The Religious Origins of Sports in America

by Adam Park

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For far too long, lamented Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1858, “the saints have been ‘ashamed of their bodies.’”[1] For Higginson, Christians had failed to realize the interconnectedness between body and spirit. Christians needed something more physically robust. And as it so happened, America’s bourgeoning physical culture movement was ideal. Noting development of a certain social trend in the early Victorian period, one scholar described the movement as “a tradition which celebrated the Christian gentleman as vigorous, athletic, and manly.”[2] With the “cult of sport and games” in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, this scholar wrote, such “Muscular Christianity” was seen “as a needed corrective to the feminine influence in religion.”[3] Simply put, there were too many women and not enough men in church. Christianity needed more masculine appeal, and physical culture provided. The point? Christians popularized physical culture and sports in America, and they did so by critiquing the fragility of women and the pervasive problem of womanly ways.

Sports provided a medium for the inculcation of manly Christian values. As evangelist, physician, founding superintendent of the Physical Education Department of the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, head of physical training in NYC public schools, and President of the American Physical Education Association, Luther Halsey Gulick, Jr. put it: “athletics are primarily” “moral in their nature.”[1] Furthermore, “a boy does not have honesty become a part of his character until it has worked out in action, until he does the thing that is honest of his own volition, until this has become a part of his organic nature.”[2] Sports simultaniously forged strong Christian bodies and souls. At the behest of Gulick, then, James Naismith invented basketball for such ends. Indeed, the Lord worked in sporty ways.

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Beginning in the late-nineteenth century when a “positive value [was] put on male passions” and “the body itself became a vital component of manhood,” historical figures like Gulick and Naismith, in E. Anthony Rotundo’s telling, sought to masculinize what was feminized by participation in various sports and physical activities.[1] The formation of games and entertainment as well as young men’s clubs and organizations were key. Others scholars agree. In Manhood in America, Michael Kimmel put the late-nineteenth century social sentiment in perhaps its most simple terms, as a “crisis of masculinity.” Since “the goal of Muscular Christianity was to revirilize the image of Jesus and thus remasculinize the Church,” the causal rejoinder to feminization in Kimmel’s narrative was the popularization of sport and play.[2] To save the body was to save the soul. Men ought be men, as it were, as God intended … in sports.

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This combination of Christianity, masculinity, and physical culture made room for a reimagining of Jesus. In the words of YMCA employee and baseball-player-turned-evangelist, Billy Sunday, “the manliest man is the man who will acknowledge Jesus Christ”; in fact, Jesus “was the greatest scrapper that ever lived.”[1] Individuals like Bruce Barton, author of the best-selling book, The Man Nobody Knows, spoke similarly. Barton decried the loss of Jesus’ true masculine identity to be the result of the aforementioned “feminization” of Christianity. Even on painted canvas, according to these theological interlocutors, Jesus had become tantamount to a bearded lady. Thus, more masculine images of Jesus (as represented by James Tissot’s studies of Christ and, even more so, Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ) and their popular acceptance was indicative of the “assimilation of Christ to the cult of virility,” as David Morgan argues.[2] Morgan even points out that in the mid twentieth century, Sallman’s Head of Christ was distributed by the YMCA to its members as one of its methods of advertising. Americans were fond of this newly invigorated Christianity. “Lord save us,” Billy Sunday prayed, “from the off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, sissified, three-carat Christianity.”

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[1] Stephen Prothero, American Jesus, 94.

[2] David Morgan, Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images, 113.

[1] E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era, 5 and 6.

[2] Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History, 177.

[1] Luther Halsey Gulick, “Team Games and Civic Loyalty,” 14:9 The School Review (November 1906): 676.

[2] Ibid., 677.

[1] Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “Saints and Their Bodies,” The Atlantic 1:5 (1858): 582.

[2] Gerald Franklin Roberts, “The Strenuous Life: The Cult of Manliness in the Era of Theodore Roosevelt,” 52.

[3] Ibid., 52. Roberts’ work even includes a chapter on “The Feminine Threat to Manliness.”

2 thoughts on “The Religious Origins of Sports in America

  1. This post had a unique way of comparing sports with religion. It was interesting how they used sports as a way to increase the amount of males to attend church. This post talks about females attending church and relates that to males playing a sport or physical activity. However, I don’t really understand why the combination of Christianity, masculinity and physical culture reshaped the image of Jesus? Why didn’t Jesus remain the way he was portrayed, as a “bearded lady” according to the post, considering the religious culture more favored the females at this point in time? This may be a stretch but did this show the separation in power between men and women during this time period? This is probably why the term, “Muscular Christianity” came into play. I would assume that this idea of “the manliest man is the man who will acknowledge Jesus Christ” was created after the reimaging of Jesus. This post was in the end very interesting to me. Bring up various different ideas that made me curious.

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    • Muscular Christianity was, more or less, a critique of what was seen as an antiquated and misguided theology that sought to save the soul to spite the body. MC was a critique of a world-denying theology that privileged aestheticism and denial of the body. The theology that MC promoted, then, was one where Jesus was a robust, active figure. Not the withered, atrophied person depicted in medieval paintings. MC was concerned not only with the health of males, however. Females also were seen as being in need of physical salvation. Hence the founding of the Young Women’s Christian Association. And so, while MC was critical of “femininity,” it was not entirely a critique of females. Males and females both, were subject to the detrimental effects of culturally induced femininity and a sedentary lifestyle.

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