Consider the Young Men's Christian Association, which was imported to Boston from England in 1851, and which already boasted 205 branches in American cities by 1860. The Philadelphia branch hired the first paid YMCA director, John Wanamaker, who would go on to found America's first department store.
The YMCA placed a new emphasis on sports, which prior generations of Christians had tended to regard as a sinful diversion from spiritual concerns. In contrast, the YMCA insisted that athletic competition would assist in the struggle for souls. Bemoaning the allegedly "feminine" qualities of modern America, one minister predicted that sports would help bring "broad-shouldered men" to "eternal salvation."
But in the early 20th century, YMCA officials began to stress salvation in this world rather than the one to follow. Borrowing from the era's Social Gospel movement, they invoked the New Testament in urging such progressive reforms as the eight-hour workday, labor safety regulations, and the graduated income tax.
They also invoked sports, especially basketball. Developed in a Springfield, Mass., YMCA gymnasium by the Canadian-born minister James Naismith, basketball would teach the "broad foundation for unselfishness" that a truly Christian society requires, one YMCA official wrote.
Eventually, religious sports leaders also became leaders of American social reform. One YMCA minister was appointed New York City's first commissioner of parks; another became the first physical-education director for the city's public schools. "The playground of today is the republic of tomorrow," one advocate declared. "If you want 20 years hence . . . justice and square dealing, work it out today with the boys and girls on the playground."
But such claims alienated more traditional Christian athletes, including the barnstorming evangelist and former pro baseball player Billy Sunday, who worried that "liberals" were making "a religion out of social service, with Christ left out." For Sunday, all that mattered was bringing the nation's "spiritual batting average" to "God's league standard."
After World War II, organizations such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action took up Sunday's call. Ditto for revivalists such as Billy Graham, who eagerly enlisted track star Gil Dodds and other prominent athletes. "Running is only a hobby," Dodds told one audience. "My mission is teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ." Dodds signed his autograph with the biblical citation "Phil. 4:13," which one fan mistook for a reference to a 4:13 mile he had recently run in Philadelphia. (The passage from Philippians is: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.")
That brings us back to Tebow, who advertised the same passage on his eye black when he played at the University of Florida. He also cited John 3:16, which became the top search on Google after the Broncos upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of this year's playoffs. It turns out that Tebow threw for 316 yards that day, at an average of 31.6 yards per completion.
John 3:16 was also featured in a television advertisement on CBS during Tebow's final game of the season. Sponsored by Focus on the Family, it showed children reciting the famous passage: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Critics slammed CBS for mixing religion and sports, while advocates praised the network for giving airtime to the "Christian" point of view.
But what if Tebow had invoked the Bible in pushing for stronger regulation of business and an expanded welfare state, as the Social Gospel movement did a century ago? Would liberals denounce his public piety? And would conservatives rally around it?
Tim Tebow wants to use his football fame to send souls to heaven, and he has every right to do so. But there are many other Christians - and members of other faiths - who think our first priority should be a more just world here on Earth. Let's hope they find a good quarterback, too.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press).