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Muscular Christianity, the YMCA and Basketball

What do football’s Tim Tebow, basketball’s Jeremy Lin, baseball’s Josh Hamilton all have in common – besides sports? They all love and publicly honor Jesus. They are considered to be the modern day advocates of what historians and scholars refer to as Muscular Christianity.

Muscular Christianity is a long-forgotten movement of the Victorian era, which emphasized a Christian commitment to not only morality, but also to fitness and manliness. The argument was that the body is a gift from God, that it is one’s responsibility to maintain the body in prime shape and, accordingly, that exercise and athletic competition leads to not only physical health, but strong morals and the proper overall orientation in one’s life. While not intended, there was the emphasis on an active and cheerful life, versus a quiet, meditative and (perhaps) gloomy existence.

The movement began in England. Historians attribute Muscular Christianity to the Victorian era writers Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes. Even prior to the Victorian era, The Duke of Wellington was said to have remarked, “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. Whether or not Wellington actually uttered the famous quote, the British and embraced the sense that self-sacrifice, discipline, teamwork and competitive spirit in athletic participation led to military excellence and a nation’s rise to global power.

The Muscular Christianity movement first appeared in the United States in private schools and spread through the preaching of prominent evangelical Protestants, such as Dwight L. Moody.

The long-forgotten William B. Curtis served in the Civil War as a lieutenant and aide to General John Basil Turchin. In the post-war period, Curtis became a famous bodybuilder and amateur athlete. He was a founder of the New York Athletic Club in 1868, one of the organizers of the Amateur Athletic Union and president of the National Skating Association. Curtis died climbing New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington in 1900 at the age of 63. His funeral service in New York City at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church was a veritable celebration of Muscular Christianity.

Muscular Christianity was an important force in America from 1880 until 1920. It is no coincidence that Teddy Roosevelt’s adulthood overlaid the period during which Muscular Christianity was at its peak. Roosevelt, a man dedicated to physical fitness, who promoted the ideals of manliness to Americans, graduated from college in 1880. He was president of the United States from 1901 to 1909. He died in 1919.

Teddy Roosevelt’s father, Theodore Sr., known as Thee, was an ardent disciple of Muscular Christianity. He was concerned about the negative influences of modern society and felt strongly that the rediscovery of masculinity was important to restore America’s moral fiber. Thee Roosevelt’s native New York City epitomized industrialization and urban decline. Living conditions in the overcrowded tenements of New York City were horrific. Drinking, prostitution and disease were rampant. Moral decay and corruption was pervasive. Thee Roosevelt took an active role in the intellectual, moral and physical development of his children. He imprinted his deep convictions on the psyche of his children. This had a profound impact on Theodore, the oldest son who was devoted to his father. Teddy learned to box, lifted weights and went camping. Teddy’s patrician classmates at Harvard judged him harshly for his religious conviction and moral character. He refused to back down.

Thee Roosevelt used his considerable wealth and influence to promote the ideals of Muscular Christianity. The founding meeting of the American Museum of Natural History was held in the Roosevelt parlor. He contributed considerable sums of money to the city's medical, educational and religious institutions, in particular the Young Men’s Christian Association.

The Young Men’s Christian Association, better known as the YMCA or the Y, was among the most prominent social institutions of the period. The federated organization, made up of local organizations in voluntary association, which established in urban settings to offer alternatives to taverns and brothels for Christian males. Character building was a core value. With the rise of the Muscular Christianity movement, the Y began introducing athletic activities. Muscular Christianity and the YMCA are intricately linked.

Handball in the United States dates to the 1880s and was well established at the Y by the early 1900s. Robert Roberts, who led serious exercise classes at the Boston YMCA, coined the term “bodybuilding” in 1881. James Naismith was a physical education instructor at Springfield College in Massachusetts, the YMCA training school. Program Director Luther Gulick tasked Naismith in 1891 with coming up with an indoor sport to keep the Y staff in shape during the winter. Naismith hung 2 peach baskets in a gym and basketball was born. William Morgan, a YMCA instructor in Holyoke, Massachusetts modified basketball and wove in elements of tennis and handball in an effort to come up with a less strenuous sport in 1895. The result was volleyball. George Corsan of the Detroit YMCA in 1909 was responsible for a nationwide explosion of group swimming lessons.

The Playground Association of America was established in 1906 in a meeting at the Washington, D.C. YMCA. Luther Gulick of the Y was the first president. The public playground movement had its origins in the recognition of the importance of healthful outdoor recreation in the urban setting, as well as the socializing effects of playgrounds. There are groups today that now recognize this and are attempting to revive the movement.

The YMCA was also an important early influence on Boy Scouts of America, which formed in 1909. The Boy Scouts encouraged participation in outdoor activities and camping. Edgar Robinson, a Chicago YMCA administrator, became the Boy Scouts’ first national director.

In 1910, the YMCA built twenty-five Y’s to serve the African American communities in twenty-three US cities in response to a challenge grant by Sears and Roebuck founder Julius Rosenwald. The Y became the launching pad for the successful lives of many African Americans, including Jesse Owens (1936 Olympic medal winner), Jackie Robinson (first baseball player in modern professional baseball in 1947), and Martin Luther King (famous for leading the Civil Rights movement and being assassinated for doing so). Others who “got game” at their local Y were basketball Hall of Fame legends Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.

Teddy Roosevelt, as Police Commissioner in New York City from 1895- 1897, befriended social reformer Jacob Riis in 1895 after reading his book How The Other Half Lives. Roosevelt’s actions led to considerable reform in New York City. He and Riis became friends for life. In a 1906 speech at a New York City YMCA, Riis offered his audience President Theodore Roosevelt as their role model.

Roosevelt became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but resigned in 1898 to form the Rough Riders on the eve of the Spanish American War. The Rough Riders were an amalgam of cowboys, Ivy Leaguers, Texas Rangers and American Indians. Roosevelt had gone west to raise cattle in the Dakotas in the mid 1880s after the death of his mother and wife and his split from the Republican Party. Teddy became enamored with the culture of the West and determined that was what America needed to restore itself.

After the war and his much-touted leadership in Cuba, Teddy Roosevelt became Governor of New York. He pressed his agenda for national fitness while in that office. In a speech he delivered in 1899, Roosevelt championed “the strenuous life”. Roosevelt went on to become president of the United States from 1901 to 1909 and the American people of the time embraced Teddy Roosevelt and his ideals. Roosevelt was a naturalist and conservationist, who doubled the national park system during his presidency. While unable to establish Grand Canyon as a national park, he managed to protect the natural treasure as a national monument until the nation was able to finally secure it as a national park.

In the aftermath of World War I, the pacifist movement and general concern with the impact of the ideals of manliness upon nationalism led to the sharp decline of the Muscular Christianity movement. The subsequent Roaring Twenties and Great Depression had similar effect. The intense commercialization of America in the boom following World War II and the introduction of television led to the overall inactivity of Americans. Athletics, once envisioned by forward-thinking men like William B. Curtis as a means to healthy and healthy competition, became spectator-oriented and money-focused.

Vestiges of Muscular Christianity remain to the present day. Local YMCAs continue to be important institutions in the American city. However, the Christian aspect is now downplayed. The Y has become secularized to an extent unimagined by its founders. The vaunted football program of Notre Dame and its vast feeder system of Catholic schools is a relic of the Catholic Church’s version of Muscular Christianity. The essence of the Muscular Christianity movement in Evangelical Protestantism manifests itself through such programs as Athletes in Action, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Promise Keepers.

Sports in America in the final decades of the 20th century shifted away from broad amateur athletic participation. There has been a colossal corporatization of athletics in America. It is no longer about health and fitness, but about money. The elite train for the opportunity to play in the big game and the rest are relegated to the role of spectator. Sports in 21st century America is, by and large, a vast spectator event. Billions of dollars from lucrative television contracts dominate professional sports. Ironically, with money playing such a huge role, most Americans cannot even afford a seat at a professional event or even at major collegiate sporting events. Athletics for most Americans has moved from the gymnasium and the playing field to the television room.

The influence of money permeates down even to youth athletic programs with the however unlikely possibility of a college scholarship in an era of astronomical tuitions. There is a tendency for youth to specialize at an early age in order to have a competitive advantage. High school athletics has become an activity of the elite, gifted athlete in the pursuit of college scholarships. High school systems expend vast amounts of money to develop talent for the semi-professional system that collegiate sports has become. In the mad scramble for the almighty dollar and the American fixation with win-at-any-cost, sportsmanship at all levels is becoming a rare phenomenon. Competitive spirit has almost completely displaced character in the American athlete.

Personal health has become an issue of monumental proportion in America. The decline from lack of fitness to obesity places a sense of urgency on the nation. A recent study showed that over a ten-year period the number of states with 40 percent or more of their young adults overweight or obese went from 1 to 39. Meanwhile, the all-consuming drive to win has caused many young people to choose to not participate in school sports. Commercialization has subverted the very purpose of athletics – overall physical and mental health and well-being.

Many people acknowledge that now is the time for a renewal of America in every respect. That must start with the American people, each and every individual. Exercise, if not the strenuous life, would be one step in improving the health and character and getting the nation back on track. A little more emphasis on the outdoors could not hurt. Recent studies have shown Americans to be extremely deficient in Vitamin D, the obvious source being sunshine.

A 21st century version of Muscular Christianity would not exclude women in our enlightened modern time. Nor would an emphasis on the strenuous life need to correlate with aggression and imperialism. Broad athletic competition would improve socialization among the many different ethnicities, which now comprise the American people.

There is a sense among many Americans that the nation has lost its way. The unwavering principles that once defined this once great nation have been compromised. Moral clarity is blurred and often debated, while basic freedoms slip away. It may take a national leader.

Meanwhile, few have ever even heard of Muscular Christianity beyond historians. The secularization of American history washed this era from the textbooks. Threads of this story, which remain, leave out the context, as so often happens with Jesus Christ and Christianity. Jesus Christ and Christianity have become politically incorrect. Nonetheless, God and Jesus Christ are very real. They exist and are a force in our universe, whether or not people choose to ignore them. It remains for Christians, in whatever form, to maintain their presence in the modern-day world. Men like Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin and Josh Hamilton are determined to make the effort.