Imperial Muscular Christianity: Thomas Hughes’s Biography of David Livingstone



Although use of the term ‘muscular Christianity’ was derisive when it was first coined in the 1850s, by the end of the century it perfectly characterised popular British attitudes towards imperialism. Originally an exhortation to British boys to develop their manhood and their piety simultaneously, it was almost always associated with what J.A. Mangan has termed ‘the games ethic’,1 and public schools. Beginning with Thomas Hughes’s interpretation of Rugby School under Dr Arnold in Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), various works of juvenile fiction and numerous periodicals elaborated on Hughes’s fictional paradigm. A number of critics have noted what a good fit the central tenets of ‘muscular Christianity’ were to the needs of colonial administration; in Sinews of the Spirit2 Norman Vance characterises the tradition of Christian manliness which Hughes and his friend and fellow ‘muscular Christian’ Charles Kingsley draw upon in their writing as composed of three elements: physical manliness, chivalry and the ethic of service, and moral manliness. In True Manliness, Hughes draws these three aspects together in his discussion of courage.

‘Manliness and manfulness’ are synonymous, but they embrace more than we ordinarily mean by the word ‘courage’; for instance, tenderness and thoughtfulness for others. They include that courage which lies at the root of all manliness, but is, in fact, only its lowest or rudest form. Indeed, we must admit that it is not exclusively a human quality at all, but one which we share with other animals, and which some of them — for instance the bulldog and weasel — exhibit with a certainty and a thoroughness, which is very rare amongst mankind.3


Moral Courage Patron Saint Physical Prowess Physical Stamina Rude Form 
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    J.A. Mangan, The Games Ethic and Imperialism: Aspects of the Diffusion of an Ideal (New York: Viking, 1986), pp. 168–92.Google Scholar
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    Norman Vance, The Sinews of the Spirit: The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).Google Scholar
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1998

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