Wednesday, December 17, 2014

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

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.

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