On Why You Should Change Your Gluttonous Holiday Ways; Or, Three Things You Should Know About Muscular Christian History, and Don’t

Today's guest post comes from Miles Adam Park, a PhD Candidate at Florida State University. With today's post, Adam continues to contribute material related to muscular Christianity, health and wellness, and gender to RiAH readers.

Miles Adam Park

First thing: Progressive era muscular Christians were multiculturalists.

“Japanese things are in fashion nowadays,” claimed one 1904 periodical. But “where does Japan get her muscle and pluck?” The Japanese are “an intelligent, wholesome people; strong, clean and moral.” Indeed, Americans would be served best “to take a few lessons from them, especially in the thoroughness with which they carry out anything they undertake”; and “this feature of thoroughness is strikingly manifested in their system of physical training [i.e. jiu-jitsu].” With the prevalence of hysteria, dyspepsia, feebleminded overbreeding, excessive whiskey consumption, tobacco poison, spermatorrea, and urban squalor in America, poor American health was in need of alleviation. Muscular Christians needed an exemplary—in martial arts as well as in life—and it was not themselves. With regard to physical culture, in Progressive era America, Japan led the way.

Touted because “a comparatively weak man, if he is thoroughly versed in its mysteries, can easily overcome and kill, if he please, an opponent greatly his superior in strength,” jiu-jitsu was seen as the pinnacle of skillful display, of brains over brawn. Theodore Roosevelt, who trained in different styles of wrestling, boxing, and savate (i.e. a French style of kickboxing), was probably the most vocal and high profile proponent and practitioner of Japanese martial arts; and he was not alone. Muscular Christian health reformers took on the Japanese cause.

“Although men of very small stature,” a 1904 Christian Advocate article exclaimed, the Japanese “are among the strongest in the world.” Fortunately, about a half an hour is “a long enough time to devote to jiu-jitsu,” and, “any boy of fourteen or fifteen who will faithfully practice their system of producing strength will find himself, at the end of a few months, able to cope in the feats of power with the average man of twenty-five, and all this without the dangerous practice of lifting very heavy weights.” Americans could be (and should be more) like the Japanese. The overall point of the article was that the Japanese simply breathe healthier; they have learned to take air better than Americans. An article from the Christian Observer that same year echoed this critique of American health culture, saying that “the Japanese have taught Europeans and Americans a lesson and quenched in some degree the conceit of Caucasian in his superior capacity to do all things.” It went on: “The Japanese are allowed to be among the very strongest people on the earth. They are strong mentally and physically.” And it is their diet “which enables them to develop such hardy frames and such well-balanced and keen brains.” The Japanese ate better. Even their women were better. Japanese women were more physically and mentally robust, less susceptible to hysteria and overwhelming nervousness than their Western counterparts. Not to be confused with the American woman who is easily shaken with a tendency to “rage inwardly at first,” a 1905 article in The Ladies’ Home Journal touted “the wonderful self-control of Japanese women”; it went on: a Japanese woman “is gentle and quiet, takes adversity without grumbling, makes the best of things, and has no nerves.” Better physical strength, better food, better air, better female psyches—all thanks to Japanese physical culture and jiu-jitsu. For further refinement of their gospel of health and fitness, Progressive era muscular Christians looked eastward.

Second and third things:

Post-WWI muscular Christians were alive and well; and they were eugenicists.

After WWI, muscular Christian commitments to health were wedded to the bourgeoning eugenic notions and practices of racial purification. Popularity of western marital arts like boxing and wrestling reached new highs as, simultaneously, popularity of eastern martial arts all but disappeared. Better babies were more imperative than better martial arts. Christian physicality was still paramount. But eugenics was the new backbone of American physical culture. In the 20s and 30s, western genealogical science held even more promise for muscular Christians than eastern martial science.

Heralding the sentiments of the forthcoming interwar generation of muscular Christians, G. Stanley Hall claimed in 1911 that the science of eugenics was “simply a legitimate new interpretation of our Christianity.” For surely, “Jehovah’s laws are at bottom those of eugenics.” Since Christian concern for health was (or ought be) a public provision, for Hall, eugenics was a systematic solution. American physical culture needed a science because scientific intervention was necessary. Others agreed. Several pastors and representatives from the Y.M.C.A., the Y.W.C.A., and the W.C.T.U. attended the First National Conference on Race Betterment at John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium in 1914 for answers. Collectively, they hoped to hash out some solutions to the biological problems of declining American health and physicality as well as the “degeneracy of the race.” The poorly birthed threatened overall American health, and sometimes, violently so. Karl Reiland, who’s New York Episcopal church congregation was fired upon by a “lunatic, recently escaped from an asylum,” championed the eugenics cause in 1928, writing, “the first and foremost salvation of man individually, collectively and universally is the here and now salvation of a healthy heritage—a healthy birth and a healthy up-bringing.” Christianity, he continued, ought aim “to produce sound, safe and sane human beings.” Good offspring was essential. Immigrants had nothing to add but their deficient evolutionary heritage. Babies represented the muscular Christian future. In addition to decrying the “heathen invasion” of America, Mabel Potter Daggett applauded the forward-thinking Iowa State Fair for taking “a practical step in eugenics” for their “better babies” contests, wherein “babies are judged like prize cattle for their physical excellence.” Leading Christians like Dean Sumner of the Chicago Protestant Episcopal Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul agreed, as he added that “no persons will be married at the Cathedral unless they present a certificate of health from a reputable physician to the effect that they are normal physically and mentally and have neither an incurable nor a communicable disease.” Post-progressive era muscular Christianity and eugenics was a perfect fit.

American health was compromised from within and without. In Billy Sunday’s words, all it takes is “one God-forsaken, vicious, corrupt man and woman to breed and propagate the whole damn world by their offspring.” Physical degenerates were a public problem with a theologic, scientific solution. American Breeders Magazine beckoned universities to offer “summer courses in eugenics for preachers” and Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. workers. The American Eugenics Society even had a Committee on the Cooperation with Clergymen. Many liberal Protestants agreed—Harry Fosdick, Bishop William Lawrence, and Frederick Lynch served on the Eugenics Committee of the United States of America for the International Commission on Eugenics. Social Gospelers and interwar muscular Christians had common cause. Lamenting the loss of healthful American vigor, Walter Rauschenbusch claimed in his Christianity and the Social Crisis that the new immigrants were no longer “advancing, but receding in stamina, and bequeathing an enfeebled equipment to the next generation.” Since, for Rauschenbusch, “depravity of will and corruption of nature are transmitted wherever life itself is transmitted,” “science … corroborates the doctrine of original sin.” “Idiocy and feeble-mindedness, neurotic disturbances, weakness of inhibition, perverse desires, stubbornness and antisocial impulses in children must have had their adequate biological causes somewhere back on the line, even if we lack the records,” he continued. Sin and disease were biological issues with biological resolutions. Muscular Christians and liberal Protestants rallied.

It is no coincidence that the Emergency Quota Act was instituted the same year that the American Birth Control League was formed and Charles Atlas won the World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man contest. Foreign martial arts had less and less to offer Caucasian muscular Christians as they turned to racial science—for God and country—and wedded their religious concerns to the legal and cultural quests to purify the nation and redeem its health. The salvific potential of exercise seemed to pale in comparison to the potential of the science of heredity. Muscular Christians and liberal Protestants, together, locked elbows with a new, scientific American physical culture.


Unknown said…
For more on Dr. Kellogg and eugenics, see Brian C. Wilson's recent book, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living (Indiana University Press, 2014).

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