body, books, spirituality

Frank Answers About the Body in Protestant Spirituality

In 2020 Cascade Books, a division of Wipf & Stock Publishers in Eugene, OR, brought out a new edition of Protestant Spiritual Traditions, which I originally edited for Paulist Press in 1986. To this was added a second volume which added more Protestant spiritual traditions to the ones covered in what is now Volume 1. Volume 1 includes Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, Anglican, Puritan, Pietist, and Methodist spiritualities. Volume 1 adds Baptist, Quaker, Evangelical, and Pentecostal spiritualities, and East Asian spiritual practices to those in Volume 1. But I added to Volume 2 a lengthy essay on “The Body in Protestant Spirituality.”

Why did I add this essay on “The Body” to a book that was dealing with denominational spiritual traditions? Because this was a way of going through the history of Protestantism looking at Protestant contributions to Christian spirituality and Western culture that transcends denominations, and that weren’t much discussed in the essays.

The body has become a new interest in spirituality, which has previously focused more on the soul. The desires of the flesh, even a focus on the needs of our bodily life, have been regarded as detrimental to the purity of the soul. More recently, it has been recognized that social activism is complementary to the contemplative life and embodied mind theory has shown that the mind is dependent on sensorimotor information supplied to the brain and the nervous system. As a liturgist I have long taught, and experienced in my own life, that religious ritual uses the body’s senses and physical gestures to enable receptivity to the divine presence and to facilitate response to the encounter with God.

Morning prayer on bended knee and naked before the Lord, demonstrating humility, vulnerability, and openness.

No religion and no Christian denomination is without ritual acts, from the simplist to the most elaborate. No religion and no Christian denomination is without the use of the body in spiritual practices of worship, prayer, fasting, feasting, and service to others. My effort in my essay on “The Body in Protestant Spiritual” was to identify the contributions of Protestantism to a body-based spirituality. It turned out that the list became quite long. But it was not miscellaneous, because one practice led directly to the next.

These contributions begin with an emphasis on marriage and family as a way of living the Christian life in opposition to the emphasis on virginity and celibacy in the ancient and medieval church. This implies embracing sex and sexuality as a divine gift rather than renouncing it as a drag on the soul. The family rather than the cloister became the center of spiritual life for Protestants. Arguably this was Protestantism’s greatest social revolution.

Martin and Katarina von Bora Luther’s home –the former Black Cloister where Luther had lived as an Augustinian friar.

There were consequences of the assault on celibacy that I felt compelled to follow to show further contributions of Protestantism to spirituality and culture. As monasteries emptied out and closed, Luther advocated using their endowments to fund town common chests to end begging and address the needs of the hungry poor. Other reformers followed Luther’s lead in providing civic charity rather than individual almsgiving for the hungry poor.

Empty monastic buildings were turned into hospitals and orphanages, such as those in Geneva and Halle (the amazing work of pietist leader August Hermann Francke). Protestant ministries addressed the issues of bodily health and intellectual development as well as the salvation of souls. The Halle Orphanage provided German schools for common children (in contrast with the more elite Latin schools), and taught science as well as the humanities.

Francke’s Halle Orphanage

The Halle Foundation also became the first Protestant source for the recruitment of foreign missionaries. The strategy of Protestant global missions from the start was to address issues of body, mind, and soul. Medical missionaries and schools accompanied evangelistic work. Probably the most famous of Protestant medical missionaries was Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who founded a hospital in Lambarene, Gabon to “atone” for the sins of European colonialism.

Dr. Schweitzer with patients at his hospital in Gabon.

At home in Europe and America the inner mission movement addressed unhealthy social conditions in industrialized cities. This was the context for the establishment of the deaconess communities whose sisters provided health and social services to the physically isolated. Many deaconesses took up nursing. Florence Nightingale, who trained in the deaconess community at Kaiserswerth in Germany, developed standards for the modern nursing profession on the basis of her work with wounded soldiers during the Crimean War.

Florence Nightingale in an Army hospital during the Crimean War

Global missionaries were dying from tropical diseases and inner mission work in dirty industrial cities required fit ministers. The physical culture movement in the early 19th century, fathered by Friedrich Jahn in Prussia and Pehr-Henrik Ling in Sweden (both of whom had theology degrees), aimed to provide bodies fit for mission and ministry through gymnastics and exercise. These pioneers also provided the basis for modern physical education in schools and in physical training in the military (e.g. calisthenics).

Pehr-Henrik Ling (1776–1839), the father of Swedish gymnastrics , who taught that physical movement promoted health of body and mind.

The physical culture movement was promoted worldwide in the evangelical Young Men’s Christian Association under its trinitarian motto of healthy minds, bodies, and spirits. The YMCA originally provided housing and Christian fellowship for young men coming into the cities looking for jobs. As it reached out to address other problems for men and boys in urban life it provided gyms and swimming pools and instruction in swimming (many urban boys died of drowning), body building, self-defense (boxing), and developed the modern games of basketball for urban gyms and volley ball for summer camps.

Superintendent Luther Halsey Gulick (center) with Physical Department students at the International YMCA Training School.

Concurrently, so-called Muscular Christianity worked for more athleticism in the churches to attract men and boys to church and mission (and to downplay the perceived feminization of the churches). Muscular Christianity died out in the 1920s, but it was the precursor of men’s ministries organized in the mid-to-late 20th century. (I explore Promise Keepers in the 1990s in this essay.)

A church basketball team. Muscular Christianity believed young men could find God in the gym more than in church socials. Churches began building gyms in their facilities.

The YMCA’s focus on ideal masculine bodies also contributed to unspoken hospitality to gay cruising and homosexual liaisons. It ceased to be a Christian haven for homosexuals by the end of the 1960s when the Y became co-ed and family-oriented and other venues emerged for gay gatherings. The churches, however, remained unwelcoming. Pentecostal pastor Troy Perry reached out to alienated gays and lesbians with a church of their own, the Metropolitan Community Church, founded in 1960. LGBTQ members are found in all churches and religions, whether they’re “out” or not. But only some Protestant churches have intentionally welcomed and included them, including in ordained ministry.

Gay liberation profited from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. African American Protestants, most notably Baptist pastor Martin Luther King, Jr., took the lead in organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and led the freedom marches in which marchers literally put their bodies on the line in the face of police billy clubs and fire hoses.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the center with other SCLC leaders

Somewhat farther afield, I wrote about how Protestants also contributed to the revitalization of the modern postural-based Hatha Yoga through the athletic programs of the Indian YMCA and the promotion of the northern European physical culture at the Mysore Palace where T. Krishnamacharya was the head teacher of the yoga school. Yoga has become an international assortment of practices attracting millions of practitioners with roots in Indian spirituality. But the postural yoga taught by the Indian gurus was also influenced Ling-based Scandinavian gymnastics and body movement.

Krishnamacharya instructing boys in Mysore Palace Yoga School in the 1920s

Protestant thinlkers have embraced gaia theory in the environmental movement, which connects human bodies with Earth’s body. Inspired by the German Free Body Movement of the early 20th century, there has been an increased interest in naturism among Christians. The acceptance of one’s natural body has given a new seriousness to a stewardship of creation. We care for the Earth not because it is a practical thing to do so but because we love Earth as our mother from whose body we were created.

This is a quick glimpse of what’s included in my 70-page essay on “The Body in Protestant Spirituality” in Frank C. Senn, editor, Protestant Spiritual Traditions, Volume 2 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020). I hope you will read it for the details and enjoy the other articles as well by Nathan Nettleton (Baptist), Cherice Bock (Quaker), Todd E. Johnson and Janna Gosselin (Evangelical), Connie Au (Pentecostal), and Joung Chiul Lee (East Asian). The image above this post is of worship in the neo-Pentecostal Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia, which Connie Au discusses in her essay on “Pentecostal Spirituality.”

Frank C. Senn

“Glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19)

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