The Sin of Idle Sport


Today another September starts. As evidenced by my complete neglect of the Golden Assay I had a very enjoyable good summer. I wasted it all in games, sports, outdoor pursuits; all the things one ought to do with good weather. But one can indulge too much in leisure and become ashamed of his idleness. I am reminded here of John Bunyan’s “conversion” on the Elstow village green. As roads to Damascus go, his was wonderfully banal. Bunyan, of course, was an obedient Christian his entire life, but he enjoyed sport and bell-ringing on Sabbath days and apparently considered himself a spiritual delinquent for doing so. I think he was hard on himself. The wretch worked six days a week as an itinerant tinker, and understandably, needed a day off from time to time and a little diversion to go with it. But the Creator won’t even give us that, sadly, for one Sunday, while he was playing Tip-Cat with the other sinners, a numinous voice from the heavens admonished him to find shame in fun-having and quit sports. The line at the time was that Christ disapproved of sport because it was wasted effort and an idler’s refuge. A pious Christian works six days and spends the seventh in prayer. Any deviation from a rigid schedule of industry and devotion is depravity. I think this had to do with the Calvinist position of determinism and their equating sin with rejection of God’s plan. If you spend your life in work and worship, you are carrying out the destiny God intends for you and are therefore a righteous being, a saint even. Idle pastimes, observance of leisure, general amusement, are not evils in and of themselves; it’s simply that they divert people from more meaningful activity. Bunyan’s sin was not that he was playing Tip-Cat; it was what he was not doing while playing with his friends.

This animosity towards sport has almost completely vanished in the minds of modern people. Today sport is considered a noble pursuit. The exercise one gets from sports is understood to be essential to physiological health. The signs of regular exercise on the body are considered attractive. In a complete reversal of previous opinion, the practice of sport is now thought to be an indication of personal discipline and integrity. We even use athletics as a method of instilling discipline among young people in school. It is hard to imagine how totally different our conception of sports is in the protestant Christian world from the view of past generations. It feels like it has been with us forever, but it’s actually only recently that people began having even a positive view of exercise. Before the Industrial Revolution, physical activity was associated with manual labor and low social status. Sport encompassed hunting and riding and had nothing to do with physical exertion. Beginning in the late 19th century, the inchoate science of modern medicine demonstrated physiological benefits from vigorous exercise and proper diet. This led to the growth of a spa culture among the new leisure classes and a practice of new sports like aquatics, gymnastics, tennis, etc., the performance of which was done not just for diversion but for health.


Of course, there had always been a custom of physical conditioning and training in martial life. Within the context of military service a young man was encouraged to develop his physique through exercise and perfect his combat technique with regular drills so that he might become a more effective soldier. This tradition of militarism, of cultivating virility and strength, of meeting the adversary and besting him in an honorable contest, informs the formation of modern athletics as much, if not more, than the institution and normalization of exercise and the desire for good-health.

It is surprising how many of our sports today are abstracted pantomimes of warfare; not modern war but antiquated, non-mechanized warfare. One of my favorite sports from this past summer’s Olympics was the pentathlon, a multi-event competition comprising five extremely varied disciplines: swimming, running, fencing, riding, and shooting. It only narrowly made it into the games. Though held continually in every Olympiad since 1912, many have questioned its relevance in modern athletics. First devised by Baron Peirre de Cobertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, the pentathlon was intended to model the skill-set of a 19th century cavalry soldier caught behind enemy lines: he must ride an unfamiliar horse, face the enemy with sword and pistol, swim in lake or river, and run great distances to return to his encampment. What I appreciate most about de Cobertin’s introduction of the pentathlon into the 1912 games is that these skills would have already been obsolete by the onset of the 20th century, and any doubt of this would have been completely erased with the Great War just a few years later. And yet the sport is still practiced. 72 men and women representing nations around the globe competed in the pentathlon last month, executing antiquated maneuvers of warriors from centuries ago. And lest we think our other sports are free of such influence, remember that our modern pentathlon itself is an updating of the classic contest from the ancient Olympiad. In the pentathlon of 500 BC the events were running, jumping, throwing, and wrestling. What sport does not include at least one of these most basic movements of the human body? What is athletics if not the practice of an old ritual of physical urgency? A solemn and determined preparation for the unforeseen contest to come.

Concern for Household Economy in 17th Century England

I am reading a book of autobiographical writings from Quaker women who lived in England between 1650 to 1690. These were the years of the “sufferings” for the Society of Friends, when they were persecuted by both the Church of England and the puritanical sects. The government banned their meetings in many counties, and the populace was extremely hostile toward them. In addition to violence and imprisonment, Quakers were often taken to court so that their goods could be seized. Since their beliefs restricted them from taking oaths, they were unable to defend themselves on the stand, and so, often lost the cases brought against them. Of all the offenses the Quakers had to endure—beatings, public humiliation, wrongful incarceration, loss of social standing, estrangement from family—confiscation of property and lands seems to have been for many the most injurious and intolerable. Alice Curwen was the wife of a shopkeeper in Bristol. She and her husband were both Quakers and withstood constant harassment from their neighbors and relatives, but when the king’s officers came to her store and carried off some of her merchandise, she followed them all over the city and would not leave their company until they returned what they had taken from her. In her autobiography, Mary Pennington complains at length about the confiscation of her lands in Kent. Pennington was the mother-in-law of William Penn and was reasonably well-off, with a number of farms from which she collected rent. The loss of this income seems to have affected her a great deal and she still seemed to hold a grudge against those who were responsible writing almost 15 years after:

“As such, they stoned, abused, and imprisoned us, at several towns and meetings where we went. This not being enough to prove us, and work for us a far more exceeding weight of glory, it pleased the Lord to try us by the loss of our estate, which was wrongfully withheld from us, by our relations suing us unrighteously. Our own tenants withheld what the law gave, and put us into the Court of Chancery, because we could not swear. Our relations also taking that advantage, we were put out of our dwelling-house, in an injurious, unrighteous manner. Thus we were stripped of my husband’s estate, and a great part of mine.” (1676)

One might think that the Quakers would be more willing to eschew material wealth and earthly comforts and accept a more ascetic life. This was the case for some but no for most. Many of the Quakers in the 17th century occupied a new, burgeoning middle class that was beginning to take hold in the provincial cities of England. They were small landowners, private farmers, shopkeepers and tradesman and were very much concerned with gradually and steadily accumulating wealth and bettering their position in the world. This sort proved incredibly valuable to the Quaker movement because they possessed surplus wealth and were not yet affiliated with the old feudal powers of church and aristocracy. Thus we see among the puritans of that age a major emphasis on personal prosperity (see post on Visible Saints).

New behavior in regard to wealth management and household economy could be seen all over England at that time. Samuel Pepys, writing just after the Restoration, exhibits an obsessive interest in his accounts. He keeps a regular record of his net worth in his diaries and reports every gain and loss outside of his normal income and expenses, even money obtained through bribes and collusion. One of my favorite entries in the Diaries of Samuel Pepys comes from a day in the winter of 1664 when Pepys discovers that he can save himself the expense of going to the barber everyday by learning to shave himself. After buying a razor and trying it, he reports with some astonishment that it is actually very easy to do and that he will shave himself everyday henceforth. Of course, Pepys is missing the whole point of going to the barber. This was a custom of the aristocracy, imitated by the professional classes, that signified power of coercion. The nobility demonstrated their right to power by abstaining from all work, a renunciation that included the labor of dressing and grooming oneself. To men of the middle classes who engaged in work daily and who defined themselves to a great degree by the work they did, such reservations made no sense. What we see in Pepys’s determination to shave himself is the incremental formation of a new value system, founded on industriousness, self-reliance, prosperity, and thrift.

Doctrine of Visible Saints

In the Puritan sects of 17th century Britain, visible saints were those select few whom God had ordained righteous and who observably enjoyed the fruits of God’s grace. The visible saints did good works. They were honest and compassionate. They possessed strength of reason and could defend God’s word with eloquence and courage. Visible saints were good because God made them to be good. He furnished them with intelligence, charisma, and an aptitude for moral discipline. Their saintliness was made visible through qualities of behavior, their zeal for the Word, their station in society, and, most often and most obviously, through their acquisition of material wealth. I think the wealth component might have been the basis for the doctrine. There was a bourgeoning middle class in England during the 17th century. Common people—not just lords and noblemen—began owning surpluses of property and assets. To justify their right to wealth, these new members of the middle class began asserting that God desired them to be successful and that anyone questioned their worthiness would be challenging God’s will.

We often mistakenly attribute the protestant schism from the Catholic Church as being caused by frustrations with papal corruption and an unwillingness of sovereign rulers to submit to the church’s power. While these concerns certainly encouraged the spread of Protestantism, it cannot be said that Martin Luther risked life, limb, and his eternal soul because he was upset that the Vatican was taking bribes. Matters of power and administration could be resolved internally—they always had been. Luther’s contention with the church was doctrinal. He was calling into question old, foundational beliefs which to correct would have required an undoing of orthodoxy dating back to the first council of Nicaea. Specifically, Luther challenged the church on the matter of predestination. If we are to presume that God is all-powerful and all-knowing then we must also acknowledge that God has absolute control over the universe and is the facilitating factor behind all causes and effects. This would also mean that human beings, as creations of God, must, at all times, adhere to His will, whether acting morally or immorally. Therefore, the Catholic Church’s stance on free will and its view that salvation was a thing that people achieved through good deeds and obedience had to be invalid. Luther maintained that people were already saved. As an act of grace, God had sacrificed his only son to save mankind. The only moral decision one had to make was either accepting this grace through faith in God or rejecting it. John Calvin went further, discarding the moral decision altogether. He posited in his clear, forceful way that God makes some men fit for salvation and destined for it, while for others he makes it an impossibility: “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1564)

And so it is from belief in strict predestination that the Doctrine of Visible Saints arises. As a moral system, this can be highly problematic. It erases ethical responsibility and the role of human will in individuals’ own lives. It justifies one’s success even if it comes at the expense of others and removes the obligation of charity as a means of redistribution. Perhaps most troublesome, it equates positive fortune with moral purity and misfortune with wickedness. The believer is made to accept that when bad things happen to good people, somehow the sufferer deserves it. It does not matter if the individual is good, their poor fate was predetermined and is independent of their worldly deeds.

I myself am areligious and do not have a position on the subject that could result in belief—though it is tempting to make one. I approach this debate more as a philosophical paradox. Still, I think it’s interesting to see how these shifts in doxa influence society and shape ethical values. The Doctrine of Visible Saints never totally disappeared. The rise of Methodism and subsequent spiritual revivals re-emphasizing good works and generosity have since offered some counterweight, but the tradition is still woven into the fabric of most protestant Christianity. We see it resurrected by the evangelical churches and the Church of the Latter-day Saints in the form of prosperity theology. It’s become a cornerstone of the evangelizing mission—and one can see why. They are offering an excellent value proposition: God wants you to be rich and happy, but you have to accept His grace so that He can get into your life and make it happen. More than any other message, the prosperity promise seems to resonate with people the most. It’s built mega churches and has made millionaires out of glad-handing salespriests. It’s ushered Christianity into the era of mass culture. To think, it was a doctrine derived from predetermines that did it. Of course, the part about how some people are pre-ordained to fail is usually left out of the sermons. In the prosperity gospel, everyone has a place the table. Whether it makes sense theologically is beside the point. It’s an optimistic message that everyone can get behind.