Simply defined, muscular Christianity is masculine, or "manly" Christianity. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Christian men in the United States have responded to the so-called "feminization" of American religion. From the seventeenth century through the end of the Victorian era, women comprised approximately two-thirds of America's Christian churches, and beginning in the 1850s men began to challenge women's dominance by making religion a manly endeavor. Organizations such as the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), Men and Religion Forward Movement, Boy Scouts, Christian Service Brigade, and, most recently, Promise Keepers sprang from this movement. These groups emphasize a uniquely masculine expression of Christian faith, American nationalism, citizenship, chivalrous behavior, and in some cases even skills in outdoor activities. Today, people often use the term "muscular Christianity" to refer to any type of male-dominated, outdoor, virile, or sports-oriented activity with a specifically Christian or evangelistic purpose.
In addition to its general connotation, muscular Christianity is also a specific movement, originating in England and finding voice in the United States beginning with the revival of 1857-1858. The term "muscular Christianity" originated as a literary device in a review of English novelist Charles Kingsley's Two Years Ago (1857) written by T. C. Sanders for the Saturday Review (February 21, 1857). Sanders recognized Kingsley as the most important and visible representative of this new movement which valued "a man who fears God and can walk a thousand miles in a thousand hours—who breathes God's free air on God's rich earth, and at the same time can hit a woodcock, doctor a horse, and twist a poker around his finger." Fellow advocate of Christian masculinity, Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857) and Tom Brown at Oxford (1860), wrote, "muscular Christians hold [to] 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." The ideal of muscular Christianity celebrated physical exertion, comradeship, and determination and emphasized manliness, morality, health, and patriotism. In these writings, the male human body was a metaphor for social, national, and religious bodies. A man must discipline his body physically and morally to become healthy and influential; in the same way, a country must assert control over socially disruptive forces in order to become a great and holy nation. Therefore, the goals of muscular Christians were not primarily individual but communal—their task was to subdue culture and render it more Christian. Inspired by this movement, Victorian urban revivalists sought to evangelize the nation, spreading the gospel and the accompanying civilizing values of middle class culture.
During the "Great Revival" of 1857-58, the United States began to express its own version of masculinized religion; by the 1860s, the term "muscular Christianity" had become commonplace in denominational publications as well as major periodicals like the New York Times. The 1857-58 revival, perhaps the closest thing in American history to a truly national awakening, differed from previous revivals in three key ways: the leadership was lay instead of clerical, its setting was urban instead of rural, and its participants were primarily male instead of female. The middle-class, white men who participated in this "businessmen's revival" formed prayer meetings in the nation's major metropolises and devoted their energies to soul-saving and social reform. The most lasting institution to emerge from this revival was the YMCA. Although the organization was founded in England in 1844 and transplanted to Montreal and Boston in 1851, it did not gain cultural importance until 1857 when urban revivalists like D. L. Moody in Chicago joined and championed the movement. Made up primarily of white, middle-class men, the YMCA sought to promote a masculinized Christianity consistent with middle-class businessmen's culture. It also sought to "civilize" the immigrant masses flooding into America's cities. The idea of muscular Christianity arose in the United States alongside post-millennial ideals of evangelical cultural dominance, manifest destiny, and worldwide mission. Evangelicals argued that the United States held the sympathy of all the nations of the world, and "God could not do without America." If the United States was to hasten the return of Jesus Christ, it must reform its cities, Christianize the masses, and serve as a beacon of Christian culture for the rest of the world. Spiritual and national aims converged as muscular Christians came to see the United States as the world's savior.
Muscular Christianity, however, was more than Christianized manifest destiny. In addition to revealing the longing for Christian culture and middle-class dominance, it also reflected gender tensions inherent in Victorian America. Antebellum Americans, somewhat fearful of the moral dangers of the open market but also seeking its maximum potential, placed men in the public sphere of economic activity and women in the private sphere of religion and moral nurture. Women would keep their husbands and children moral, men would become entrepreneurs and provide for their families, and together they would form godly homes—the backbone of a Christian nation. The ideal of muscular Christianity challenged this gendered version of Protestantism by making the evangelical faith manly. During the 1857-1858 revival, leaders aimed all the advertising at men and organized prayer meetings in urban business districts—public spaces accessible almost exclusively to men. Businessmen looked with suspicion upon women who challenged social boundaries and came downtown to participate in prayer meetings. Thus, muscular Christianity can be said to be an attempt by religiously marginalized men to recapture evangelical Christianity as a male endeavor.
In 1911, leaders of the inter-denominational and lay-led Men and Religion Forward Movement sought to bury feminized religion for good and replace it with a Protestant faith that was manly as well as friendly to a growing consumer-driven economy. Accompanying American Protestants' affirmation of vertically integrated, corporate capitalism was a new gender ideology. Evangelical men argued that religion should no longer be dominated by women somewhat leery of burgeoning capitalist growth; rather, it should become a manly endeavor fully consistent with consumer capitalism and a culture of leisure. Feminized religion's restraint of commerce had become stifling, and middle-class Protestants eventually replaced Victorian sentimentalism with a more muscular Christianity which would buttress their growing economic prosperity.
Although women in the late twentieth century continue to maintain a majority in North America's churches (approximately 60 percent), American religion is no longer perceived as effeminate or woman-dominated. The sea changes in the American economy, the re-orientation of gender coding at end of the Victorian era, and the ideal of muscular Christianity help to explain this shift from feminine to masculine Christianity. Both now exist alongside one another as we witness the proliferation of gender-focused religious groups, among them the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Christians for Biblical Equality, Promise Keepers, the "Re-Imagining" Conference, and scores more denominational groups. The ideal of muscular Christianity is a key element in the centuries-long debates regarding gender's role in defining Christian practice and the relationship between religion and commerce—debates Americans will continue for centuries to come.
—Kurt W. Peterson
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