Muscular Christianity was a philosophical movement that originated in England in the mid-19th century, characterised by a belief in patriotic duty, manliness, the moral and physical beauty of athleticism, teamwork, discipline, self-sacrifice, and "the expulsion of all that is effeminate, unEnglish and excessively intellectual".
The movement came into vogue during the Victorian era as a method of building character in students at English public schools, and is most often associated with English author Thomas Hughes and his 1857 novel Tom Brown's School Days, as well as writers Charles Kingsley and Ralph Connor. American President Theodore Roosevelt was raised in a household that practiced Muscular Christianity. Roosevelt, Kingsley, and Hughes promoted physical strength and health as well as an active pursuit of Christian ideals in personal life and politics. Muscular Christianity has continued itself through organizations that combine physical and Christian spiritual development. It is influential within both Catholicism and Protestantism.
Muscular Christianity can be traced back to Paul the Apostle, who used athletic metaphors to describe the challenges of a Christian life. However, the explicit advocacy of sport and exercise in Christianity did not appear until 1762, when Rousseau's Emile described physical education as important for the formation of moral character.
The term "Muscular Christianity" became well known in a review by the barrister T. C. Sandars of Kingsley's novel Two Years Ago in the February 21, 1857 issue of the Saturday Review. (The term had appeared slightly earlier.) Kingsley wrote a reply to this review in which he called the term "painful, if not offensive", but he later used it favourably on occasion. Hughes used it in Tom Brown at Oxford; saying that it was "a good thing to have muscled, strong and well-exercised bodies," he specified, "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."
In addition to the beliefs stated above, muscular Christianity preached the spiritual value of sports, especially team sports. As Kingsley said, "games conduce, not merely to physical, but to moral health". An article on a popular nineteenth-century Briton summed it up thus: "John MacGregor is perhaps the finest specimen of muscular Christianity that this or any other age has produced. Three men seemed to have struggled within his breast—the devout Christian, the earnest philanthropist, the enthusiastic athlete."
The idea was controversial. For one example, a reviewer mentioned "the ridicule which the 'earnest' and the 'muscular' men are doing their best to bring on all that is manly", though he still preferred "'earnestness' and 'muscular Christianity'" to eighteenth-century propriety. For another, a clergyman at Cambridge University horsewhipped a friend and fellow clergyman after hearing that he had said grace without mentioning Jesus because a Jew was present. A commentator said, "All this comes, we fear, of Muscular Christianity."
By 1901, muscular Christianity was influential enough in England that one author could praise "the Englishman going through the world with rifle in one hand and Bible in the other" and add, "If asked what our muscular Christianity has done, we point to the British Empire."
Muscular Christianity spread to other countries in the 19th century. It was well entrenched in Australian society by 1860, though not always with much recognition of the religious element. In the United States it appeared first in private schools and then in the YMCA and in the preaching of evangelists such as Dwight L. Moody. (The addition of athletics to the YMCA led to, among other things, the invention of basketball and volleyball.) Parodied by Sinclair Lewis in Elmer Gantry (though he had praised the Oberlin College YMCA for its "positive earnest muscular Christianity") and out of step with theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr, its influence declined in American mainline Protestantism. Nonetheless, it was felt in such evangelical organizations as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and the Promise Keepers.
In the 21st century, the push for a more masculine Christianity has been made by New Calvinist pastors such as John Piper, who claims, "God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother. Second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male." Because of this, Piper contends "that God has given Christianity a masculine feel."
In 2012, athletes such as Tim Tebow, Manny Pacquiao, Josh Hamilton, and Jeremy Lin have also exemplified Muscular Christianity through sharing their faith with their fans.