A Physical Culture Classic that Everyone Should Know


By Adam Park

Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s 1858 article, “Saints and Their Bodies,” named a problem, a problem that gave voice to a bourgeoning American physical culture movement then, and for years to come. So articulated, the problem concerned nothing less than the spiritual and physical health of the Creator’s most precious creations. “By spiritual laws,” he iconoclastically wrote, the saints “have usually been sinners against physical laws.” Cultural norms wreaked havoc. An antiquated and misguided theology prevailed. “The medieval type of sanctity was a strong soul in a weak body,” Higginson bemoaned, such that “the saints have been ‘ashamed of their bodies.’” The malnourished, atrophied ascetic was the ideal. Higginson took issue. In their collective attempt to save souls, the pious had damned bodies. But theirs was a religion of bad faith, in “non-intercourse with the physical world,” a denial of a fundamental reality which had left “bodies exhausted.” The problem was endemic not only to a mistaken theology, but to culture more broadly. For Higginson, many people ate wrong, they overtaxed the brain, they sat too much, they didn’t go outside enough, and they neglected their instinctual inclination to play. A healthful, vigorous life was lost on both Christian and non. And this needn’t be. Reaching out to anyone enfleshed, Higginson foregrounded the question: “where are the advocates of the body to look for comfort?”

For Higginson, this bodily problem was a uniquely American one, and it had a completely foreign solution. Indeed, there was a “deficiency of physical health in America,” which was in “need of great amendment.” Men, women, and children alike were in jeopardy. All Americans had to do was look to Canada for examples of a “more athletic race of people than our own,” he claimed. Atrophied and sickly, “American men” have not carried their “athletic habits into manhood.” And those athletic habits and playful instincts present from youth, had been all but banned by American public schools. “One seldom notices a ruddy face in the school-room,” Higginson said, “without tracing it back to a Transatlantic origin.” So poor is the American treatment of youth, in fact, that “at present, boys are annually sent across the Atlantic simply for bodily training.” Furthermore, “all young female animals unquestionably require as much motion as their brothers.” Too stagnant were American youths, boys and girls. The in-door life impacted woman as well, Higginson noted, as “far more out-door exercise is habitually taken by the female population of almost all European countries than by our own.” Lost in a detrimental milieu of misguided theologies and neglectful cultural norms, American vitality was at an all-time low. Better bodies, better exemplary practices were elsewhere. Enfeebled Americans needed to borrow, or get creative.

This American problem, according to Higginson, should also look to First Principle guidance. “Nature” was key. The “physical laws” that Americans had “disobeyed” suggested collective defiance for the teleology of Creation, for the fulfillment of God’s plan. The purpose of a soul was not to spite its body. The “secret charm” of playful activities and sports—like cricket, football, rowing, and baseball—Higginson argued, was “that they bring us into more familiar intercourse with Nature.” American adults had neglected their natural inclination to play, and worst yet, had disallowed for the playful expressions of their progeny. The “physical laws” were clear though. He wrote, “boy-nature is too strong for theory.” Look to the children for their instinctual knowledge of God’s plan. “We must not ignore the play-impulse in human nature,” Higginson implored. Ironically enough, God purposed his most precious creation for the seemingly purposelessness activity of game playing. “Meet Nature,” Higginson concluded, “on the cricket ground or at the regatta; swim with her, ride with her, run with her, and she gladly takes you back once more within the horizon of her magic, and your heart of manhood is born again into more than fresh happiness of the boy.”

For physical culturalists like Higginson, somewhere along the line, western civilization had gotten in the way, and had gone awry. Men, women, and children, were all subject its deleterious and insalubrious effects. The laws of Creation and the dictates of Culture were misaligned. In its quest to be modern, American modernity forsook basic human needs. It distorted bodies. It perverted minds. It sullied spirits. It rendered children un-childlike, women unwomanly, and men unmanly.

Reform-minded physical culturalists have been around a long time. Then as now, such physical culturalists are still reforming, bringing Word of a more physically robust Christianity along with them. To put it most simply, there used to be this …


Now there’s this …


And this …

Members of the Southern California and Penn State football teams pray after the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game in Pasadena, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009. USC won 38-24. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Members of the Southern California and Penn State football teams pray after the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game in Pasadena, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 1, 2009. USC won 38-24. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

And Rich Fronings …


Or this …


Adam Park is a Ph.D. Candidate at Florida State University. He spends his lackluster days chiseling away at his dissertation. He can be harassed at park353@gmail.com.

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