Muscular Christianity is a “manly” or masculine practice of Christianity that emphasizes health, fitness, and morality, as well as commitment to Christ. Muscular Christianity began in Victorian England and especially influenced the United States during the 19th century.
The term muscular Christianity originated in a review written by T. C. Sanders of English novelist Charles Kingsley’s Two Years Ago in 1857. Kingsley was one of several thinkers who were putting forward the idea of a masculine expression of Christianity that would result in what Sanders described in the Saturday Review as “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.”
Muscular Christianity, a philosophy that emphasized physical exertion, manliness, patriotism, sports, and the outdoors, gained traction in America in the Great Revival of 1857—58. This masculine expression of Christianity was seen as especially important in an American church that, at the time, was comprised of about two-thirds women. In an effort to combat the “feminization” of Christianity, clubs and prayer meetings were held in male-dominated spaces, emphasizing masculine pursuits alongside ideals of patriotism, manifest destiny, and the worldwide mission field. The beginnings of the YMCA in 1844 were linked to the muscular Christianity movement.
Ideas of muscular Christianity especially flourished in the realm of sports. Approaching the turn of the century, Theodore Roosevelt advocated for the importance of American football when it faced controversy due to high numbers of player deaths. “The rough play, if confined within manly and honorable limits, is an advantage,” he wrote in a letter in 1895. Others agreed—the feeling was that athletic competition, especially that which involved some risk, warded off “softness” and was useful in forming positive character traits.
Vestiges of muscular Christianity remain. In the 20th and 21st centuries, a plethora of organizations like Promise Keepers have arisen or continue to operate, focusing on male-centered expressions of faith. Though the emphasis on masculinizing Christianity has ebbed since the 19th century, the legacy of the muscular Christianity movement has contributed to gender-specific Bible studies, men’s ministries, and books like Wild at Heart by John Eldredge.
The muscular Christianity movement explores important aspects of what it means to follow Christ as a man. However, over 150 years later, despite the barbeques, the football games, the camping trips, and the paintball battles, churches still often struggle to connect with men.
Scripture doesn’t demand that men be physically strong or conform to their society’s perception of ideal manly behavior. We are called to be more like Jesus (Ephesians 5:1–2).
While we should pursue godliness in all walks of life and seek the best way to glorify God with our bodies, interests, gender, and abilities, Christianity is ultimately a conformity to the person of Christ, our sinless Savior.