Now that Super Bowl XLV is behind us many people across the United States are anxiously awaiting the arrival of pitchers and catchers to spring training activities of their favorite baseball teams. Players for Milwaukee and Cleveland and San Francisco report to facilities in Florida and Arizona to prepare themselves for a grueling pre-season schedule, 162 regular season games, and, if they do well, several post-season games leading to the coveted World Series in late October/early November.
Today while scanning a few memoirs for a researcher I came across an 1869 committee report (see below) from the Cincinnati annual conference journal of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Methodists, it seemed, were not permitted to play baseball without serious implications on their souls. It was not pleasing to God – and followers of Wesley were instructed to “purge themselves” from the evils associated with the game. A bat, ball, and leather glove seemed to “alienate the youth especially from God’s service and favor.”
This brief committee report reminded me of a course I taught in 2006 on the history of American sports at Fairleigh Dickinson University. I knew self-acclaimed Christians had played baseball (they still do so today). Outrageously popular early 20th-century evangelist Billy Sunday (though not a Methodist) was perhaps the most well-known baseball player turned evangelist. He had even been asked to preach in chapel at Drew Theological Seminary nearly 100 years ago. But, during the course I found former major-leaguer Christy Mathewson. He was a contradiction, it seemed, as both professional baseball player and active Methodist.
Mathewson entered professional baseball in 1900 playing for both the New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds. He was an excellent pitcher and performed especially well in the 1905 World Series against the Philadelphia Athletics (now Oakland A’s). Mathewson was known to have an edgy personality but because of his Christian faith would not play games on Sunday. As a Methodist he did not believe it was proper to play on the Sabbath. Reflective of his interpretation of the Book of Genesis from the Bible, Mathewson thought it best to “rest” on the Sabbath. He retired from active playing at the end of the 1916 season.
Between 1869 and 1900 Methodists had adjusted their theological position on base-ball. In 1869 Methodists thought the game was “injurious to sound piety” yet by 1900 Methodists were paid to play by major league baseball teams. This change reflected the popularity and growth of professional baseball throughout the United States but also evidenced how the Methodist Episcopal Church had acquiesced to American popular culture. It was permissible to play ball and follow Jesus – and Mathewson was an example of a Methodist who both played the game and lived out his faith on and off the field.
The following text is from the Journal of the Cincinnati Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1869)
Report on Fairs and Popular Amusements
The Committee on County and State Fairs and Popular Amusements offer the following for your adoption:
1. Resolved, That we look upon County and State Fairs legitimately and properly conducted as worthy encouragements to the agricultural and mechanical industries and the stock-growing interests of the Commonwealth, and in no sense injurious to sound morality and religion.
2. Resolved, That we are deeply grieved at the growing demoralization of these Fairs, arising from racing, trotting, betting, drinking, etc., and we are fully satisfied that the interests of morality and religion demand that the race track and all its accompaniments should be banished from these Fairs.
3. Resolved, That we respectfully and earnestly request for this subject the attention and prayerful consideration of members of the Church of God who may hold office in these Societies, and consequently must be in some measure responsible for these things.
4. Resolved, That many of the so-called popular amusements, such as dancing, card playing, base-ball playing, etc., are injurious to sound piety, and are to be considered “such diversions as can not be used in the name of the Lord.” They draw the attention from the truth, lead to a disrelish of spiritual things, and alienate the youth especially from God’s service and favor.
5. Resolved, That the present is no time for compromise with the world. Jesus demands that we be self-denying and cross-bearing Christians. Let all good people, and especially Methodists, purge themselves from these evils, as we prize morality. See the salvation of souls, and love the Lord Jesus Christ.
Respectfully submitted, W. Fitzgerald, Chairman, and C.W. Ketcham, Secretary