Brawn and Brain*

Christian Life
Guest Writer Thomas DeWitt Talmage

“What? know you not that your body is the temple of … God, and you are not your own? … Therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20).

Governor Wiseman was with us this evening at the tea-table; we always had either muffins or waffles when Governor Wiseman was at tea. We never knew why he was called governor, for he certainly never ruled over any state, but perhaps it was his wise look that got him the name. He never laughed, and had his round spectacles far down on the end of his nose, so that he could see as far into his plate as any man that ever sat at our tea-table. When he talked, the conversation was all on his side. He considered himself oracular on most subjects. You had but to ask him a question, and without lifting his head, his eye vibrating from fork to muffin, he would go on till he had said all he knew on that theme. We did not invite him to our house more than once in about three months, for too much of a good thing is a bad thing.


We were mentioning the fact that about thirty US colleges last summer contested for the championship in boat-racing. About 200,000 young ladies could not sleep nights, so anxious were they to know whether Yale or Williams would be the winner. The newspapers gave three and four columns to the particulars, the telegraph wires thrilled the victory to all parts of the land. Some of the religious papers condemned the whole affair, enlarging on the strained wrists, broken blood vessels and barbaric animalism of men who ought to have been rowing their race with the binomial theorem for one oar and Lord Kames’ Elements of Criticism for the other.

For the most part, we sympathized with the boys, and confess that at our hotel we kept careful watch of the bulletin to see whose boat came in ahead. We are disposed to applaud anything that will give our young men muscular development. Students have such a tendency to lounge, and mope, and chew, and eat almond-nuts at midnight, and read novels after they go to bed, the candlestick set up on Webster’s dictionary or the Bible, that we prize anything that makes them cautious about their health, as they must be if they would enter the list of contestants. How many of our country boys enter the freshman class of college in robust health, which lasts them about a twelvemonth; then in the sophomore year they lose their liver; in the junior, they lose their stomach; in the senior, they lose their backbone; graduating skeletons, more fit for an anatomical museum than the bar or pulpit.

“Midnight oil,” so much eulogized, is the poorest kind of kerosene. Where hard study kills one student, bad habits kill a hundred. Kirk White, while at Cambridge, wrote beautiful hymns; but if he had gone to bed at ten o’clock that night instead of three o’clock the next morning, he would have been of more service to the world and a healthier example to all collegians. Much of the learning of the day is unhealthy, and much of the religion nauseous. We want, first of all, a clean heart, and next a strong stomach ….

But, after all, there was something wrong about those summer boat-races. A student with a stout arm, and great girth, and full chest, and nothing else, is not at all admirable. Mind and body need to be driven in tandem, the body for the wheel horse and the intellect the leader …. Let Yale and Harvard and Williams and Princeton and Dartmouth see who has the champion among scholars …. Let us see whether the students of Drs McCosh, or Porter, or Campbell, or Smith are most worthy to wear the belt. About 12:00 noon let the literary flotilla start prow and prow, oar-lock and oar-lock. Let Helicon empty its waters to swell the river of knowledge on which they row. Right foot on right rib of the boat, and left foot on the left rib—bend into it, my hearties, bend!—and our craft come out four lengths ahead.

Give the brain a chance as well as the arm. Do not let the animal eat up the soul. Let the body be the well-fashioned hulk, and the mind the white sails, all hoisted, everything, from flying jib to spanker, bearing on toward the harbor of glorious achievement. When that boat starts, we want to be on the bank to cheer, and after sundown help fill the air with sky-rockets.


“By the way,” I said, “Governor Wiseman, do you not think that we need more outdoor exercise, and that contact with the natural world would have a cheering tendency?” …

“I prefer those recreations that are good for both body and soul,” he answered. “We want our entire nature developed.

“There is just now an attempt at the glorification of muscle. The man who can row the swiftest, or strike a ball the farthest, or drop the strongest wrestler is coming to be of more importance. Strong muscle is a grand thing to have, but everything depends on how you use it …. If the Harvard or Yale student shall come in from the boat-race and apply his athletic strength to rowing the world out of the breakers, we say, ‘All hail!’ to him. The more physical force a man has, the better; but if Samson finds nothing more useful to do than carrying gate-posts (Judges 16:3), his strong muscle is only a nuisance.

“By all means let us culture physical energy. Let there be more gymnasiums in our colleges and theological seminaries. Let the student know how to wield oar and bat, and in good boyish wrestle see who is the strongest. The health of mental and spiritual work often depends on physical health …. If this world is to be taken for God, we want more sanctified muscle. The man who comes to his Christian work having had sound sleep the night before, and the result of roast beef rare in his organism, can do almost anything ….


Interrupting the governor at this point, we asked him if he did not think that rowing, ball-playing, and other athletic exercises might be made an antidote to the unhealthy religion that is sometimes manifest.

The governor replied, “I like this new mode of mingling religion with summer pleasures. Soon the Methodists will be shaking out their tents and packing their lunch-baskets and buying their railroad and steamboat tickets for the camp-meeting grounds.’s Vineyard, Round Lake, Ocean Grove, and Sea Cliff will soon mingle psalms and prayers with the voice of surf and forest. John Heyl Vincent, the silver trumpet of Sabbath-schoolism, is marshaling a meeting for the banks of Chautauqua Lake, which will probably be the grandest religious picnic ever held since the 5,000 sat down on the grassy hillside and had a surplus of provision to take home to those who were too stupid to go (Mark 6:30-44).

“From the arrangement being made for that meeting in August, I judge there will be so much consecrated enthusiasm that there may be danger that some morning, as the sun strikes gloriously through the ascending mist of Chautauqua Lake, our friends may all go up in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11) …. If they do go up in that way, may their mantle or their straw hat fall this way!

“Why not have all our churches and denominations take a summer airing? The breath of the pine woods or a wrestle with the waters would put an end to everything like morbid religion. One reason why the apostles had such healthy theology is that they went-a-fishing (John 21:3; Luke 5:2). We would like to see the day when we will have Presbyterian camp meetings, and Episcopalian camp meetings, and Baptist camp meetings, and Congregational camp meetings ….


“Where, governor, do you expect to recreate this coming summer?”

“I have not yet made up my mind …. What the people of our cities need is quiet. What the people of the country need is sightseeing. Let the mountains come to New York and New York go to the mountains …. The healthiest recreations do not cost much. In boyhood, with a string and a crooked pin attached to it, I fished up more fun from the millpond than last summer with a $5 apparatus I caught among the Franconia Mountains. The nearest I ever get to heaven in this world is lying flat down on my back under a tree, looking up through the branches, five miles off from a post-office or a telegraph station.”


“Governor, do you ever have the blues?”

The governor, putting his knife across the plate and drawing his spectacles up on his forehead, replied in the style of an orator, “Almost every nature, however sprightly, sometimes will drop into a minor key, or a subdued mood that in common parlance is recognized as the blues. There may be no adverse causes at work, but somehow the bells of the soul stop ringing, and you feel like sitting quiet, and you strike off 50% from all your worldly and spiritual prospects. The immediate cause may be a northeast wind, or a balky liver, or an enlarged spleen, or pickled oysters at 12:00 midnight.

“In such depressed state no one can afford to sit for an hour. First of all, let him get up and go out of doors. Fresh air, and the faces of cheerful men, and pleasant women, and frolicsome children, will in fifteen minutes kill moping. The first moment your friend strikes the keyboard of your soul, it will ring music ….

“Besides that, why sit here with the blues? …. Let someone with a strong voice give out the long-metre doxology, and the whole world will praise God, from whom all blessings flow.”

“But do you not suppose, Governor Wiseman, that every man has his annoying days?”

“Yes, yes.” While the governor was buttering another muffin, and allowing it to cool, he continued by saying, “I keep well by allowing hardly anything to trouble me, and by looking on the bright side of things.

“There are times when everything seems to go wrong. From seven o’clock in the morning till ten o’clock at night affairs are in a twist. You rise in the morning, and the room is cold, and a button is off, and the breakfast is tough, and the stove smokes, and the pipes burst, and you start down the street irritated from head to foot. All day long things are adverse. Insinuations, petty losses, meanness on the part of customers. The ink bottle upsets and spoils the carpet. Someone gives a wrong turn to the damper, and the gas escapes. An agent comes in determined to insure your life, when it is already insured for more than it is worth, and you are afraid someone will knock you on the head to get the price of your policy …. Besides this, you have a cold in your head, and a grain of dirt in your eye, and you are a walking uneasiness. The day is out of joint, and no surgeon can set it.

“The probability is that if you would look at the weathervane, you would find that the wind is northeast, and you might remember that you have lost much sleep lately ….

“These spiked irritations of life are part of our discipline. Life would get nauseating if it were all honey. That table would be poorly set that had on it nothing but molasses. We need a little vinegar, mustard, pepper, and horseradish that brings the tears even when we do not feel pathetic. If this world were all smoothness, we would never be ready for emigration to a higher and better …. This world is a poor hitching post ….”


“Much of the Christian character of the day lacks strength and power. It is gentle enough, and active enough, and well meaning enough, but is wanting in moral muscle. It can sweetly sing at a prayer meeting, and smile graciously when it is the right time to smile, and makes an excellent nurse to pour out with steady hand a few drops of peppermint for a child that feels disturbances under the waistband, but has no qualification for the robust Christian work that is demanded.

“One reason for this is the ineffable softness of much of what is called Christian literature. The attempt is to bring us up on tracts made up of thin exhortations and goodish maxims. A nerveless treatise on commerce or science in that style would be crumpled up by the first merchant and thrown into his wastebasket. Religious nonsense is of no more use than worldly nonsense. If a man has nothing to say, he had better keep his pen wiped and his tongue still.

“There needs an infusion of strong Anglo-Saxon into religious literature, and a brawnier manliness and more impatience with lack of vigor, though it be prayerful and sanctimonious. He who stands with irksome repetitions asking people to ‘Come to Jesus,’ while he gives no strong common-sense reason why they should come, drives back the souls of men. If, with all the thrilling realities of eternity at hand, a man has nothing to write that can gather up and master the thoughts and feelings of men, his writing and speaking are a slander on the religion he wishes to eulogize.

“Weak and ineffective religion might be partially cured by more outdoor exercise. There are some duties we can perform better on our feet than on our knees. If we carry the grace of God with us down into everyday practical Christian work, we will get more spiritual strength in five minutes than by ten hours of kneeling. If Daniel had not served God except for those three times a day he worshiped toward Jerusalem (Daniel 6:1-28), the lions would have surely eaten him. The school of Christ is as much outdoors as indoors. Hard, rough work for God will develop an athletic soul. Religion will not conquer either the admiration or the affections of men by effeminacy, but by strength. Because the heart is soft is no reason why the head should be soft. The spirit of genuine religion is a spirit of great power. When Christ rides in apocalyptic vision (Revelation 19:11-17), it is not on a weak and stupid beast, but on a horse—emblem of majesty and strength.”


This reminded me of my visit recently to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of New York, with its reading-rooms and library and gymnasium and bath-rooms, all means of grace—a place that proposes to charm young men from places of sin by making religion attractive. It is a palace for the Lord—the pride of New York, or ought to be; I do not believe it really is, but it ought to be, as I shared with the governor.

It is fifty churches with its arms of Christian usefulness stretched out toward the young men. a young man come in mentally worn out, it gives him dumbbells, parallel bars, and a bowling alley with no rum at either end of it. If physically worsted, it rests him amid pictures and books and newspapers. If a young man come in wanting something for the soul, there are the Bible classes, prayer meetings, and preaching of the gospel.

Religion wears no monk’s cowl in that place, no hair shirt, no spiked sandals, but the floor and the ceiling and the lounges and the tables and the cheerful attendants seem to say: “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). I never saw a more beautiful scene in any public building than on one of these bright sofas, fit for any parlor in New York, where lay a weary, plain, exhausted man resting—sound asleep. A triumph of Christianity that building is—a Christianity that is erecting lighthouses on all the coasts, and planting its batteries on every hilltop, and spreading its banquets all the world over.


I then went on to tell him, “I have been attending the annual conventions in New York, and find that they are about dead. Tell me, governor, what killed them?”

Governor Wiseman replied, “It is a great pity that the annual conventions are dead. They once lived a robust life, but began some fifteen years ago to languish, and have finally expired …. What killed them? I answer, Relocation was one of the causes. There never has been any such place for the conventions as the Broadway Tabernacle. It was large and social and central. When that place was torn down, the annual conventions began their travels: wandering here and there, never in the same place twice. Going some morning out of the warm sunshine into some cathedral-looking place, they got the chills, and under the dark stained glass everything looked blue ….

“Diluted Christian oratory also helped to kill them. The men whom we heard in our boyhood on the Broadway platform believed in a whole Bible, and felt that if the gospel did not save the world, nothing ever would; consequently, they spoke in blood-red earnestness and made the place quake with their enthusiasm. There came afterward a weak-kneed stock of ministers who thought that part of the Bible was true, if they were not very much mistaken, and that, on the whole, religion was a good thing for most people and that man could be easily saved if we could get the phrenologist to fix up his head, and the gymnasium to develop his muscle, and the minister to coax him out of his indiscretions. Well, the annual meetings could not live on pap and confectionery, and so they died for lack of strong meat.”

“The body becomes stronger as its members become healthier. The whole church of God gains when the members that compose it begin to seek a better and a higher life.” ~AW Tozer

Copyright © 2018 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit

*Adapted from “Brawn or Brain,” “Three Visits,” “Wiseman, Heavyasbricks and Quizzle,” “A Layer of Waffles,” Thomas DeWitt Talmage [1832-1902], Around the Tea-Table (New York: Bible House, 1895). Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.