–1919), a man “who transformed himself via boxing and barbells from a sickly house-bound teenager into the rough-riding, safari-going, big-stick-wielding Bull Moose of legend,”7 noted a “general tendency among people of culture and education . . . to neglect and even look down on the rougher and manlier virtues, so that an advanced state of intellectual development is too often associated with a certain effeminacy of character.”8
Putney cites Henry James’s critique in his 1886 novel The Bostonians as giving a voice to many detractors:
The whole generation is womanized; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and fake delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which, if we don’t look out, will usher in a reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been.9
The Victorian ideal of gentility, from this view, proposed that a man become the finely manicured lawn in front of the well-kept home called society — a cheap substitute for the more rugged and productive field of former times. And over time, this single development toward modernity began to wobble the perception that men belonged within Western Protestantism.
Not Your Father’s Religion
The disproportion of females to males in church has always existed on American shores. Beginning in the seventeenth century, New England church rolls record more female attendance than male — even though men outnumbered women three to two.10 Puritan preacher Cotton Mather (1663–1728) added his testimony to the fact:
There are far more Godly Women in the world than Godly Men. . . . I have seen it without going a mile from home, that in a Church of three or four hundred Communicants, there are but a few more than one hundred Men, all the rest are Women.11
Into the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the trend persisted. During the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s, the revivalist strategy was said to “approach the men through their wives.”12 Editorialists asked pertinent questions: “Why Do Men Not Go to Church?” and “Have We a Religion for Men?” The former claimed to observe that nearly three-fourths of church members were women, while the latter wondered aloud, “Is the genius of Christianity foreign to the masculine make-up?”13 Men for centuries have drawn the conclusion that “the church of God is, to a very great extent, an army of women.”14
The dawn of the industrial world did little to correct the sentiment. Men left the home to work in Babylon, exposed and infected by the dirt and grime of the secular world, while at the same time the home transformed into an Edenic realm of unpolluted mothers and children in comparison. As the public sphere grew more masculine, the home blossomed more feminine. Men left the religious instruction of children to mothers. The business world became the man’s; the Christian world was left to women, children, and soft-sounding clergy.
“Unhappily for exponents of a virile ministry,” Putney writes, “people’s reigning image of the clergyman was of someone sensitive and refined, someone more comfortable at women’s teas than at men’s sporting competitions.” Historian Ann Douglas concurs in her treatment on the time period, frankly identifying many liberal ministers as “‘mama’s boys’ whose health was fragile and whose friendships were with women.”15 While some of the most influential churches of the day escaped the critique, “the dominant churches of nineteenth-century New England had long been feminized.”16
This, to its critics, was a generational reality. Those destined for ministerial ranks were “weak, sickly boys with indoor tastes who stayed at home with their mothers and came to identify with the feminine world of religion.”17 Unitarian minister Thomas Higginson griped of Protestant churches, “They were filling the ministry with men who lacked ‘a vigorous, manly life,’ and they were encouraging parents to say of their pallid, puny, sedentary, lifeless, joyless little offspring, ‘He was born for a minister,’ while the ruddy, the brave, and the strong are as promptly assigned to a secular career!”18
“Namby-pamby” seemed one of Charles Spurgeon’s favorite criticisms in his sermons. The manly Victorian preacher, whom Andrew Bradstock connects to the Muscular movement,19 balked at the “vicious refinement” of the day.20 He preferred the so-called vulgarities of good old Saxon words, calling things by their right names, to “the namby-pamby style of modern times, in which sacred things are spoken of as if they were only meant to be whispered in drawing-rooms, and not to be uttered where men meet in everyday life.” “A man of God,” Bradstock quotes Spurgeon in his chapter by the name, “is a manly man.”21
Weekly Mother’s Day Service
As career-minded men largely chose business over leadership in churches, leadership fell to less “manly” men and, with the Sunday school movement, to women.22 Sermons bent toward females. Calvinist theology was displaced. Christ’s gentler characteristics became emphasized, along with women’s spiritual leadership in the home and the church.23
“The more feminine services became, the more men stayed away; and the more women outnumbered men in the congregation, the more ministers catered to their needs.”24 Ann Douglas describes this “symbiotic relationship” that developed between these lighter ministers and their mostly female flocks: “The ministers were caught in a vicious paradox. The women were their principal supporters. Accepting feminine help meant in part prolonging their own exile from masculine concerns; refusing it hardly guaranteed new and different adherents.”25
With this relationship intact, Douglas describes that “the Sabbath came to be heralded as a sort of weekly Mother’s Day.”26 One onlooker remarked of this trend, “There will not be men enough in heaven to sing bass, when ‘The Song of Moses and the Lamb’ is rendered by the redeemed before the Great White Throne.”27
Pushups and Practical Religion
Enter the Muscular Christianity movement — a movement focused on the practical, focused on the body, focused on the world, and focused on making boys into men.
Muscular Christianity had two main aims: to increase men’s commitment to their health and to their faith.28 That is, to take men out of a Jane Austen novel and put them into the gym and onto the battlefield for Christ. But what did this entail? The movement emphasized what they considered a brawny Christianity — manlier ministers, punchier sermons, manlier songs, a more masculine Jesus, and an emphasis on doing good in the world through the social gospel.29 “For many in Victorian England muscular Christianity meant macho,”30 writes David Rosen — though the movement had a less-than-macho origin.
Muscular Christianity did not have its birthplace in the pews or on the battleground, but rather in the pages of literature. Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley, two Englishmen fed up with the effeminacy and physical weakness tolerated in the Anglican church, began writing novels, the likes of which their derogators called “Muscular Christianity.”31
Christian Socialists, critics of a disembodied evangelicalism, and disapprovers of industrialism’s effect on English society and its men, Hughes and Kingsley promoted an athletic, patriotic, and missional manhood32 alongside “a virile, strong-armed Christianity, a man’s religion, so to speak, that melded courage and faith, spirit and body.”33
Hughes’s Tom Brown Schooldays (1857) was arguably the most successful of the novels. Filled with rugby, footraces, positive male role models and nearly an all-male cast, the book promoted an example for schoolboys of “principled strength.”34
In his book Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), Hughes gives an instructive look behind the scenes into the creed he sought to narrate in his books, as well as one key criticism of the movement he aimed to undermine:
The least of the muscular Christians has hold of the old chivalrous and Christian belief, that a man’s body is given 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. He does not hold that mere strength or activity are in themselves worthy of any respect or worship, or that one man is a bit better than another because he can knock him down, or carry a bigger sack of potatoes than he.35
Kingsley and Hughes, with many similarities and dissimilarities, took the pen to sketch out what they believed young men needed: faith, goodness, and physical strength.
Primitive Bodies, Civilized Ideals
To modern ears, the last of these three may strike us as odd. What do push-ups have to do with eternal life and faithful Christian living? The McKays helpfully summarize several lines of reasoning built within Muscular Christianity’s framework:
- Physical training builds the stamina necessary to perform service for others.
- Physical strength leads to moral strength and good character.
- Sports provided a platform to evangelize the unchurched.
- Physical sports and exercise connect boys and men with masculinity.36
And recall the backdrop of “overcivilization” nagging at the Muscular Christian’s mind. Sitting, typing, and managing did not properly steward the strength given from God to men for worldwide good.
In the best of the movement, power did not serve as an end in itself, as voiced by Hughes. The Muscular Christian did not want to simply travel back in time “to do preindustrial chores such as hunting and farming; [the body] had a higher purpose. Instead of just being a tool for labor, the body was viewed by muscular Christians as a tool for good, an agent to be used on behalf of social progress in world uplift.” The goal was “primitive bodies to further civilized ideals.”37
The creed that upheld this? The social gospel, which emphasized practicing the social ethic of Christianity, but to the minimizing of orthodox belief. “Convinced that the archetypal buttoned-down Victorian gentleman was ill-equipped to handle the challenges posed by modernity, many Progressives proposed a new model for manhood, one that stressed action rather than reflection and aggression rather than gentility.” Given this world uplift, and the chiseled arms of Christian men holding it up, all attainable health became a duty; all avoidable sickness, a sin.38
To highlight a few more specifics of the movement, we look to the legacy. What came of this predominantly liberal Protestant movement that peaked in America from the 1880s to the 1920s?
David slayed a giant, Jacob wrestled the angel, Jesus and his disciples walked miles, and Muscular Christians prepared their bodies for good works in places still in operation today. The foremost being the YMCA.
Many modern readers will be surprised to realize that the YMCA, the Young Men’s Christian Association, was originally just that: a Christian organization. And many more will be surprised that the first iterations in England and the U.S. did not have what many consider their trademark today: gyms.
At first its purpose was simply the evangelization of young men in the cities through traditional means: tent meetings, street corner preaching, and pamphleteering. But once the New York City “Y” pioneered the use of gymnasia as a means of Christian outreach in 1869, English YMCAs generally followed suit.39
The YMCA used gyms to attract the interest of boys not interested in Bible studies and teas, and sought to give them purpose: committed souls to Christ and fit bodies for social service. Muscular Christianity even aggressively promoted mission work, in conjunction with the acclaimed Student Volunteer Movement, as hard work, heroic work — manly work.
But as we can see from modern-day YMCAs, the focus grew more and more secular, less about souls and more about “character building” and fitness for its own sake.40 Factions deepened between religious instructors and the ex-circus men who typically led the gymnastics instruction. The weaker brother complained about the “physical department being unmanageable and a disgrace to the Association,” and the stronger about the “spider-legged, namby-pamby hypocrites in management who want them to play girls’ games.”41 The latter eventually unseated for former, serving as a parable for the whole movement.
The Muscular movement did not just focus on the brawn of its current men, but gave attention to its future men — a future many in the movement considered bleak. The schools they considered too bookish, too sanitized, too domestic under its “army of women teachers” who were unfit to impart a masculine education.42 The church, with its Sunday schools also “manned by women,” could not give the “hero-worshiper” a suitable champion to imitate.43 Therefore, they created youth “gangs” such as the Boys Brigade, Knights of King Arthur, and the most successful, the Boy Scouts.
The Boy Scouts took spirited boys and taught them to hone the inner (and sometimes buried) primitive inclinations on camping trips away from their mothers. It “took ‘sissified’ boys from the suburbs and sent them on rigorous trips into the forest . . . to endow white boys with ‘brute strength’ and basic survival skills.”44 Going the way of the Y, character building and wholesome values eventually outstripped its initial spiritual component, transforming it into the secular-humanist project we know today.
“By far the biggest impact of Muscular Christianity,” write the McKays, “has to do with the way it shifted societal perceptions of physicality.”45 Our sports and fitness culture today, detached as it is from faith, is Muscular Christianity’s greatest legacy.
Prior to the movement, Protestant America frowned upon sport. Historian Richard Swanson adduces four reasons:
- The belief that recreation distracted from spiritual devotion.
- The belief that recreation wasted time.
- The belief that recreation stood as a gateway to taverns and gambling.
- The belief that recreation would prove too addictive for fallen human nature.46
The movement helped breach these assumptions, storming the shores of American culture and making way for the all-too-addictive fitness and sport culture common today — a culture that neo-muscular Christian movements today try to utilize for better purposes.47
Atrophy of a Movement
The peak, at least in its more successful American iteration, came to a close in the 1920s. After 1920, Putney writes, “pacifism, cynicism, church decline, and the devaluation of male friendships combined to undercut muscular Christianity — at least within the mainline Protestant churches.”48
The Great War dealt a mighty blow to muscular rhetoric. The aftermath of WWI
extinguished much of the energetic idealism of the previous decades, and replaced it with disillusionment and cynicism. There wasn’t much societal appetite for talk of keeping one’s body in fighting shape, nor of the celebration of masculine, battle-related virtues like courage or honor. Notions of Christian chivalry got significantly muddied in the trenches.49
The end of WWI dampened the nationalistic zeal and clouded the nation in cynicism concerning the need for fit, soldier-ready bodies.
Along with this cynicism came a devaluation of the church and religion in general. Alternative answers to life’s hard questions arose. A new religion survived, less interested in saving the world as it was “being good to yourself.”50 Radios and cars, a new era of entertainment, and golf on Sundays took hacks at religious commitment. Pastoral authority also waned, giving way to the psychologist.51 The soothing tones of the therapist drowned out the muscular sergeant’s voice calling for fit bodies and world uplift.
O Men, Where Art Thou?
This has been the story of a time when Christianity wanted more muscle and more men. And it is a story relevant for today.
While we may chafe at some of the theology behind Muscular Christianity, many ask the same questions that prompted the movement. In his book Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow cites a Barna study that found women to be
- 57 percent more likely to participate in adult Sunday school,
- 54 percent more likely to participate in a small group,
- 46 percent more likely to disciple others, and
- 39 percent more likely to have a devotional time or quiet time.52
With all of its flaws (many left unmentioned above), what can we learn from the Muscular Christian movement just beginning to decline one century ago?
Reclaim the Body
God’s design for man is as assaulted today as it is underappreciated. Muscular Christianity is an enigma to modern ears, in part, because we have an anemic theology of the body.
We too fail to celebrate raw masculine strength. Anthony Esolen gives us one example, casting men as world-builders:
Every road you see was laid by men. Every house, church, every school, every factory, every public building was raised by the hands of men. You eat with a stainless-steel fork; the iron was mined and the carbon was quarried by men. . . . The whole of your civilization rests upon the shoulders of men who have done work that most people will not do — and that the physically weaker sex could not have done.53
“Dominion over the world, even in the postindustrial West, still needs the strength of men. Good men. Christ’s men.”
Men, despite what our silence on the topic may suggest, are embodied creatures. Our souls remain framed in strength given to cultivate and construct civilization. Dominion over the world, even in the postindustrial West, still needs the strength of men. Good men. Christ’s men.
So while Paul says bodily training is of some value (1 Timothy 4:8), and Muscular Christianity may have posited too much value, we must not think it is of no value. Though the eternal soul takes precedence over the temporal body, the man is never just his soul. Can we wonder long why the world stands confused as to what a man or a woman even is anymore?
Reclaim the Heroic
How many men, especially within the church, view the Christian life as heroic? How many feel the adrenaline pump, the stiff wind of purpose greeting the face and animating them to the helm of life, steering for the harder way?
It may sound counterintuitive, but men retreat instead of rally when trumpets do not sound alarms of war. They grow bored and listless, and they will not easily forfeit their strength on unworthy pursuits. Is what Josiah Strong observed in 1901 untrue?
There is not enough of effort, of struggle, in the typical church life of today to win young men to the church. A flowery bed of ease does not appeal to a fellow who has any manhood in him. The prevailing religion is too comfortable to attract young men who love the heroic.54
“Jesus looks at young men and promises them discomfort, sacrifice, and death. Minimize this call and you forfeit men.”
Jesus looks at young men and promises them discomfort, sacrifice, and death. Minimize this call and you forfeit men. God made me for this. Muscular Christianity attempted to awaken the daring in men. They knew that if you “promise young men battles instead of feasts, swords instead of prizes, campaigns instead of comforts . . . the heroic which lies deep in every man will leap in response.”55
Without losing the gospel or the focus on Jesus Christ and the immortal soul, the Christian religion must never lose its genre as epic. We live in a greater story than we find in Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or Star Wars or Gladiator. “To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7).
Reclaim the Hero
Muscular Christianity worked tirelessly to rescue the one-sided image of Christ. The gentle Lamb often brings little resistance, but what of the “lion . . . marked by traits like justice, boldness, power, and self-mastery . . . Jesus the carpenter, the desert camper, the whip-cracker”?56
Many men today have refused to follow Jesus not because they have seen “the man Christ Jesus” himself (1 Timothy 2:5) and turned away from his summons. They have turned from the soft-to-touch, cuddle-up-in-green-pastures, silky-hair-and-whispering parody. True — he does lay his sheep down in green pastures; he does lead them beside still waters. But he can do both because his rod and his staff comfort us (Psalm 23:4). Sheep do not feel safe to lie down where their shepherd cannot defend them from wolves. Jesus is worshiped as Lamb because he ever lives as Lion.
“Men must see the Jesus of the Scriptures, not the sentimentalized substitute.”
Men must see the Jesus of the Scriptures, not the sentimentalized substitute. They must see the Commander of the Lord’s armies, the Lord of lords, the Master, the Ruler of the kings on earth, the Son of Man, the Alpha and Omega, the man of war, the Son of the Most High God. The one who did not have his life taken from him but lays it down of his own accord; the one who wields the scepter and wears the crown; the one to whom all must swear fealty, bowing and kissing his ring; the Hero of the story who commands all men everywhere to repentance and faith, for he has fixed a day to judge the world (Acts 17:30–31).
This is the King of kings, who invites us, even men, to follow him and reign with him, forever.
Credit: Greg Morse