It’s spring and in the spring Sunday mornings mean just one thing to the committed cyclist, long bike rides through the countryside. But it’s hard to combine that with regular (non-rainy day) church attendance. Running is much easier. Church starts mid-morning and it’s easy to squeeze in 5 or 10 km and then shower before making it to church.
That’s my dilemma in the spring. I confess there’s no dilemma at all come summer. Once the choir stops for the season, I’m not a regular attender. I’m not just there for the music but music means a lot to me. It’s also summer, in Canada, and I say appreciate the sun and the heat while it’s here.
But it’s fascinating to find out that church or bike ride dilemma isn’t new. When bikes started to become popular in the 1890s churches had competition. There was something else fun to do on a Sunday morning! As with any trend, some churches embraced it “ride your bike to church” and others rejected “the devil’s plaything.”
Another charge against the cycling craze was that people were spending their Sundays—often the only work-free day of the week—on bike rides rather than at church. Already, male church attendance had been on the decline. As a sport open to both women and men, cycling threatened to leave preachers with congregations made up of only the sick and the elderly.One Indianapolis minister started a riding group with young members of the church, only to be censured by older congregants for his “frivolous bicycle ways.”
At the same time, men’s cycling raised moral questions that were common to sports in general. Religious leaders worried about unhealthy, vicious competition. Taylor quotes a Presbyterian newspaper reporting on a race in 1897 in which one racer was “kept constantly loaded with cocaine.” Another pushed himself so hard that he nearly lost consciousness.
Yet, for the “muscular Christian” movement that started late in the nineteenth century, bicycles were also a useful technology. Like other sports, cycling was a way to build courage, determination, and strength. As one minister told his congregants, cycling could help them achieve “the very highest, fullest and completest physical, mental and spiritual culture.” Cycling advocates also celebrated the sport as an alternative to saloons, gaming houses, and other morally objectionable forms of recreation.
I’ve written about some of this history before. See my post Making Good Women Go Bad
Cycling was obviously unladylike (just look at the bloomers!) and there are many published speeches by clergy against the spectacle posed by women on bikes. Other clergy worried that access to transportation would make it easier for women to give into our baser natures and undertake morally loathsome activities, including prostitution and infidelity. I just love the idea that the only impediment to women’s wild sexual misbehavior is the lack of reliable independent transport.
Here is a great quote from that era, raising the specter that cycling corrupts women’s innocence.
“Cycling tends to destroy the sweet simplicity of her girlish nature; besides how dreadful it would be if, by some accident, she were to fall into the arms of a strange man” (cited in Hargreaves, 1993) Thanks Mark Falcous for pointing this one out to me.
I can’t imagine falling off my bike into someone’s arms (that would take rather a lot of coordination) but I do take the point about freedom. Here in our house, I always feel much more free from the demands of family members when I’m on my bike. “Oh, no I can’t pick you up from school. I’m on my bike. Sorry!” And there isn’t the same rush to get home so that others can use the car. Indeed, in warmer months motorized vehicles stand abandoned on our driveway as both drivers in our house pedal away on bikes. To me, the bike does feel a lot more liberating!
My favourite clergy quote admits that cycling isn’t always a bad thing: “The mere act of riding a bicycle is not in itself sinful and if it is the only means of reaching the church on a Sunday, it may be excusable.” (1885)
Indeed, some churches recognized that attendance might be in danger given that Sunday bike rides now gave both men and women a choice of something to do Sunday mornings besides sit in church. So those churches started installing bike racks and suggesting that families ride to church, thus combining the best of both worlds. Maybe churches worried about dwindling congregations, especially in the summer, ought to think about the outdoor physical activity + church combo.
Me, I’ll mostly be riding my bike. (Well, except for rainy days.) Sometimes I wish for a return of the Saturday evening service of my Catholic youth. My parents said it was for people who had to work Sunday morning but I’m pretty sure there were some cyclists there too.