Muscular Christianity, Anyone?

Christian bikers at a convention. Image:

Christian bikers at a convention. Image:

I was intrigued by a research paper from Leeds University (UK) and Christians in Sport: The Development of Muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain and Beyond. You can read the full text here.

It seems the term “muscular Christianity” was coined in the 1850s in a review of a novel by Anglican priest and author, Charles Kingsley. Across the Atlantic, Theodore Roosevelt was a keen advocate (read more here).

It was an age where industry was mechanising many processes, leaving working people more time for leisure than before. There were also threats of war with several nations, and key voices of the day proclaimed the need to raise up young future leaders. These, they said, needed to combine the moral character of Christianity with physical strength and fitness.


A friend of Kingsley, Thomas Hughes, author of the much-loved novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, distinguished between “musclemen” (athletes without Christian faith) and “muscular Christians”. “The only point in common between the two is that both hold it to be a good thing to have strong and well-exercised bodies. Here all likeness ends. [The Christian belief is] “that a man’s body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection, then used for the protection of the weak and the advancement of all righteous causes.”

The writers of the research paper discuss the role of Muscular Christianity thinking in, for example, the foundation of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and even the modern Olympic Games, begun by Baron de Coubertin in 1896. They also cover opposition to the concept by equally weighty figures like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who foresaw the physical emphasis outstripping morality and the aspects of the heart.

I recommend the article for your own reading and further study. I would also appreciate hearing any comments you may have.






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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

6 responses to “Muscular Christianity, Anyone?”

  1. lillbjorne says :

    Have you read Catherine Booth’s ‘Aggressive Christianity’ from the same era?

  2. revkamcclain says :

    Saw this and your article on Eric Liddell. I also ran into Muscular Christianity recently and was quite intrigued. I blogging about it right now trying to learn something about Men’s Ministry from this movement.

    I will check out the article you speak of here.

    Looks like we share a desire to learn about ministry from a study of the past. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  3. Jennifer says :

    Interesting idea, and obviously we are looking at something historical. Maintaining the body temple is mandated, and yet at what point does this become less wholesome? At what point does it become aggressive, arrogant and about a personal pride. We can so easily displace the Christ within with inflated ideas about ourselves! There is a fair bit of narcissim in the culture today. Not to mention the vigilante overtones. IT looks threatening/provocative to me to see ranks of muscular men, in a kind of identikit outfit out in public.
    I cultivate bodily health, out of respect for the body I have been given and the love of the Father who created me. I think there is a case for more Christians to be supported to cultivate higher levels of health – consider the Seventh Day Adventists who have some of the most impressive longevity stats currently. Err, I think I’m rambling, thanks for the opportunity to comment. Peace to all.

  4. John Vagabond says :

    Very thought-provoking. The movement had a rather shameful history of imperialist thinking, bordering on eugenics, which found fertile ground not only in Victorian British public schools but later in 1930’s Germany. I think a new, different masculine paradigm has emerged since Tom Brown’s robust defence of the weak won him support, and the British Empire, as well as Waterloo, was ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’. I wonder why the ‘battledress uniform’ in the image distresses me so much, perhaps I’m more with Cardinal Newman here: “There have been Protestants whose idea of enlightened Christianity has been a strenuous antagonism to what they consider the unmanliness and unreasonableness of Catholic morality, and antipathy to the precepts of patience, meekness, forgiveness of injuries, and chastity. All this they have considered a woman’s religion.”

  5. sch0larly says :

    Thanks for your comments, Jennifer and John. They are much appreciated. In Victorian times, as now, there is a ‘cleft stick’: how to foster courage, daring, vision, dream and action in Christian men without it overbalancing into aggressive “machismo”. This has only recently made big headlines through the controversial figure of Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill Fellowship). This article gives a solid overview:

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