When you tune in to the Olympics, do you realize that the Bible has shaped what you’re watching? It’s a little known fact that in the 19th century, Christian principles, informed by Scripture, helped shift the West’s attention from cruel sports like cock-fighting and bear-baiting to mass spectator sports like rugby, soccer, cricket, and tennis. A result of this development is the popularity of the modern Olympic Games. As one British historian put it, the rise of spectator sports together with the widespread establishment of new public parks and sports grounds “contributed to the emancipation of the body and mind of millions.”
The evangelical revival of the late 18th and early 19th centuries created a new social and sporting ethic based on the idea that vigorous outdoor recreation was not only vital to the mental and physical health of Britain’s growing urban population, but that it also provided an opportunity for improving moral and social attitudes by developing an ethos of “team spirit” and “sportsmanship.” Sports, it was argued, could be used as a vehicle for inculcating self-discipline, combating personal selfishness, and transcending class divisions. Influenced by these ideas, Christians were actively involved in the development of sports both as patrons and players.
By the 1800s, a new attitude about sports emerged as part of a worldview that came to be known as “muscular Christianity”—popularized by British Christian writers Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) and Thomas Hughes (1822-1896). Hughes wrote in his novel Tom Brown at Oxford 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.” Clearly this was an attitude drawn from the Bible, for Hughes echoes 1 Corinthians 9:27 (“But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway”) and Genesis 1:28 (where God told man to “subdue” the earth). Additionally, protecting the weak and advancing righteousness are themes scattered across the Old the New Testaments.
Buttressed by a biblical understanding of recreation, sports like soccer, cricket, rugby, and golf took off in the UK. Following Britain’s example, muscular Christianity spread to other countries, appearing in the US, for instance, first in the private schools and then in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) where it led to the invention of basketball and volleyball.
Modern sports may not have attained their honorable and prominent status in society if not for a group of British Christians who took their Bibles in hand as they thought about athletic competition. Yet sad to say, few who watch or participate in sports around the world today realize how much they owe to Scripture’s influence.
Note: A version of this article was originally published in Kairos Journal and posted on the BibleMesh blog in August 2012.