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Religion and the Rise of Sport in England by Hugh McLeod

03 February 2023

John Pridmore looks at the sporting instinct

SURVIVORS of the conservative Evangelical sub-culture of the 1950s and ’60s will recall how we tied ourselves in knots over the question which recreational activities were allowed to us on Sundays. At our Crusader camps, we debated whether podex was permitted on the Lord’s Day. On balance, we thought not, and we devoted ourselves instead to the indubitably godly pastime of “Bible charades”.

The relationship of religion and sport in England, the subject of Professor Hugh McLeod’s immensely fascinating new book, is a formidably complicated issue, and a lesser scholar might well have become lost at sea in trying to disentangle its multiple threads. But McLeod does not lose his way. He provides us both with a clear overview of the cultural shifts that marked the continually evolving relationship of religion and sport and with a wealth of sharply observed pertinent detail. While there have been specialist studies of particular aspects of the interplay of faith and sport, there have been few comprehensive surveys of the whole field such as this. Here is a work unlikely to be soon surpassed.

McLeod starts with “the old sporting world” of the 18th century, in which the gentry — the parson among them — went hunting, while the lower orders enjoyed their wrestling, bull-baiting, and stool-ball. In the first half of the 19th century, games-players came under increasing attack from the pious, though the latter used a variety of weaponry in their campaigns. There were puritan objections to the drinking and gambling that sport was deemed to encourage, and Sabbatarian disapproval of activity seen as breaching the Fourth Commandment. Religious and secular voices joined in condemning the brutality of prize-fighting and the cruelty of blood sports.

There was, as McLeod has it, “warfare between sport and religion”. That warfare waxed most fiercely in the West Country, where Methodist abhorrence of idleness and a lurking suspicion of anything enjoyable led to widespread rejection of all forms of sport as sinful. There followed, as the 19th century unfolded, a gradual shift in Christian opinion towards a more positive view of sport. Bodies came to be seen to be as important as souls. Sunday Schools commonly had a gymnasium attached. Church-based clubs and institutes multiplied, each providing a wide range of recreational activities.

So we come to the well-known but far less well understood turn of phrase “muscular Christianity”. McLeod’s nuanced discussion of the term shows that what it meant depended largely on who was using it. Advocates of muscular Christianity, such as public-school headmasters and Mr A. K. Yapp of the YMCA (“a mass of masculinity”), made much of the virtue of “manliness”, a notion now rightly ruled out of court in Christian discourse.

McLeod’s astonishingly wide-ranging discussion includes perceptive commentary on the huge status of sport — and the sports personality — in popular culture today. He asks what space is left for religion in sport, now a vast commercial industry, beyond that of the chaplain to a football club, scattering the ashes of a departed fan. He discusses “the sporting icon”, and we are distressed to learn that the late Bishop David Sheppard admitted in an interview that, as captain of Sussex, he occasionally used tactics on the field which were not altogether cricket.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

Religion and the Rise of Sport in England
Hugh McLeod
Oxford University Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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