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Nation Beautiful: Muscular Christianity and the Quest for Perfection


This thesis is a critical examination of muscular Christianity, “a movement emphasizing rigorous physical training for the good of men’s souls,” (Blazer, 2012, 289) and its quest for perfection near the end of the long nineteenth century. An exaggerated sense of social crises and a certain nostalgic utopianism led muscular Christians to try and realize a white Protestant utopia throughout the entire nation. Yet, as muscular Christianity continued, the movement faced significant obstacles that either narrowed its scope of achievable perfection or deepened contention within the movement. With obstacles accumulating, how was it that muscular Christians changed their perspective on the social situation of the U.S. as seemingly apocalyptic to something much less severe? I argue that in the muscular Christian’s continual efforts to achieve utopia, the nation’s social conditions dwindled in relevancy compared to his and God’s indispensable roles in achieving perfection. To inform my argument, I closely examine the writings and speeches of leading muscular Christians as well as published articles of unknown authors that refer to muscular Christianity. This thesis aims to foster explicit connections between muscular Christianity, William James’ theory of religious experience, American eugenics and progressivism.

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