This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Anabaptist visions of sport

The undated picture shows Goshen students practicing soccer, what Mennonite historian Theron Schlabach called “a pacifist form of football.” — MC USA Archives

This November, I’ll be one of many scholars giving a paper at The Spirit of Sports, the 2015 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. I’ll be part of a session organized by Baylor grad student/blogger, Paul Putz, speaking on “Anabaptist Visions of Sport: Separation, Accommodation, and Transformation.”

For the first of what ought to be many times between now and the end of my presentation in November, let me emphasize that I am totally out of my depth here: when it comes to the history of sports and the history of Anabaptism, I’m an amateur. But it’s been fun teaching myself some things.

The notion of studying this particular intersection of historical fields came when I was visiting Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., earlier this year. My host, Devin Manzullo-Thomas, mentioned that Messiah didn’t participate in intercollegiate athletics until relatively late in its history, thanks to the Anabaptist strand of its Brethren in Christ heritage.

He wasn’t kidding. When BIC evangelist J. R. Zook preached at the dedication of Messiah’s oldest building in 1912, he included sports alongside evolution, biblical criticism and Unitarianism as “certain evils” to be kept out of the new school. “No murderous and gambling ball games shall disgrace the character of this institution of learning,” thundered Zook.

And so it was: for decades, Messiah had no organized sports. “When students would protest,” explained Morris Sider in his institutional history, “the response of the school’s critics was, ‘Let them take a walk,’ or ‘Let them chop wood,’ or something equally ‘useful.’ ” Aside from a specially arranged basketball game against Goshen (Ind.) College in 1941, Messiah limited its athletic competitions to intramurals until the early 1960s.

For that matter, Mennonite school Goshen also avoided intercollegiate sports from the 1920s through the late 1950s. Even then, Goshen cultivated a distinctive approach to its athletic culture, one that wasn’t challenged until the 1980s:

In years past the unusual, patient, antiheroic demeanor of Goshen coaches, exhibited in any number of contests to many successful ends, had endeared Goshen teams and coaches to their fans, instilling a kind of countercultural pride in the fact that Goshen did sports differently. But in the spring of 1982, a sizable group of student athletes criticized what they deemed Goshen’s deliberately noncompetitive approach to sports.

That from Susan Fisher Miller’s centenary history, Culture for Service, which characterized the 1982 student initiative as one of many from that time that “began to point toward a version of American conservatism, attributable, at least in part, to a national trend being set among American youth.”

The undated picture shows Goshen students practicing soccer, what Mennonite historian Theron Schlabach called “a pacifist form of football.” — MC USA Archives
The undated picture shows Goshen students practicing soccer, what Mennonite historian Theron Schlabach called “a pacifist form of football.” — Mennonite Church USA Archives

Nowadays, Goshen’s athletic department celebrates having had 21 NAIA All-Americans since 2007 and 56 national championship qualifiers. But along with these “Champions of Competition,” a page headed “All That’s Right with College Athletics” devotes just as much space to lauding Maple Leafs for being “Champions in the Classroom” and “Champions in the Community.”

But no Goshen program has achieved anything approaching the competitive results of the two soccer teams at Messiah: the Falcon men have won 10 national championships since 2000 and the women five. The softball, track and field, and wrestling teams have also won national championships. Earlier this year Messiah was named the eighth best college for female athletes, higher than any other Division III school and edging out D-I powerhouses like Alabama, Florida, Michigan and Oklahoma.

In 2009, USA Today ran a feature story on Messiah athletics, in which student-athletes, coaches and administrators made clear that personal development and fellowship were more important than winning. (“I don’t really think God concerns Himself — or Herself, however you want to say that — with who wins or loses,” said then-campus pastor, Eldon Fry.) But reporter Erik Brady did pick up on the seeming tension between Messiah’s Anabaptist roots and its latter-day embrace of sport:

Given the school’s pacifist roots, what’s with the fierce falcon mascot? “This is not a dove,” [president Kim] Phipps says. “We’re talking here about competition.”

Brady identified Messiah more in terms of evangelicalism, as did Messiah professor John Fea, in a blog post commenting on the article: “Most of our students come from evangelical backgrounds. Many of them are very pious and this often translates into their performance on the athletic fields.” So perhaps all this tells us is that the school has moved further away from its Anabaptist heritage.

All this may seem innocuous to most readers, and a far cry from the level of competition participated in by church-related universities like Texas Christian, Baylor and Notre Dame (numbers three, four and nine, respectively, in the most recent AP football poll). But even as schools like Messiah and Goshen stepped into the comparatively gentle spotlight of NCAA Division III and NAIA sports, conservative Anabaptists warned of accommodation to the world.

In a 1988 booklet for Amish-Mennonite Publications, Ronald Border aimed to share what was, in his eyes, a more “Christian View of Competitive Sports”:

It is with sadness that we note an increasing interest among the “plain” people in the competitive sports phenomenon. How can it be that some “so-called” Christian pilgrims can turn their heads aside from the golden stairway long enough to become involved in the never-ending treadmill of team successes and tribal fantasies? How can it be that some, who have once named the name of Christ, now find it more interesting to follow their sports heroes than the footsteps of the Savior? How can it be?? It is clearly our objective to expose the organized sports world as a manifestation of the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (I John 2:16). As such, it is important, then, that we take a “separated from the world” stance with respect to competitive sports. May God guide our presentation in such a way to give Him the greatest honor and glory!

I’ve got much more research to do to write my paper, but I want to return to Border’s arguments again. For as much as I want to roll my eyes at his hyperbole, part of his critique has crystallized my concern with Christian participation in one particular sport.

Chris Gehrz is a professor of history and chair of the department of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn. He lives with his wife and two children in Roseville, and attends Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton. This first appeared on his blog,The Pietist Schoolman.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!