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In "Muscular Christianity," chapter 11 of Tom Brown at Oxford, Hughes defines this form of belief by contrasting those like Tom who exemplify it to the mere athlete or muscleman. The narrator points out that "our hero on his first appearance in public some years since" — that is, in Tom Brown's Schooldays — "was without his own consent at once patted on the back by the good-natured critics, and enrolled for better or worse in the brotherhood of muscular Christians, who at that time were beginning to be recognised as an actual and lusty portion of general British life." Hughes (or his narrator) at this point tells us that "as his biographer, I am not about to take exception to his enrolment" in that group, for he he doesn't see how "in these times" he couldn't have joined "a nobler brotherhood," though he rather coyly pretends to know little about muscular Christianity other than what he's gathered from "the witty expositions and comments of persons of a somewhat dyspeptic habit, who are not amongst the faithful themselves." He adds that Tom himself, who is hardly a very self-conscious young man, would not have thought of himself belonging to any such group. Nonetheless, had he met one of those "gentlemen who do the classifying for the British public" and been asked, "'Sir, you belong to a body whose creed it is to fear God, and walk 1000 miles in 1000 hours;' I believe he would have replied, 'Do I, sir? I'm very glad to hear it. They must be a very good set of fellows. How many weeks' training, do they allow?'" (129).

A few sentences later Hughes shows that, despite his statements a paragraph or so earlier, he has in fact a very clear, definite idea of muscular Christianity when he contrasts its followers to the mere strong man or athlete. According to him, "the 'muscle' man seems to have no belief whatever as to the purposes for which his body has been given him, except some hazy idea that it is to go up and down the world with him, belaboring men or captivating women for his benefit or pleasure, at once the servant and fomentor of those fierce and brutal passions which he seems tothink it a necessity, and rather a fine thing than otherwise, to indulge and obey." In sharp contrast,

the least of the muscular Christians has hold of 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. He does not hold that mere strength or activity are in themselves worthy of any respect or worship, or that one man is a bit better than another because he can knock him down, or carry a bigger sack of potatoes than he. For mere power, whether of body or intellect, he has (I hope and believe) no reverence whatever. [129-30]

If this sounds a familiar note, it is because the muscular Christian is merely the latest Victorian embodiment of the ideal knight or the true gentleman. And this simultaneous delight in the physical and the need to spiritualize it is also particularly Victorian. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, who want to create something close to a photographic realism to capture the beauties of the physical world and then use elaborate symbolism to "elevate materialism," Hughes and muscular Christianity place great emphasis upon the physical, which then must in some way be spiritualized.

Related Material


Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown at Oxford. New York: John W. Lovell Company, n.d.

Last modified 4 July 2006