The development of Muscular Christianity in the second half of the nineteenth century has had a sustained impact on how Anglo-American Christians view the relationship between sport, physical fitness, and religion

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ISSN: 1522-5658

The Development of Muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain and Beyond

Nick J. Watson

York St. John’s College, University of Leeds

Stuart Weir

Christians in Sport, UK

Stephen Friend

York St. John’s College, University of Leeds


[1] The development of Muscular Christianity in the second half of the nineteenth century has had a sustained impact on how Anglo-American Christians view the relationship between sport, physical fitness, and religion. It has been argued that the birth of Muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain forged a strong “. . . link between Christianity and sport” that “. . . has never been broken” (Crepeau: 2). The emergence of neo-muscular Christian groups during the latter half of the twentieth century (Putney) and the promotion of sport in Catholic institutions, such as the University of Notre Dame, can be seen as a direct consequence of Victorian Muscular Christianity. Modern Evangelical Protestant organizations, such as Christians in Sport (CIS) in England and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) in the U.S., have resurrected many of the basic theological principles used to promote sport and physical fitness in Victorian Britain.

[2] The basic premise of Victorian Muscular Christianity was that participation in sport could contribute to the development of Christian morality, physical fitness, and “manly” character. The term was first adopted in the 1850s to portray the characteristics of Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) and Thomas Hughes’ (1822-1896) novels. Both Kingsley and Hughes were keen sportsmen and advocates of the strenuous life. Fishing, hunting, and camping were Kingsley’s favorite pastimes, which he saw as a “counterbalance” to “. . . education and bookishness” (Bloomfield: 174). Hughes was a boxing coach and established an athletics track and field program and cricket team at the Working Men’s College in London where he eventually became Principal (Redmond). Not just writers but social critics, Kingsley and Hughes were heavily involved in the Christian Socialist movement and believed that the Anglican Church had become weakened by a culture of effeminacy (Putney). Kingsley supported the idea that godliness was compatible with manliness and viewed manliness as an “antidote to the poison of effeminacy - the most insidious weapon of the Tractarians - which was sapping the vitality of the Anglican Church” (Newsome: 207). From this, the doctrine of Muscular Christianity was adopted as a response to the perceived puritanical and ascetic religiosity of the Tractarians, later known as the Oxford Movement.

[3] Aside from the religious motivations for the evolution and advancement of Muscular Christianity, the Victorians’ preoccupation with health is arguably the most significant factor. “No topic more occupied the Victorian mind than Health . . . they invented, revived, or imported from abroad a multitude of athletic recreations, and England became in Sir Charles Tennyson’s words, the world’s game master” (Haley: 3). Haley suggests there were three main reasons for the prominence of the concept of the healthy body in the mid-nineteenth century.

[4] First, the Industrial Revolution brought about a Leisure Revolution within the working class population (Cunningham) and played a major role in focusing the Victorian psyche on health. Paradoxically, the automation of industry had led to sedentary lifestyles and as a consequence an exponential rise in cardio-vascular and respiratory disease. In addition, poor conditions and long arduous working hours in the factories resulted in many contracting occupational diseases. Second, the nineteenth century witnessed a number of major developments in medical science. The founding of physiology as a distinct discipline separate from biological science, and the emergence of physiological psychology engendered a holistic understanding of health and an emphasis on the mind-body connection. Third, and often less publicized, there was a real threat of war from a number of European countries and the Americans. Responding to this, the intelligentsia saw the need to protect the British Empire and produce leaders that were well educated and “manly” (Haley). Kingsley and Hughes, amongst other Protestant elite, saw Muscular Christianity as an appropriate vehicle for advancing British imperialism and increasing the health and well-being of the nation (Putney). Through the medium of sport, Kingsley saw the potential for spiritual, moral, and physical development:

. . . in the playing field boys acquire virtues which no books can give them; not merely daring and endurance, but, better still temper, self-restraint, fairness, honor, unenvious approbation of another’s success, and all that ‘give and take’of life which stand a man in good stead when he goes forth into the world, and without which, indeed, his success is always maimed and partial (Kingsley cited in Haley: 119).

[5] The aim of this essay is to provide an understanding of the historical and theological development of Muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain and how this has contributed to the relationship that exists between Christianity and Sport today. Discussion will focus on the historical and theological roots of the movement and its manifestation in the late twentieth and twenty-first century.

Historical and Theological Roots of Muscular Christianity

[6] The origins of Muscular Christianity can be traced back to the New Testament where St. Paul and others used athletic metaphors to help describe the challenges of the Christian life (1 Corinthians 6:19; 9:24-25; and 2 Timothy. 4: 7).<1> However, the explicit advocacy of sport and exercise, in the guise of Muscular Christianity, did not evolve until the mid-nineteenth century in Britain, and the source of the idiom has been a point of debate amongst scholars (Redmond). It is commonly accepted that a review of Charles Kingsley’s Two Years Ago (1857) for the Saturday Review, written by the cleric T.C. Sandars was the first place the term appeared (Simon and Bradley). Ironically, Kingsley abhorred it and wrote a vitriolic response to the author who had used “. . . that painful, if not offensive term, ‘Muscular Christianity’” (Haley: 109). Thomas Hughes, a friend and supporter of Kingsley, then used the concept in a follow-up to Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), called Tom Brown at Oxford (1861). In contrast to Kingsley, who seemed worried about the negative connotations that may have been attached to the secular phrase “muscular”, Hughes used it to promote the athleticism that was so pervasive in his novels (Winn). This said, Rosen notes that he was careful to clearly distinguish the concept of “muscular Christians” from the “musclemen” (athletes without Christian beliefs): “the only point in common between the two being, 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 and then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of all righteous causes” (Hughes: 99).

[7] Interestingly, Redmond has noted that a closer examination of other children’s literature long before the birth of the concept in Kingsley and Hughes shows that the general thesis of Muscular Christianity was implicit within works published between 1762 and 1857. The work of writers, such as J.J. Rousseau, William Clarke, Dorothy Kilner, William Howitt, and S.G. Goodrich all possess glimpses of the Christian muscular gospel that flowered in the literature of Kingsley and Hughes. In his classic, Emile (1762), Rousseau emphasizes the importance of physical education in the development of moral character: “Give his body constant exercise, make it strong and healthy in order to make him good and wise . . . The lessons the scholars learn from one another in the playground are worth a hundred fold more than what they learn in the classroom” (cited in Redmond: 9). In conclusion, Redmond suggests neither Kingsley nor Hughes can be accredited with the original “athletic gospel” but they “reaped the harvest” that gave birth to the Muscular Christian movement during the Victorian period.

[8] Their personal lives, education, and political and theological affiliations heavily influenced Kingsley’s and Hughes’ ideas. The period between 1850-1900 was characterized by social unrest and political instability in the form of labor unrest in the working class population and serious problems with public health (Clark). Both Hughes and Kingsley had been sympathizers of Chartism, a political movement that developed in response to the social injustices suffered by the working classes. As a rector and author of social novels such as Yeast (1848), Westward Ho! (1855), and Alton Locke (1850), Kingsley became widely known as the “Chartist clergyman” (McGlynn). Following the House of Commons’ decision to reject the Chartist Petition in 1848 and the subsequent demise of Chartism, Kingsley and Hughes continued to support the grievances of the working classes as leading proponents of Christian Socialism. They joined forces with other Christian Socialist thinkers such as F.D. Maurice (1805-1872), J.M. Ludlow (1821-1911), and Thomas Arnold (1795-1842). It was Ludlow who convinced Kingsley and Maurice that Christianity and Socialism could be integrated to offer an antidote to the political doctrine of Chartism (Bloomfield).

[9] Although the Christian Socialist movement had a similar goal as Chartism, its primary focus was on providing solutions to social ills through educational and moral change, not change in political legislation (Norman). At the time, this was a radical idea. Before the late 1840s, the Church of England’s attitude to implementing social reform was conservative with leading evangelicals emphasizing the hierarchical class system, thus marginalizing the poor and downtrodden. They saw poverty as being self-inflicted through various sins such as self-indulgence and intemperance (Parsons). The class system was also reinforced during the late nineteenth century by the fashionable concept of Social Darwinism. In short, the primary concern of the Victorian Church of England before the mid-nineteenth century had been to “save the lost” (i.e., to win converts) with concern for social welfare often coming a poor second.

[10] The Christian Socialists heavily criticized the Church’s advocacy of the classic political economy and hierarchical class structure, which had contributed to the dehumanizing and neglect of the working class population during the early nineteenth century (Norman). In respect to Muscular Christianity, Kingsley had stressed the social benefits that accrue from participation in athletic activities, especially in terms of demolishing class divisions. Nevertheless, the Christian Socialist idea of a classless society often concealed “. . . a deeper belief in the class system and in the bourgeois hegemony” which is personified by the middle-class boys depicted in Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (Allen: 120). And although implicit, there seems to be what Allen calls a “conceptual dilemma” in Hughes’ classic work, between “the classless democracy of the athletic body and the hierarchical structure of the class system” (120-21). This tension was also evident in what Hargreaves calls a “leadership cult,” which existed in middle-class public schools where society’s leaders were being nurtured.

[11] The Christian Socialists, a small but very influential group of academics and Protestant clergy, disseminated their ideas primarily through two journals, Politics of the People (1848-1849) and The Christian Socialist (1850-1851). F.D. Maurice, who is recognized as the movement’s most influential and leading thinker, also founded the Working Men’s College in London in 1854, which ran evening classes, thus acting as a vehicle to educate the working class people. The theology that underpinned the Christian Socialist thesis and which complemented Muscular Christianity can be mainly attributed to Maurice. Heavily influenced by the idealism of Coleridge he believed that the Kingdom of God should be accessible to all members of society, a theology of universal brotherhood (Norman). In Maurice’s book The Kingdom of God (1838) and in a later controversial publication Theological Essays (1852), he championed an Incarnational theology, which provided an elevated view of humanity with a stress on the importance of educating the masses to recognize their place in God’s Kingdom.

[12] During the first half of the nineteenth century, there had been an emphasis on the Atonement within theological circles. Nevertheless, the advent of the Christian Socialist movement, especially in the work of Maurice, saw a shift “. . . to promote the study of social and political questions in the light of the Incarnation” (Norman: 30). This it was argued, has a sound biblical basis in the teachings of Jesus (e.g., Mark 3:20-30; Matthew 12:25-32; Luke 4) and provided the basis for Kingsley’s theological position, which recognized the significance of the embodied soul, and in turn the goodness of athleticism and physical strength in the formation of character. Donald Hall has noted that the frequent reference to the body in the Politics for the People and other Christian Socialist literature provides evidence that “. . . the metaphors and pedagogical goals of the Christian Socialists and muscular Christians are inextricably linked” (48). This highlights the importance and significance of Hughes and Kingsley’s work within the Christian Socialist movement and its impact upon social and cultural change during the Victorian period. Of the two, Kingsley has written more on the muscular Christian ethic and deserves the credit for providing Muscular Christianity “. . . with a cohesive and conscious philosophy, consisting equally of athleticism, patriotism, and religion” (Putney: 12).

[13] It can be argued that the most significant idea to evolve from Kingsley’s corpus of writings is “Christian manliness.” His doctrine of masculinity had been originally based upon his “. . . instincts which told him that the life of a clergyman was compatible with married life and with that of a sportsman” (Haley: 111). From this, he sought to provide philosophical and theological justification for his feelings and borrowed from a diverse group of thinkers. The philosophical lineage of Kingsleyan masculinity is derived from Plato’s concept of thumos, which he interpreted as a primal manly force involved in sex, morality, and fighting (Rosen). Although Bloomfield acknowledges that it is speculative, she suggests Kingsley’s work may have also been influenced by the mystical and occult philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). There are a number of clear parallels in their work and perhaps most significantly their “. . . desire - to seek the relationship between soul and body” (173). Due to the influence of Plato’s mind-body dualism and the liberal philosophy of Swedenborg in his work, his more orthodox contemporaries frequently accused Kingsley of Neo-Platonism and Pantheism, an accusation that he angrily refuted. These philosophical roots were formed while he was reading Classics at Cambridge University, where he gained a first class degree. He then developed and focused his ideas into a doctrine of social action and reform through reading the works of, and collaborating with essayist and social historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) and theologian F.D. Maurice.

[14] Carlyle had been influenced by the German Romanticist thought of Herder and Goethe. In trying to synthesize what Kant had described as the noumena and phenomena, Johan Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) had promoted the “. . . veneration of the body as being natural, beautiful manifestation of life and vitality, a vehicle through which, by means of gesture, the soul could speak” (Bloomfield: 180). Hence, it is possible to trace certain elements of German Romanticism in the thought of Kingsley. Haley proposes that Kingsley’s notion of the muscular Christian or “healthy hero” was primarily based upon three of Carlyle’s ideas: the body is an expression of the spirit and therefore the obedience to healthy impulse is a sign of constitutional harmony; the state of health is acknowledgment of the laws of nature and compliance with these laws; and heroism is a life of action made possible by observing the laws of health (111-12). In light of this, neither Kingsley, Maurice, or Hughes accepted the entire “vague theistic gospel” of Carlyle, but nevertheless it had a significant impact upon their work. Primarily, it was the “. . . angry Old Testament rhetoric of Carlyle’s social criticism,” which was a “. . . brutally direct stimulus to social action and intervention” that most significantly influenced the Christian socialist theology of Maurice and his associates (Vance: 59).

[15] In Alderson’s analysis of Christian manliness in Kingsley’s novel Alton Locke (1850), he contends that “the imperatives of a counter-revolutionary and Protestant culture . . . enabled the Kingsleyan sense of the ideal male body to become so central to the masculine self-definition of Britain’s rulers” (43-44). In addition to the fears within the Protestant elite of the feminization of the Victorian Church, the rise of evolutionary theory and in the late nineteenth century Freudian and Jungian psychologies also helped strengthen Kingsley’s notion of masculinity (Rosen). The doctrine of masculinity has been absorbed into the “deep structure” of society and continues to have a pervasive influence in athletics, religion, and men’s movements within modern Anglo-American culture. For example, twentieth century men’s movements that “seek to rid men of the problems of pre-sixties’ macho and post-sixties’ sensitivities” owe much to Kingsley (Rosen: 39-40). And in relation to sports participation, Harris proposes that “. . . the muscular novel according to Kingsley and Hughes contributed to the immense vogue of athletics from the late sixties onwards” (11).

[16] In light of the widespread and prolonged influence of Kingsley’s notion of the muscular Christian, there were notable Victorian and post-Victorian writers, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) and E.M. Forster (1879-1970), who strongly disagreed with Kingsley’s ideas (Putney). Forster suggested that those educated within the movement ended up with “well-developed bodies . . . and underdeveloped hearts” (5). Likewise, in a contemporary analysis of values, sport, and education, Grace suggests, “the irony of muscular Christianity is that it elevated sport more than the Gospels” (17). There were also staunch criticisms from a number of leading professors within American academia, especially before 1880. A major reason for this was the American Civil War. Soldiers hardly needed to prove their manliness on a playing field after demonstrating it on the battlefield and thus often derided the concept of Muscular Christianity (Putney).

[17] One of the key figures in the Oxford Movement, Catholic theologian John Henry Newman (1801-1890), had also publicly voiced his criticisms of Kingsley’s philosophy. In his novel Westward Ho! (1855), Kingsley attacked the Catholic Church, and specifically its asceticism and condemnation of the flesh, and judged what he called “Mariolatry” as a major reason for the feminization of Victorian culture (Schiefelbein). According to Schiefelbein, this points out that Kingsley himself had been prone to confusion between his ascetic impulses and his sexual desires. The result was the most unfortunate (for Kingsley!) and infamous Kingsley-Newman controversy, which centred on a disagreement over the anthropological nature of man. Kingsley promoted a vision of the “divineness of the whole manhood,” a synthesis of mind and body, and an education wherein “. . . one did not need to attend a university to form a manly character” (Haley: 119). While Newman agreed with Kingsley’s understanding of the wholeness of man, he rejected his anti-intellectualism and emphasis on the corporeal dimension within the Christian life. In agreement with Newman, Fasick has argued against Kingsley’s “hyper-masculinity” commenting, “despite his homage to gentleness and patience, Kingsley’s real attraction is apparently to the displays of power and aggression with which he adorns his novels” (109). Haley notes that Newman adopted a more sophisticated approach arguing, “the man of philosophic habit has ‘illumination,’ not an inborn, infallible guide to conduct,” which in turn differentiated between manliness and what Newman called gentlemanliness (Haley: 118). Kingsley had frequently criticized a number of High Anglican and Catholic clergy, but when he personally attacked Newman, Newman was quick to respond producing Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864), a rigorous defense of Catholicism. In the eyes of the intelligentsia, this won Newman the debate, much to Kingsley’s embarrassment (Putney).

The Fruits of Muscular Christianity: Socio-Cultural Developments in Victorian Britain

[18] Following the rise of Chartism and Christian Socialism, and shifting theological perspectives during the mid-Victorian period, a significant number of the Protestant elite, especially Kingsley and Hughes, advocated the use of sports and exercise to promote the harmonious development of mind, body, and spirit (Hall, 1994). Mathisen identified four models of Muscular Christianity that had developed from the ideas of Hughes and Kingsley by the end of the nineteenth century. These are the classical model, evangelical model, the YMCA model, and the Olympic model. The promulgation of sport and physical pursuits in English Public Schools such as Rugby, Eton, and Uppingham, was arguably the most significant socio-cultural development to evolve from “classical” Muscular Christianity.

[19] During the late 1850s, the tenets of Muscular Christianity became an integral part of the public school educational system. The primary reason was to encourage Christian morality and help develop the character of the future captains of industry and political leaders, and in turn strengthen the British Empire (Wilkinson). Edward Thring (1821-1887), headmaster of Uppingham between 1853-1857, sums this up when he states, “the whole efforts of a school ought to be directed to making boys, manly, earnest and true” (Rawnsley: 12). The main impetus for the integration of the muscular Christian ethic into Public Schools was Thomas Hughes’ book<2> Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), a story of a boy whose character was shaped playing sport at Rugby School. Hughes had been heavily influenced by Rev. Dr. Thomas Arnold, his headmaster at Rugby during the 1830s, who instilled in him “. . . a strong religious faith and loyalty to Christ” (Brown: x). Although, it is Arnold that is most frequently cited in the literature as the driving force behind sports in public schools, the Rev. George Cotton had masterminded the sports program at Rugby School under Arnold. Cotton was perhaps the prototype of what Mangan called “a novel kind of school master - the athletic pedagogue” (23).

[20] The Muscular Christianity movement within public schools relied heavily upon the notion of Kingsleyan manliness. The sport of rugby was particularly popular as it gave plenty of opportunity to “take hard knocks without malice” (Mason 1981), a desirable trait in possible future leaders of industry and the military. Rugby, Dobbs suggests, was almost the perfect game for the promotion of Muscular Christianity, and if it had not already existed leaders of the movement would have invented it:

If the Muscular Christians and their disciples in the public schools, given sufficient wit, had been asked to invent a game that exhausted boys before they could fall victims to vice and idleness, which at the same time instilled the manly virtues of absorbing and inflicting pain in about equal proportions, which elevated the team above the individual, which bred courage, loyalty and discipline, which as yet had no taint of professionalism and which, as an added bonus, occupied 30 boys at a time instead of a mere twenty-two, it is probably something like rugby that they would have devised (89).

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