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. 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.
The ideals of ‘Muscular Christianity’ were taken up by a number of Evangelical groups in Victorian and Edwardian times. They recognised the compatibility of sport and Christianity, but their ethos differed from Kingsley’s, which was largely liberal and high Church. As evangelicals, they emphasised that sport, though a valid recreational activity, must come second to gospel ministry.
A shining example is Eric Liddell, Olympic athlete, international rugby player, and Christian missionary. His story became widely known through the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire (1981). He was born in 1902 in Tianjin, China, son of a Church of Scotland missionary. At school in England he showed great athletic ability, and was the fastest man in Scotland by the time he was a student; he was nicknamed “the Flying Scotsman”, after a locomotive.
Selected for the 1924 Paris Olympics, Liddell made headlines by refusing to run in a 100 metres heat on Sunday, on conscience grounds. He was forced to withdraw from his best event. A compromise agreement let him race in the 400 metres. As he went to the starting blocks for the final, an American team masseur slipped a piece of paper into his hand with a the words: “Those who honour me I will honour” (1 Samuel 2:30). Liddell ran and won Olympic gold – but also the respect and admiration of millions.
Liddell returned to China and from 1925-43 was a missionary in Hebei province, a region of great poverty but also great danger from Japanese aggression in the run-up to World War 2. He taught in schools, coaching boys in Christian truth and in sport, and helped design a sports stadium, where he continued to run when he could.
His physical toughness and discipline were matched by iron principles. When the Japanese were attacking China, Liddell rescued two wounded Chinese soldiers, despite the significant risk involved. He refused to travel with an armed guard when visiting the sick and needy, even though he could have been shot on sight. Relying on a gun instead of God was not acceptable to him. The situation grew so dangerous that the British government advised its nationals to leave the country. Liddell’s family left, but he stayed to work at a mission station set up to help the poor.
In 1943 he was interned by the Japanese in a large camp at Weifang. When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill heard of it, he used his influence to secure Liddell’s freedom in a prisoner exchange. But Liddell declined and instead offered his place to a pregnant woman who was also in the camp, so that not only she but also her unborn child might be spared. This decision was especially costly since he had a wife and three daughters he had not seen in well over a year.
The bedrock of these principles is clear from something he wrote in his Morning Prayers for Schools: “Obedience to God’s will is the secret of spiritual knowledge and insight. It is not willingness to know, but willingness to DO [obey] God’s will that brings certainty.”
However, Liddell’s health was failing. What he did not know was that he had developed an inoperable brain tumour. Even so, he served tirelessly at the camp (this link gives more details). He sorted arguments by refereeing a football or hockey match! He did all he could to keep men and boys in good physical shape. He died in 1945, honoured by all, and was buried behind the officers’ quarters. His grave was only rediscovered in 1989.
It should be noted that the Muscular Christianity ethos had serious flaws, gaps in its thinking, which could be exploited to take the movement down a wrong road. Read this well-researched piece on The Brutal Legacy of the Muscular Christian Movement.
In AD635, two men were sent out on apostolic missions and, in the face of great dangers, broke through with the gospel in unreached lands. Aidan was a fiery Irishman, Alopen a refined Persian. Both were monks, both gifted communicators. Entirely independently, both were commissioned and sent to start churches: one at the North-West frontier of civilisation, the other in the far East. Aidan became the Apostle of northern England, Alopen the Apostle to China. Despite their extraordinary linked destiny, they never met or even knew of each other.
Britain at the turn of the 600s was a battleground of warring tribal kingdoms, most of them pagan. A Christian prince named Oswald was sent to the Celtic monastery on the Scottish island of Iona for his own safety. In 634 he felt ready to deliver his kingdom, Northumbria, in the north of England. He defeated the invaders and was crowned king.
One of his first acts was to ask Iona to send someone to convert his pagan subjects. An envoy was sent but returned saying that the Northumbrians were obstinate barbarians, beyond redemption! At this, an Irish monk named Aidan spoke up: it was foolish to expect pagans to accept the strict rules of a Celtic monastery – they must be met on their own level, with grace and humility. For this, Aidan himself was appointed for the apostolic mission to re-evangelise the north of England. It was AD 635.
He established his base on Lindisfarne, an island off the east coast, which became known as Holy Island. Why an island? Because road travel was dangerous because of robbers, and much of the business of life was done by sea. From here teams went out with the gospel, planting churches and establishing centres at Melrose, Jarrow and Whitby. By the time he died in 651, Northumbria was almost wholly evangelised.
Aidan succeeded by developing key relationships with those who helped to expand the work, and by wise and creative planning. He didn’t do all the work himself – at first, he couldn’t even speak the language but needed interpreters. He appointed and trusted many workers. Other noted Celtic saints, Hild (or Hilda), Chad and Cuthbert, built up important ministries under his covering.
But Aidan was a communicator. He could empathise. Any gifts he received from the wealthy, he gave to the poor. This included a fine stallion given to him by the king. The king was furious, but Aidan replied: “Is the son of a mare more important to you than a son of God?” The humbled king knelt and asked forgiveness.
Aidan’s primary witness was through the genuineness of his life. He refused personal gain, showed no partiality (rebuking kings when they needed it), and practised rigorous self-denial. If the king came to Lindisfarne, he had to eat the same food as the monks and beggars. Aidan’s approach was “Do as I do”, not “Do as I say”, and because his life was open to all, people gladly followed and the Church was built.
ALOPEN: APOSTLE OF THE EAST
In ancient times, China was better known in the West than you might suppose. For centuries a trade route called the Silk Road had linked China with Persia and the West. Arab and Persian merchants settled in China, and Chinese envoys reached ancient Rome. But by the 5th and 6th centuries, tribal wars had shut the Silk Road and made China a closed empire.
The arrival of the T’ang Dynasty (AD 618-877) changed all this. The Chinese army crushed the rebels and a golden age of Chinese culture began. The capital, Chang-an (modern Xi-an), was the largest walled city ever built, with two million inhabitants. The reopening of the Silk Road in 632 brought a new cosmopolitan flavour. The Emperor, T’ai Tsung (known today as Taizong), tolerated all religions and encouraged the discussion of foreign ideas.
The Church saw its opportunity and took it. In 635, the Assyrian archbishop Yeshuyab sent an apostolic team, led by a learned and wise monk named Alopen. They accompanied a traders’ camel train and arrived at Chang-an.
Alopen had done his homework. He knew the very formal Chinese culture and the need to avoid open war with the Buddhists. So for three years, he and Chinese converts worked on the first Christian book in the Chinese language: The Sutra of Jesus Messiah. A sutra was the way Buddhists presented their teachings, as a series of discourses. Alopen was playing them at their own game.
Much reads strangely to Western ears: Jesus is “the Heaven-Honoured One”, the “Master of the Victorious Law”, who has sent “the Pure Breeze” (the Holy Spirit) from “our Three-One”. But the Emperor was pleased with what he read and in 638 made a decree: Alopen’s religion was “wonderful, spontaneous, producing perception and establishing essentials for the salvation of creatures and the benefit of man“. The Emperor commanded that a Christian religious centre be built from public funds in the Western merchants’ quarter of the city.
From this base, with a core of just 21 Christians, the gospel spread out into the land. Four regional centres were built and by the time of the next Emperor, Kuo Tsung, there were churches in ten provinces. Alopen was made bishop (or in the quaint Chinese, “Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire”) and the Church was able to put down firm roots in China – which it would need when persecution was unleashed by Empress Wu in 690.
The New Testament says that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-20). By their labours, endurance, anointing and above all love, they become fathers to the churches, as Paul, Peter and the others did in the Early Church. It may still be debated whether there are apostles today of the calibre and stamp of Jesus’ Twelve, but the apostolic heart should be something we long to see outpoured more and more, if the Church is regain (and retain) her radicality.
Marie Monsen (1878-1962) is a name held in high honour among Christians in China, yet she is barely known in the West, even in her native Norway.
In 1900, a nationalist uprising in China, the ‘Boxer Rebellion‘, had seen many foreign missionaries slaughtered. Suspicion and fear were everywhere. Even so, Monsen travelled alone to Henan province in September 1901, to work for the Lutheran China Mission Association. Not long after her arrival, she fell down some stairs and hit her head so hard that she was unconscious several days. The trauma left her unable to study language for two years. For six years she suffered debilitating headaches, as well as dysentery, malaria, pain, and frustration. The first 20 years of her service were God’s learning curve for her, causing her to be constantly aware of her weakness and to cast herself on Him in constant dependence. Marie learned the power of endurance. This blog post from Sarah Alexander gives more details.
Monsen’s devotional life was her mainstay. taken to a new level in the 1927 Shantung Revival. She had an uncanny sense that the Lord was directing her, speaking clearly in words that seemed almost audible. She sensed that God intended to move powerfully in China, and she prayed fervently for 20 years until it began in Shantung in 1927 – a revival that is still continuing and is being called ‘the biggest revival in history‘. In order to serve her Lord better, she remained a lifelong celibate. She also endured severe trials with fortitude and trust.
Her courage was remarkable. She was fearless, traveling hundreds of miles through bandit-infested territory to share the gospel. Once, the ship she was on was captured by pirates. When an invading army of looters was ravaging a whole city, Monsen urged the Christians not to fear but to pray; the looters were prevented from coming near her mission compound because of angels standing sentry over it! This and many more examples can be found in her book A Present Help: Standing on the Promises of God.
She was no respecter of persons: she would tell church leaders to their face that they were hypocrites! A present-day house church leader writes: ‘She didn’t speak smooth words to impress the people. Instead, she brought fire from the altar of God.’ She took the emphasis off the human wisdom so prized by Chinese, and showed each person they were individually responsible before God for their own inner spiritual life. For this she was greatly loved, and church leaders saw her as ‘mother in Christ’.
Monsen was bold enough to say no to prospective baptism candidates on occasions. She discouraged ‘cultural’ emotion (Chinese weep easily). She cared nothing for numbers, but wanted to be sure each soul had left the way of destruction and truly encountered God. Don’t gather unripe fruit was a maxim of hers.
When she died, Monsen was buried in at Solheim cemetery in Bergen, Norway. In his best-selling book The Heavenly Man, a leader of the Chinese house church movement, Brother Yun, tells of how Chinese believers were incredulous to find that Marie Monsen’s grave in Denmark was unmarked. So they made the need known and donations came in, such that in 2001 a monument was erected to one of God’s outstanding (but humble) warrior women.