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Christians and Football, the Early Years

Michigan-Minnesota football game, 1902.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Last week Christianity Today published an essay on football that I co-authored with Hunter Hampton. The piece looks at how Christians (particularly white Protestants) responded to football when the sport first became a national obsession in the 1920s. If you are at all interested in the cultural history of football, then you should check it out. We bring in a wide array of voices and institutions: J. Gresham Machen, Aimee Semple McPherson, The Christian Century, Charles Sheldon, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Wheaton College, Sinclair Lewis, the YMCA, and more. 

Here is a snippet of the introduction:

...[F]ootball’s paradox—immense popularity combined with fierce criticism—is not unique to the present moment. In many ways it is a tradition that dates back to football’s founding in the late 19th century, with moments of heightened controversy emerging from time to time ever since. The 1920s witnessed one such moment of controversy. In that decade football emerged as a truly national spectacle. Sportswriter John Tunis declared in 1928 that football is “at present a religion—sometimes it seems to be almost our national religion.” In that decade, too, renewed efforts to reform football reached a fever pitch. 
Although Christian leaders were not the most outspoken voices in the 1920s discussion about football’s place in American society, they were involved in the conversation. As another football season is set for kick off, it is worth looking at how Christian leaders nearly 100 years ago—in particular, white Protestant leaders—responded to the emergence of big-time football as America’s “national religion.” Looking anew at the old debates can perhaps help us understand the ways in which football became so entrenched in American culture, and also the ways in which football continues to unite and divide American believers today.

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