Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920

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Dissatisfied with a Victorian culture focused on domesticity and threatened by physical decline in sedentary office jobs, American men in the late nineteenth century sought masculine company in fraternal lodges and engaged in exercise to invigorate their bodies. One form of this new manly culture, developed out of the Protestant churches, was known as muscular Christianity. In this fascinating study, Clifford Putney details how Protestant leaders promoted competitive sports and physical education to create an ...

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Overview

Dissatisfied with a Victorian culture focused on domesticity and threatened by physical decline in sedentary office jobs, American men in the late nineteenth century sought masculine company in fraternal lodges and engaged in exercise to invigorate their bodies. One form of this new manly culture, developed out of the Protestant churches, was known as muscular Christianity. In this fascinating study, Clifford Putney details how Protestant leaders promoted competitive sports and physical education to create an ideal of Christian manliness.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Long relegated to occasional academic journal articles and mediocre, hagiographic books, the relationship between Protestantism and sports in America now has the definitive treatise the topic has long deserved. Bentley College's Putney surveys "muscular Christianity" the attempts to make Christianity seem manly and macho from 1880 to 1920. Worried that the average American man thought of the church as a place for girls and women, churches tried to lure men by, for example, building bowling leagues in their basements; pastors who once adhered to strict blue laws declared that sports on Sunday might just be allowable. Putney challenges many assumptions that historians have held for years. He demonstrates, for example, that Christians were anxious about getting men into the church not simply because women outnumbered men in the pews, but because, at the end of the 19th century, women increasingly held church leadership positions. Second, he shows that not only pastors, but secular reformers, from reporters to professors to government officials, were worried about a feminized church. Putney is to be commended for including Mormons, black Protestants and women (like Girl Scout leaders) who embraced at least slices of "muscular Christianity." If historians will find Putney's revisions fascinating, the general reader will also be riveted by the story he tells; his prose is as vigorous as his subject matter, and the anecdotes he scatters liberally throughout the book are captivating. In an age when Christian leaders like Bill McCartney are again using athletics to get men into the church, this study couldn't be more timely. (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
With vigorous prose, Putney (history, Bentley Coll.) shows how in the late 19th century Protestant clergy and lay leaders of the "muscular Christianity" movement abandoned the sentimentality and "feminine" forms of Victorian religion for a new model that "stressed action rather than reflection, and aggression rather than gentility." Worried about a decline of Anglo-Saxon Protestant power in urbanizing, industrializing, and Catholic immigrant America and influenced by writers such as psychologist G. Stanley Hall who called for drawing on "primitive" instincts to counter enervating intellectualism, men such as Theodore Roosevelt pushed for the "strenuous life" as a means of imposing self-discipline and reasserting the culture and interests of Protestants in America and abroad. Advocates of muscular Christianity promoted organized sports and outdoor activities like camping to build bodies able to evangelize and effect social reform. The movement faded in the 1920s, but its basic organizations persisted. Putney's focus on ideas and leaders misses the chance to observe how the boys and girls involved in Scouting, sports, and the YMCA understood the connections between healthy bodies and healthy faith, but his arguments on the construction of "muscular Christianity" add much to our understanding of the Progressive era and American cultural imperialism. Highly recommended. Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Booklist
On his way to becoming a stone face on Rushmore, Theodore Roosevelt converted to a now largely forgotten form of liberal Protestantism emphasizing masculine exertion and healthy living. Putney here chronicles the rise and eventual decline of this new creed of muscular Christianity, which, for all its brawn and bravado, actually betrayed its founders' fears: that Christian men would degenerate into feminine weakness in a church dominated by women; that Anglo-Saxon Protestants would be overwhelmed by the influx of swarthy Catholics; that infidels would roll back the gains won by previous generations of valiant missionaries. When the horrors of world war induced a national pacifism, liberal Protestants finally sidled away from this cult of masculine piety. But Putney detects the strange reemergence of a recognizably similar masculine orthodoxy in a new setting: conservative Protestants have taken up the cause in initiatives such as Promise Keepers and Athletes in Action. A fascinating study shedding light on a hidden link between the liberal Protestants of the past and the fundamentalists of today.
— Bryce Christensen
Dallas Morning News
[This] fascinating study offers a fresh angle on gender issues and our attitudes about sports today.
— C. R.
Times Literary Supplement
Far more women than men were going to church by the 1880s and 1890s, and ministers often exhibited a softness and delicacy of their own. Advocates of muscular Christianity, deploring this state of affairs, set themselves the task of bringing men back to church and showing that Jesus, the rugged, hard-bodied carpenter of Nazareth, was no sissy. Clifford Putney's superb Muscular Christianity shows that they tried to do it by linking Christianity to manly sports.
— Patrick Allitt
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674006348
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2001
  • Pages: 310
  • Product dimensions: 6.51 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

Clifford Putney is Assistant Professor of History at Bentley College.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 The Birth of a Movement 11
2 God in the Gym 45
3 Men and Religion 73
4 Fishers of Boys 99
5 Worldwide Redemption 127
6 Muscular Women 144
7 Christians in Khaki 162
Conclusion 195
Notes 209
Selected Bibliography 269
Index 281
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