Luther Gulick: His Contributions to Springfield College, the YMCA, and "Muscular Christianity"

By Putney, Clifford | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Luther Gulick: His Contributions to Springfield College, the YMCA, and "Muscular Christianity"


Putney, Clifford, Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Abstract: Based largely on hitherto unpublished archival sources, this article focuses on the early life and career of Luther Halsey Gulick II (1865-1918). Gulick was among America's most influential educators in the Progressive Era. He is best known today for cofounding the Camp Fire Girls (CFG) with his wife Charlotte. But before his involvement with CFG he taught physical education for the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) at Springfield College, Massachusetts, in the 1890s. As a professor at Springfield, Gulick achieved a great deal, and this article examines his many accomplishments, including his invention of the YMCA Triangle (the organization's official emblem) and his role in the invention of both basketball and volleyball.

The article also analyzes Gulick's unconventional childhood, when he travelled around the world with his parents. They were Congregational missionaries who fervently hoped Luther would embrace their brand of ascetic Christianity. He preferred a religion that was more corporeal, however. This led to him becoming a leader of the "muscular Christianity" movement. Muscular Christians espoused a combination of religion and sports, although, in the end, Gulick ended up emphasizing sports over religion. Historian Clifford Putney has extensively researched the Gulick family and is the author of Missionaries in Hawai'i: The Lives of Peter and Fanny Gulick, 1797-1883 (2010).

Few American reformers achieved more in the Progressive Era than Luther Halsey Gulick II ( 1 865 - 1 9 1 8). Described by a contemporary admirer as "one of the outstanding and significant personalities of our time," Gulick was an enthusiastic educator, promoting everything from playgrounds to folk dancing. He is especially well known for his association with the Camp Fire Girls, which he and his wife Charlotte cofounded in 1912. But before he became involved with organized camping for girls, he taught young men at Springfield College, which in its early years trained staff to work for the Young Men's Christian Association in America.1

Gulick's association with the YMCA impressed C. Howard Hopkins, the organization's principal historian. He called Gulick "the most unique genius to touch the first half-century of the American Y.M.C.A." and described the 1890s as "the Gulick era." During that period, Gulick convinced the Association to accept athletics as a central part of its mission. The YMCA formerly viewed athletics as inferior to its original purpose of converting young men to Christianity. But Gulick argued that the gyms that the Association had built to lure young men into its Christian reading rooms ought to be held in honor, because exercising in gyms promised to make people better Christians.2

To show a link between Christianity and athletics, Gulick argued that physical fortitude enabled Christians to do their duty. If they were weak, they were ineffectual. But if they were strong, they could uplift the world and Gulick urged them to do so. He also argued that Christians should not be anti-corporeal. Rather than denigrating the body and celebrating the spirit in the manner of many Christians from the Victorian period, in Gulick's opinion every Christian of the Progressive Era needed to acknowledge that he or she was a union of body, mind, and spirit. "Each of the three is absolutely essential," Gulick argued. He designed the YMCA's inverted triangle to symbolize his "body-mind-spirit" ideal. He also persuaded his employers, Springfield College and the YMCA, to adopt the triangle and it remains their emblem today.1

Gulick was hardly alone in thinking that Christianity should be more corporeal. Many figures of his generation thought so, too. They were part of the "muscular Christianity" movement, which flourished among American Protestants in the Progressive Era. Muscular Christianity was affiliated with the Social Gospel (the idea being that strength was needed to clean up the slums) and Gulick was among its primary leaders. …

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