Cover image for Muscular Christianity : manhood and sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920
Muscular Christianity : manhood and sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920
Putney, Clifford, 1963-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
x, 300 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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BR517 .P88 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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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 19th 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 study, Clifford Putney details how Protestant leaders promoted competitive sports and physical education to create an ideal of Christian manliness. Though rooted in the new culture of manhood, muscular Christianity was conceived to reinvigorate Protestantism itself, which in the minds of many was increasingly failing to create masculine, forceful natures capable of withstanding an influx of Catholic immigrants.

Author Notes

Clifford Putney is Assistant Professor of History at Bentley College.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

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

Publisher's Weekly Review

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.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Lest someone be confused, the present volume has the same title (subtitles differ) as a different recent volume by Tony Ladd and James Mathisen (CH, Dec'99). Putney's work is a revision of his dissertation at Brandeis, vividly illustrated in 1,061 notes for 207 pages of text. Interestingly, Putney (history, Bentley College) refers to Ladd's volume in notes but fails to place it in his selected bibliography. Odd, too, for a scholarly work, that over three dozen notes carry the words "quoted in," as the writer has been led by secondary sources to important primary source quotations. Nevertheless, Putney does give a fine survey of muscular Christianity in Protestant America from 1880 to 1920. He sees this movement's major goals as "fulfilling emotional needs" as well as "'defeminizing' the clergy, 'masculinizing' religious imagery, and getting more men involved in the churches." His fresh contributions are found in chapters on "Muscular Women" and "Christians in Khaki." In the first, jockettes for Jesus join the jocks for Jesus, and in the second, Putney depicts a terribly confusing scenario in relation to war and muscular Christianity. Within his time frame (1880-1920) Putney is comfortable; outside his time frame he is weak in relation to the history of sports. Upper-division undergraduate and graduate students; professionals. G. H. Shriver emeritus, Georgia Southern University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. viii
Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. 1
1 The Birth of a Movementp. 11
2 God in the Gymp. 45
3 Men and Religionp. 73
4 Fishers of Boysp. 99
5 Worldwide Redemptionp. 127
6 Muscular Womenp. 144
7 Christians in Khakip. 162
Conclusionp. 195
Notesp. 209
Selected Bibliographyp. 269
Indexp. 281