Muscular Christianity

Muscular Christianity refers to a set of ideas that flourished among American protestants between around 1880 and 1920.  Those who promoted these ideas believed that competitive sports and physical education could counteract the supposedly “feminizing” effects of modern life and, at the same time, energize churches and win converts. Where Protestants had previously seen sport as a diabolical pursuit, the influence of muscular Christianity to some degree redeemed sport for many religious minded Americans.  The movement dovetailed with the rising professionalization of physical education as a discipline and profession and with the emerging cadre of so-called “play professionals”—individuals trained in the latest scientific advances in physical education and employed by private and public entities to use systematic, organized play as a means of ordering the extracurricular activities of the young and of cultivating in them socially positive traits. This convergence of ideas and social trends were key conditions for the invention of basketball by Dr. James Naismith.1912roosevelt_lg

Naismith cast his own vocational turn from the pulpit to physical education in similar terms: “My attention was directed to the fact that there were other ways of influencing young people than preaching. In games it was easily seen that the man who took his part in a manly way and yet kept his thoughts and conduct clean had the respect and the confidence of the most careless. It was a short step to the conclusion that hard clean athletics could be used to set a high standard of living for the young.” It’s no surprise then that Naismith, upon graduating, took his training and experience to the YMCA Training Institute. For there, in Springfield, Dr. Luther Gulick was pioneering his own version of muscular Christianity. Called the “greatest of YMCA philosophers,” Gulick, upon assuming leadership of the school in 1887, sought to harmonize Protestant spirituality, late nineteenth century science and athletic endeavor. Gulick adopted—from the commandment in Deuteronomy (6:5) to “love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy might”—the slogan: “body, mind, spirit.” He also designed the YMCA’s logo, the inverted red triangle whose three sides—symbolizing the physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions of the human being—join to form a single whole.

Basketball’s invention occurred in the context of these social, cultural and institutional developments and concerns, and Naismith himself, as the sport’s inventor, embodied the concerns of Progressive Era social reformers and the beliefs of muscular Christianity and play professionals that scientifically devised, properly supervised and organized athletic endeavor could contribute to solving late nineteenth century social problems. Certainly, Naismith seemed to see it this way when he introduced the rules of the game in 1892 by emphasizing, “Basket Ball is not a game intended merely for amusement but is the attempted solution of a problem that has been pressing on physical educators.” The “problem” was not just the unruly class, nor even, as Naismith goes on to define it, the need for an easy-to-learn, indoor team sport. Or, if these were problems they were seen as such because they indicated more significant moral problems rooted in social issues; moral problems for which sport could contribute solutions. Thus Naismith wrote approvingly: “games have been called the laboratory for the development of moral attributes.” Basketball specifically, Naismith claimed, cultivated a host of moral values including initiative, agility, accuracy, alertness, cooperation, skill, reflex judgment, speed, self-confidence, self-sacrifice, self-control and sportsmanship.

The belief that basketball cultivates these and other virtues has been a staple of basketball culture from Naismith’s time to the present not only inspiring legendary players and coaches to share the values and life lessons of the game with readers, but leading coaches at all levels to take on the responsibility of imparting values to a younger generation of players.

Further Reading

On muscular Christianity

Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001)

Steven J. Overman, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Sport: How Calvinism and Capitalism Shaped America’s Games (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2011)

On muscular Christianity and the invention of basketball

James Naismith, Rules for Basket Ball (Springfield, MA: Springfield Printing and Binding, 1892) 

James Naismith, Basketball: Its Origin and Development (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996)

C. Howard Hopkins, History of the Y.M.C.A. in North America (New York: Association Press, 1951)

Marc Thomas Horger, Play by the Rules: The Creation of Basketball and the Progressive Era, 1891-1917 (PhD Thesis, Ohio State University, History, 2001).

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