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"The Church or the Wheel?" Religious Institutions Respond to the American Bicycle Boom
CYCLE HISTORY 27: Proceedings of the 27th International Cycling History Conference (2017)
  • Christopher A. Sweet, Illinois Wesleyan University
“These bladder-wheel bicycles are diabolical devices of the demon of darkness.” Thus railed a Baltimore preacher against the massive wave of popularity for the safety bicycle in the mid-1890s. From a 21st century perspective it seems quaint that American religious institutions felt threatened by something so mundane as bicycles. At the time though, easy-to-ride and relatively cheap safety bicycles presented a direct challenge to many established cultural and social norms. Women cyclists gained independent mobility and were able to press for dress reform. Physical health became a priority for city-dwellers. Christian churches and pastors primarily criticized the bicycle for encouraging desecration of the Sabbath. In an era when many worked six days a week, cyclists were faced with a choice between Sunday morning services or a Sunday morning ride. An alarming number were choosing the latter. Church leaders were also concerned about how the bicycle undermined rigid Victorian courtship practices and even enabled elopement. At the time, these issues were so divisive that some priests were removed from their parishes for supporting bicycling.

The church’s condemnation of the bicycle was by no means universal. For every vocal clerical opponent of the bicycle you could find just as many ardent supporters. One of these, the Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones of Chicago, admonished fellow clergymen to end the debate by embracing the bicycle in their work and to let the phrase “‘The church or the wheel’ be made pointless by the unanimous indorsement of ‘The church and the wheel.’” Other cycling clergymen were quick to point out that bicycles could expand evangelism and missionary work. They were cheaper and more reliable than horses which enabled greater access to rural areas. With these advantages in mind, the Salvation Army formed a bicycle corps. At the same time, the idea of muscular Christianity was being advanced by the church. This philosophy promoted the link between physical and spiritual health and was a natural fit for contemporary church-going cyclists. Others, such as Frances Willard, the President of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union advocated for  bicycling as deterrent from alcohol. Even interest in good roads was common ground between wheelmen and the church. Wheelmen argued for the economic benefits of good roads and clergymen maintained that there was a moral imperative to connect more remote rural areas via good roads to the nearest church.

These debates over the role of the bicycle in religion were either given up or resolved in favor of the bicycle by the end of the 19th century. This presentation will highlight the major religious debates surrounding the bicycle during the boom years of the 1890s.
  • Bicycle History,
  • History of American Religion,
  • Muscular Christianity,
  • Temperance Movement
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Citation Information
Christopher A. Sweet. ""The Church or the Wheel?" Religious Institutions Respond to the American Bicycle Boom" CYCLE HISTORY 27: Proceedings of the 27th International Cycling History Conference (2017)
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC_BY-NC International License.