This rugby series is likely losing me readers faster than Harry and Meghan are losing Hollywood deals. Time to wrap it up.
I didn't actually start out to write a series on rugby. I thought I'd just write a piece commemorating the 200th anniversary of its traditional origin in 1823.
But once I get going on these things, I find it hard to stop. Two years ago, for example, I sat down to write a single SteynOnline piece on Wokism. I wound up getting myself stuck in a sprawling, digression-deluged series, trying to figure out how the hell the West turned into one giant insane asylum. I didn't even get very far before circumstances forced me to suspend the series. I paused after confessing to thinking our current madness came not from a deviation from Enlightenment liberalism, but rather, from the full-flowering of ideas inherent in Enlightenment liberalism itself. With Mark's permission, I hope to resume that series this fall.
As far as this series goes, bullet points on rugby so far are:
- One of history's greatest sports
- Requires extraordinarily intense mental, physical, spiritual, and social engagement
- Robust club culture (entailing amateur, semi-pro, and pro level) amounts to an almost religious global fraternity
- Once rugby's in your system, it never leaves
It never leaves. It didn't even leave the schoolboys who first played it 200 years ago. To read the recollections of those who studied under Headmaster Arnold is to discover men who spent the rest of their lives yearning to relive their boyhood experience at Rugby School: playing rugby, fraternizing with each other, and studying under the greatest man they'd ever known. No wonder they wound up forming rugby clubs after they graduated: it was the closest they could get to traveling back in time to the greatest period of their lives. The alumni accounts are profoundly poignant. As I read them, I start to see pictures of what those moments might have looked like: the boys in their uniforms, in chapel, listening to Dr. Arnold's sermons; or out rollicking on the lawn playing their favorite game; or coming to believe, as Headmaster Arnold repeatedly taught them, that each one of them had a special divine destiny: that God knew them, watched them, heard them, and called them to grow into great men. What an amazing experience that must have been. Here are just a few snippets from those alumni recollections:
Toward the end of his life, one alumnus wrote to a friend, "You may well believe what a power Rugby has been in my life. I passed all those years under the spell of this place and Arnold, and for half a century have never ceased to thank God for it". Another elderly alumnus still marvelled at Dr. Arnold's mesmerizing Christian messages almost seventy years later, recalling "I used to listen to those sermons from first to last with a kind of awe". Another former student, contemplating Arnold's influence, concluded he was "the hero schoolmaster of English public schools". And writing in his diary soon after entering Rugby in 1834, future Oxford historian and Dean of Westminster A. P. Stanley wrote, "Most sincerely I thank God for his goodness in placing me here to live with Arnold...I fear I have made him my idol, and that in all I might be serving God for man's sake."
So profound was Arnold's effect on students that they carried their school's stamp, so to speak, even after graduation. In his classic book Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey notes how starkly Rugby graduates stood out at Oxford.
"Their reverent admiration for Dr. Arnold was remarkable", Strachey writes. "Whenever two of his old pupils met, they joined in his praises; and the sight of his picture had been known to call forth exclamations of rapture lasting for ten minutes and filling with astonishment the young men from other schools who happened to be present."
Just as unusual was their piety. Strachey remarks that "it was a new thing to see undergraduates going to chapel more often than they were obliged, and visiting the good poor." Other observers also saw something special in Arnold and his students. Famed historian Thomas Carlyle once visited the school and came away proclaiming that Arnold had transformed Rugby into "a temple of industrious peace." Another contemporary observer deemed Arnold "the greatest school instructor of our age—perhaps the greatest that has ever discharged the office."
Summing up Arnold's approach, alumnus Thomas Hughes wrote that his headmaster "taught us that life is a whole, made up of actions and thoughts and longings great and small, noble and ignoble. Therefore, the only true wisdom for boy or man is to bring the whole life into obedience to Him whose world we live in". Another alumnus put it this way: Rugby school education "was not (according to the popular phrase) based upon religion, but was itself religious. It was this chiefly which gave a oneness to Arnold's work".
Thomas Arnold changed his students' lives by, in effect, creating and inculcating his own holistic, transformational Christian denomination. It was a gospel which sought to enliven and unify every faculty within its adherents, and then unite those adherents into a lifelong fraternity devoted to noble achievement. It was for this reason The Times newspaper, some years later, would describe Rugby alumni as constituting a "semi-sacerdotal, semi-political society". And the ongoing alumni sacrament, of course, was the game of rugby itself. Former students were the creators of the first rugby clubs ever; and they, just as all the rugby clubs now, all descend from those original golden years of Arnold's Rugby School tenure between 1828 and 1842.
In any case, clearly I've typed more than enough on this topic, and it's time to move on. In closing, I'd only suggest you consider watching a game or three during this fall's Rugby World Cup in France. It's shaping up to be the most competitive World Cup ever, with at least four teams which could easily win the trophy (Ireland, France, South Africa, and New Zealand), with Australia as a possible contender, too. I'm sure Dr. Arnold, and all his students, would be thrilled to discover that a tournament featuring their beloved schoolyard game is now the third largest sporting event on earth (after the Summer Olympics and the FIFA World Cup.
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