In his book Missionary Principles and Practice, the great Presbyterian missions advocate, activist and anthropologist, Robert Speer, described the qualities he would look for in potential missionaries. High on his list was “some measure of personal power.” Indeed, his quest reflected the Gilded Age in which he wrote. It was a period of cultural crisis, when a fragmenting sense of self mirrored social dislocation, and provoked new ways of thinking about personal integration, renewed agency and individual potential. And this yearning could be transposed onto the nation at large. In narrating the story of America at the end of the nineteenth century, historian Jackson Lears built his narrative around the desire for rebirth and reinvention, with muscular Christianity a particular example of the value of physical and spiritual renewal. Addressing concerns of anomie, this movement nurtured deep bonds among men and offered a strategy for negotiating one’s place in a world that was both civilized and disordered. Victorian self-restraint was giving way to therapeutic self-expression.
But not in every instance. William Borden of Yale (1887-1913) was an example of a muscular Christian, for whom “some measure of personal power” was central to his piety, having drunk deeply as a teenager from Speer’s well, but who nonetheless renounced his extraordinary privilege to pursue a life of sacrificial service. This paper investigates how the son of a millionaire, a sportsman at Yale and seminarian at Princeton, could aspire to become a missionary among the Moslems of western China, and whose desires in turn reflected, expressed and critiqued the anthropological assumptions of his day. Inspired by the great Christian missionary leaders whom he met at conferences in New York and Edinburgh, and surrounded by the influence of D.L. Moody – both in Chicago and in Northfield – Borden’s vision for mission was formed in powerful ways. His untimely death in Egypt from spinal meningitis before reaching China was an unfathomable experience for his substantial band of supporters and created a legacy that was as much a function of physical weakness as it was of moral strength. While there have been several hagiographic versions of his life by Campbell, Zwemer, Taylor, and Belmonte, there has not yet been a critical evangelical biography, towards which this paper makes a substantial and unique contribution.