The Brutal Legacy of the Muscular Christian Movement

In the late nineteenth century, a fear about the softness of American society raised doubts about the capacity of the United States to carry out its imperial destiny.  This problem was associated with the final settlement of the frontier.  As important as the development of open space was to the expansion of the territory of the United States, the completion of the continental expansion brought an attendant fear that traditional masculinity was on the wane and would bring about a withering of the individual and the national body.  This fear spread to the church as well, where the result was thought to be a moral softening (Miller 2011, p. 38).  To make matters worse, waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were flooding American cities with foreign cultures.  This concern became so pressing that talk of “race suicide” became common.

The United States was not alone in the fear.  In England:

Interest in physical culture generally developed in the midnineteenth century as a response to what was perceived as a weakened urban population with no access to the healthy activities of rural life …  It found adherents among the 165 English public schools, who used it to promote leadership and teambuilding qualities; among the Church, who saw the value of muscular Christianity. [Wray et al. 2007, pp. 16566]

This muscular Christianity was a “belief, which first appeared in British private schools, that competition in games helps instill desirable traits of character and thus qualifies as a legitimate educational activity” (Mandelbaum 2004, p. 148).

Thomas Hughes’ two popular British novels of the time, Tom Brown’s School Days and Tom Brown at Oxford were successful in promoting muscular Christianity.  The narrator of the second book distilled the essence of muscular Christianity: “[It] is “a good thing to have strong and wellexercised bodies …. The least of the muscular Christians has hold of the old chivalrous and Christian belief, 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, and the subduing of the earth which God has given to the children of men” (Hughes 1895, p. 113).  Theodore Roosevelt recommended Tom Brown’s at Rugbys was one of two books that every American should read (Roosevelt 1900), although he was confused about the title since none of the Tom Brown books appeared under that name.

Eugenics and Muscular Christianity

Promoting muscular Christianity would not be enough to create the kind of culture that would keep the country strong so long as waves of supposedly “lessfit” immigrants threatened to inundate the Anglo Saxon culture; nor could Darwinian selection be counted on to eliminate the supposedly unfit because new immigrants would swamp that process.

In the United States, where modernization and science seem to go handinhand, an imagined need for scientific management of racial matters took hold.  Luther Burbank and other plant breeders had been making remarkable progress in creating new fruits.  Such success suggested that something similar be done for the human population.

Scientific breeding, known by the scientificsounding name of eugenics, put down strong roots in the United States as well as other countries, eventually taking its most repugnant form in Nazi Germany.  At first, the idea was to select the healthiest stock.  Within a short period of time, strong genes became identified with the white race.

Rather than existing as a cult limited to a small group of wingnuts, many of the leading progressive figures in the scientific and intellectual worlds of the time supported this movement.  Anything that helped to rationalize the legacy of slavery was welcome in many quarters.  Disdain for immigrants added to the appeal of eugenics.  Eugenics offered a scientific method to preserve the culture and social order.  The cause of eugenics was not hurt by the satisfaction offered by scientific evidence of one’s natural superiority.  Finally, the desire to make the United States into a powerful imperial power made the case for eugenics almost irresistible.

Together with muscular Christianity, eugenics suggested a renewal of American vigor.  W. W. Hastings, Dean of the Normal School of Physical Education, Battle Creek Michigan, made the importance of this connection clear in an academic presentation on “Racial Hygiene and Vigor,” which brought together the subjects of sports, eugenics, and vigor, the latter being a code for the capacity to wield power around the world.  Hastings began with eugenics:

Modern eugenics claims virtually that through the unnatural conditions with which modern civilization has surrounded us there is no such thing today as real natural selection; physical degeneracy is on the increase; false social standards are responsible for false mating and lack of individual and national vigor, and that the only possible cure for this condition is rational scientific human breeding for the welfare of the race. [Hastings 1910, p. 516]

Hastings added a class dimension to his subject:

Until the present century the masses have made little showing on the annals of any people.  It was the quarrels, the blood feuds and spoils of the great leader of the time or times which the historian tells us molded the whole trend of the times.  It was the profligacy of a Caesar which fed the mouths of the common people of Rome, robbed them of their selfrespect, and made of them a race of professional paupers and idlers; which by perennial human life, their physical basis of virtue and religion. The utter ruin of his race was nothing to a Nero if by it he could reign a Caesar. [Hastings 1910, p. 51617]

Sports offered the supposedly geneticallyblessed elite young men an opportunity to display their potential as natural leaders.  In effect, muscular Christianity was intended to produce the kind of leadership that aristocrats had historically exercised, especially in times of war.  In contrast to aristocracy, where family ties had governed selection, muscular Christianity, which merged with the eugenics movement, was determined to scientifically produce a new breed of natural leaders on the basis of genetic inheritance as well as the young men’s own hard work and selfdiscipline.  The expectation was that this new generation of leaders would carry out its duties and obligations so successfully that the rest of the population would naturally embrace their new brand of meritocratic leadership.

The muscular Christianity/eugenics movement did not ignore the role of women.  Their responsibility was for breeding new leaders with roots in the dominant, educated classes of northern European stock.  For example, in March 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt attacked women who used birth control as “criminal against the race” for not producing more children from the “fit” (Gordon 1974, pp. 15657).

By the later part of the nineteenth century, football appeared to offer a partial response to the threat of declining masculinity.  Organized Bostonstyle football emerged in elite secondary schools in the urban Northeast, such as Boston Latin and Dixwell’s.  Some of these boys would eventually matriculate to Harvard, bringing their game with them, which would soon displace the regional versions of football that Yale, Princeton, and Penn had been playing (Miller 2011, p. 60).  Because the sport appeared to offer an ideal means for addressing the threat of declining masculinity by toughening elite young men, it became a primary vehicle for developing muscular Christianity.

The scientific climate of the time seemed to support this choice.  “New ideas about medicine, nutrition, and sanitation supported the growing belief that the quality of human health was not a consequence of … preordained fate but rather the result of behavior” (Miller 2011, p. 38).

The sport also resonated with the grander cultural aspirations of the leaders of American universities, who accepted the ideals of muscular Christianity as a means of developing character.  They also must have appreciated that football games earned them good revenues (Collins 2013, pp. 21314).

Football and the Imperial Destiny

The mindset of muscular Christianity was almost perfectly suited to the justification of imperialism, especially when buttressed by eugenics.  The imperial mission was to civilize heathens around the world.  According to one British pundit: “If asked what our muscular Christianity has done, we point to the British Empire” (Minchin 1901, p. 113).  William Mathews, a Chicago professor wrote about Americans’ agreement with this kind of assessment:

As might be expected, Theodore Roosevelt enthused about this imperial fray: “As an avid sportsman in an era when Social Darwinism thrived, [he] saw football as helping revitalize an effete population physically and
invisiblehandcmentally unprepared to defend themselves or take their place on the world stage” (Watterson 2000, pp. 6465).

In 1895, Roosevelt went into more detail about the importance of toughening elite students in a letter to Walter Camp, coach of Yale University’s successful football program and known as the “father of (American) football.”  After a fawning introduction, followed by a callous appreciation of the injuries that young football players suffered, Roosevelt continued:

I am very glad to have a chance of expressing to you the obligation which I feel all Americans are under to you for your championship of athletics.  The man on the farm and in the workshop here, as in other countries, is apt to get enough physical work; but we were tending steadily in America to produce in our leisure and sedentary classes a type of man not much above the Bengalee baboo, and from this the athletic spirit has saved us.  Of all games I personally like football best, and I would rather see my boys play it than see them play any other.  I have no patience with the people who declaim against it because it necessitates rough play and occasional injuries.  The rough play, if confined within manly and honorable limits, is an advantage [Roosevelt 1895, p. 99]

A few strains came together in this paragraph, beginning with Roosevelt’s oftexpressed concern with the feminizing effect of the closing of the frontier.  His contemptious reference the Bengalee baboo reflects the idea that people in the colonized world are not really manly.  Finally, the immediate goal was to find a way to displace the British, who controlled Bengal:

Americans looking to revive the spirit of manifest destiny gazed enviously at the imperial successes of their British cousins: ‘The splendid empires which England has founded in every quarter of the globe have had their origin largely in the football contests at Eton, the boatraces on the Thames, and the cricketmatches on her downs and heaths’ [Collins 2013, pp. 2134, citing Matthews 1876, p. 61]

Football seemed to provide even better training for American imperialism:

The demands placed upon the football player are not unlike jingoistic demands that soldiers experience.  “Football is very much like a small war,” wrote J. Hamblen Sears, “and the training of a team is not so different from the training of an army …. A brave man who cannot or does not obey orders in regiment is well known to be not only useless himself, but a serious cause for the loss of discipline and efficiency on the part of all the other men in the regiment. It is precisely the same with football.  In their 1896 book, Football, Camp and Deland observed “a remarkable and interesting likeness” between “battles and the miniature contests on the gridiron”. [Miller 2011, p. 171]

Walter Camp the, coauthor for the book, Football and recipient of Roosevelt’s letter regarding the game, earned his status as the father of football, first as a player, then a coach, as well as the designer of many of the rules, which separated football from Rugby.  By virtue of his experience in the physical conditioning of football players, he became a military advisor during World War I.

Because football seemed to reflect the aspirations of modern business, which was the greatest beneficiary of imperial expansion, it supported the imperial destiny.  In so far as the fostering of the expanding professional and administrative middleclass was concerned, American football provided strict rules for the Ivy League players compared with the illdefined organization of traditional rugby.  In this way, the organization of football came to resemble the newly emerging vision of scientific management of business.

In this respect, Allen Guttmann argues that football’s attractiveness also comes from a combination of primitive and modern elements (Guttmann 1978, pp. 85, 125).  “The basic explanatory factor that makes modern sports unique “is the scientific worldview:”

In other words, the mathematical discoveries of the seventeenth century were popularized in the eighteenth century, at which time we can observe the beginnings of our modern obsession with quantification in sport.  During the Age of the Enlightenment, we can see the transition from the Renaissance concept of “measure” in the sense of moderation and balance, to the modern concept of measurement …. The emergence of modern sports represents neither the triumph of capitalism nor the rise of Protestantism but rather the slow development of an empirical, experimental, mathematical Weltanschauung. [Guttmann 1978, p. 129]

The more telling association of football with the capacity of empire building provided an obvious attraction for the sport, especially because of the parallels between the game and business.  Scoring points as a team resembled the way corporations kept the books on profits, which flowed from the collective efforts of their workers.

Time management is a crucial consideration in running a business as well as a football game.  Walter Camp was also chairman of the board of directors of the New Haven Clock Company, a family business.  This latter connection is often mentioned regarding the introduction of the game clock in football (Collins 2013, pp. 22526).  Finally, the authoritarian nature of coaching is quite similar to business management.

British rugby was also developing along the same lines.  William Suddell, a manager of a cotton factory, could almost be described as a British counterpart of Camp.  In an 1887 interview, Camp was proud to say that the game is “played more scientifically than it ever was, and that is solely due to the fact that in a professional team the men are under the control of the management and are constantly playing together” (Collins 2013, p. 226).

No matter how capable elite leadership is, either in matters of the economy or war, success ultimately depends upon the contributions of the great masses of people who are supposedly suited to their less elevated circumstances.  For example, in the case of imperialism, ordinary foot soldiers also needed to be instilled with the proper military ethic.

Toward this end, leaders in the Young Men’s Christian Association attempted to provide a proletarian version of muscular Christianity for the working classes by inventing basketball.  While Ivy League schools were preparing elite students to lead the emerging American imperial state on the gridiron, winning adulation from the upper classes, working class boys began to play basketball in shabby working class gyms.

The sports of rugby and football were also related to Mill’s notion of war as a form of outdoor relief in a double sense.  These games offered a kind of outdoor relief for the players.  As a violent team sport played in elite universities, football was a perfect venue for creating a culture of toughminded men who would exercise leadership in the greater game of imperialism.

Probably nobody expressed the relationship between sport and war more starkly than George Orwell: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play.  It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting” (Orwell 1945, p. 42).

War and Sports

The connection between war and sport is not new.  For example, the Olympics illustrate how naturally sports can function within the pillar of war.  Rather than a celebration of play, the Olympics began as a display of skills that were crucial in battle.  For example, the winner of the Decathlon, which consists of familiar parts of children’s play  running, jumping, and throwing  takes on the image of a warrior.  In the case of the javelin  otherwise called a spear  the connection with war is obvious.

Of course, the muscular dimension of warfare is receding.  Instead of spears, the current weapon of choice is a drone, the control of which shares more with video games than football.  Gamers do compete in tournaments, although they garner far less attention than Olympians.  As was the case with football, a children’s game becomes entangled in the pillar of war.

Football and the Olympics are quite distinct in many ways.  Until recently, professional athletes were supposed to be barred from the games, while top football players routinely hold million dollar contracts.  Perhaps the greatest current distinction is that football is a predominantly American game.  As an important game, commercialization of football, as well as other American sports, was inevitable.  Football coaches in public universities tend to be the most highlypaid public employee in the state; sometimes basketball coaches are.

Originally, the ancient Olympics were also a strictly Greek affair.  In the 19th century attempts were made to revive the games.  At first, a few local Olympiads were held in Athens and in England.  Then, in 1896, Baron de Coubertin generally got credit for creating the modern Olympics.  In its modern guise, individuals competed in the Olympics as members of national teams.  Like the muscular Christians of the time, the Baron was concerned that his France was becoming soft.  Olympic competition was intended to serve as a corrective.

The games soon became an exercise in nationalism in which powerful nations would cultivate athletes to display their individual superiority over athletes from other countries.  In the process, the amateurism that was supposed to characterize the games faded away.  Cheating became just another form of competition.  Like football, the Olympics served as means by which great nations display physical powers, which are intended to project a larger image of state military power.

Eventually, as the Olympics became bathed in a tsunami of commercialism, many competitors began to represent corporations as well as nations.  Unintentionally, the Olympics became a reflection of some of the least attractive aspects of society.

A Threat to Muscular Christianity and Eugenics

Both muscular Christianity and eugenics suffered a serious setback in 1910 when a black man, Jack Johnson, won the heavyweight boxing championship.  Boxing was seen as a sport that could display racial and national vigor.  Desperately, the United States began a futile search for The Great White Hope, a white man who could defeat Johnson.  The fear that Johnson could undermine the status quo went beyond the borders of the United States:

Such was the fear of Johnson’s impact on the white racial order that an exhibition match between Johnson and the British boxer William ‘Bombardier Billy’ Wells in 1911 was eventually banned by the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill, due in part to fears about the effects of a Johnson victory in instigating further demands for political equality throughout the British empire. While the campaign, led by the Baptist pastor F. B. Meyer and supported by religious elites and Edwardian moralists, to prevent the Johnson versus Wells bout was publicly framed as an ethical concern about the barbarism of boxing itself, the underlying racial significance was apparent to many at the time. Jeffrey Green notes that the very fabric of the British imperial order was deemed to be at risk should Johnson be allowed to fight the British champion: ‘A huge empire would come close to collapse if a British soldier met a Texan labourer in west London. The empire was indeed a confidence trick’ (Green 1998, p. 176). Similarly, as Phil Vasili points out, the success of sporting black Atlantic figures, such as Johnson, struck directly at the core fears of white supremacist logic, namely: ‘Black athletic success as symbolic expression of the degeneracy of the White “race”; the consequent rewards of this success as a threat to White economic (and social) superiority; that the collective confidence and spiritual sustenance given to Black communities by Johnson as an heroic model may inspire emulation’ (Vaseli 1998, p. 185). [Carrrington 2010, p. 56]

Faint traces of muscular Christianity remain in football.    Some devout Christians sincerely pray to God to help them win their next game.  However, hardly a day goes by when the sports pages do not have a story about a football player engaged in a violent act off the field.  In all likelihood, brain injuries may have a role to play.  The muscularity of football has been improved, in part, because the training regimens have developed since the days of Walter Camp.  Perhaps more important is the contribution of modern chemistry.

The demographics of football have also changed.  In what was once a sport for highly educated elite white Protestants from Ivy League schools, the best players typically never bother to finish college because milliondollar contracts seem like a better business proposition than a few extra years of school.  The numbers of White Protestants in professional football are relatively small.  The rarity of White Ivy League players causes the sports pages to pay special attention to them.

Muscular Christianity vs. John Calvin

Enthusiasm for imperial ventures was not universal during the heyday of Muscular Christianity.  Despite the strong support among many Protestant denominations, others vehemently dissented.  Proponents of muscular Christianity pushed back against those who were not supportive of the movement.  For example, Bishop John Henry Newman, writing from England complained: “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.” (Newman 1878, p. 191).

In England, with a long history of wars between Catholics and Protestants, the antagonism that bothered Newman is not surprising.  In the United States, however, Catholicism was associated with the supposedlyinferior immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.  However, not all Protestants were enthusiastic about muscular Christianity.  Calvinists, in particular, stood out as skeptics because they mostly were descended from Northern European stock.  Proponents of muscular Christianity denounced the Calvinist fallacy that “physical vigor and spiritual sanctity are incompatible” (Miller 2011, p. 41).  The problem with Calvinism for the imperialists was its association with a more spiritual vision of power:  “The Protestant ethic obliges everyone to engage in work of importance.  Work represents worthy use of time and ultimately, moral virtue” (Overman 2011, p. 212).

For the Calvinists, success was strictly a matter between the individual and God.  The state was irrelevant.  The imperialists had a markedly different perspective; for them, victory is a collective effort that required the mobilization and obedience of large parts of society.  The role of the individual was merely to contribute to this collective effort in the great game of imperialism.

Enthusiastic promoters of this physical training attempted to increase the stakes of sports by invoking something akin to the Calvinist concept that worldly success was a sign of God’s favor.  According to the religion of football, “losers of a match are deserving of their fate, for they have failed to do what was morally necessary to achieve victory.  In this sense, they have committed a sin for which their failure is proof” (Overman 2011, pp. 16364).  Those who fail to accept this challenge are treated with contempt.  Regarding the Calvinist understanding of sin, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Harvard graduate and abolitionist minister, noted that Calvin “was an invalid for his whole lifetime” (cited in Miller 2011, p. 41).

The Calvinist mentality might suit young men for business success, while war, like football, gave other young men, who were not likely to successfully fit into the Calvinist mold, an outlet that could offer intense public adulation for those who wished to display their worth (or masculinity) on the field of war as well as the gridiron.

Although the violence of football was so extreme that many of the future leaders were being maimed or even killed on the playing the field, concern about such matters was not universal.  Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt’s partner in promoting war, dismissed the casualties of football in 1896, insisting: “Injuries incurred on the playing field are part of the price which the Englishspeaking race has paid for being world conquerors” (Collins 2013, p. 213).

Although the oncesickly Theodore Roosevelt engaged in sports other than football before he became the leading cheerleader for imperialism, he certainly did everything possible to fit himself into the mold of the ideal football player.  Now president of the country, Roosevelt, prompted by Walter Camp, called a conference at the White House to rewrite the rules of the game again with the intention of making the game less lethal, lest the imperialists loose too many of their future leaders to deaths or debilitating injuries from the game.

Despite changes in the rules, football players, both at the collegiate and the professional level have become so powerful, that they commonly suffer from traumatic brain injuries, similar to the concussive injuries that soldiers experience in battle from explosions.  Ironically, the universities that have the responsibility to strengthen students’ minds stand aside while many players’ brains get scrambled.

Thorstein Veblen, mentioned for his discussion the role of the Spanish American War in reviving economic prosperity in the United States, launched a stronger critique of muscular Christianity than the Calvinists by means of his contempt for football, which appeared as a lessnoticed part of his most influential book, The Theory of the Leisure Class.  Veblen was a student at Yale and studied with Walter Camp’s brotherinlaw William Graham Sumner.  Veblen wrote about the culture of football in his inimitable style:

But those members of respectable society who advocate athletic games commonly justify their attitude on this head to themselves and to their neighbors on the ground that these games serve as an invaluable means of development.  They not only improve the contestant’s physique, but it is commonly added that they also foster a manly spirit, both in the participants and in the spectators. Football is the particular game which will probably first occur to any one in this community when the question of the serviceability of athletic games is raised, as this form of athletic contest is at present uppermost in the mind of those who plead for or against games as a means of physical or moral salvation.  This typical athletic sport may, therefore, serve to illustrate the bearing of athletics upon the development of the contestant’s character and physique. It has been said, not inaptly, that the relation of football to physical culture is much the same as that of the bullfight to agriculture. [Veblen p. 26061]

Rather than seeing football as a progressive part of the modern world, Veblen treated the sport as a reversion to barbarism:

As it finds expression in the life of the barbarian, prowess manifests itself in two main directions  force and fraud.  In varying degrees these two forms of expression are similarly present in modern warfare, in the pecuniary occupations, and in sports and games. Both lines of aptitudes are cultivated and strengthened by the life of sport as well as by the more serious forms of emulative life. Strategy or cunning is an element invariably present in games, as also in warlike pursuits and in the chase. In all of these employments strategy tends to develop into finesse and chicanery [Veblen 27374]

Michael Perelman teaches economics at Cal State at Chico. He is the author of Railroading Economics and The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism.

Vincent Portillo is a Graduate Equity Fellow in the English Department at Cal State at Chico.

This essay is excerpted from The Matrix: An Exploration of the Interactions between the  Economy, War, and Economic Theory by Michael Perelman and Vincent Portillo.