The Fundamentalist Frank Merriwell

"Of all the bold Americans who have appeared on the sporting scene," Robert Boyle wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1962, "none ever aroused the admiration or left so enduring an impression as one who never really existed: Frank Merriwell of Fardale Academy, Yale College and the world at large."

Frank Merriwell is not a household name today, but for much of the twentieth century he was. The hero of a dime novel series for boys that ran in Tip Top Weekly from 1896 to 1912 (and in other media endeavors into the 1930s), Merriwell became the prototype for the All-American schoolboy athlete. In the eyes of white middle-class Americans, Merriwell represented the best possible version of a young man. As scholar Ryan Anderson put it: "He was handsome but not vain; an Ivy Leaguer with a common touch; an individual but not self-interested; a physical specimen with a sound mind; a talented youth with a solid work ethic; desirable to girls and relatively chaste...He always won in the end, but remained likable."

Clearly, Merriwell was too good to be true. And yet he inspired and influenced a generation of young readers. Merriwell inspired several imitators, too, most notably in the Chip Hilton series written by college basketball coach Clair Bee in the 1940s and 1950s.

He also inspired a mostly forgotten fundamentalist knock-off: Tom Huntner. Like Merriwell, Huntner was moral and muscular. But he was also something more: he was born again.

Created by Ken Anderson, a fundamentalist/neo-evangelical minister and journalist who would later become a pioneering figure in evangelical film ministry, the Tom Huntner series comprised three books, all published in the 1940s: Tom Huntner: Sophomore Halfback (1944), Tom Huntner: Sophomore Forward (1946), and Tom Huntner: Sophomore Pitcher (1947). The books were closely related to the Youth For Christ (YFC) movement, with which Anderson was involved. Growing out of the fundamentalist network of Bible institutes, summer Bible conferences, and businessmen’s clubs that flourished in the 1930s, YFC blended modern communication and promotional tactics with an old-time emphasis on soul winning. Its message of salvation attracted national publicity near the end of World War II, reaching thousands of young people in city-wide rallies.

Anderson’s Tom Huntner books must be viewed within this broader context. They were written at a time when YFC and other moderate fundamentalists were rebranding themselves as “new evangelicals” and asserting their message of born-again faith with new confidence. With mainstream American culture more receptive to fundamentalist evangelism in the 1940s than it had been for decades, moderate fundamentalists (or neo-evangelicals) had to balance their pragmatic evangelism strategies with their desire to be “set apart” and different from the world. In Tom Huntner we can see one way in which those tensions were resolved.

The series is set in Dodge City, a fictional small midwestern town. The protagonist is an earnest high school student and aspiring athlete who dreams of leading Dodge City High School to athletic glory against its rivals in the Little Seven conference. Each book in the series chronicles Huntner’s efforts towards that end, first in football, then basketball, and finally in baseball.

Huntner’s desire for athletic success is complicated by his religious identity. He is not merely a Christian, but a fundamentalist Christian. Anderson makes this clear with the name of the church that Huntner attends: Beacon Street Bible Church. There were relatively few Bible churches in the 1940s; nearly all churches with that name grew out of or were associated with the premillennial, dispensationalist teachings of fundamentalist Bible conferences. But even though Huntner attends a fundamentalist church—and even though his parents, the book informs us, taught Huntner “the true way of salvation”—when Sophomore Halfback begins Huntner is not yet converted. His hang-up? He felt he could not be both a Christian and a successful athlete. "Christians were sissies the fellows had always agreed,” Anderson writes. “And Tom had always conceded."

The idea that Huntner—living in the small-town Midwest, a world dominated by the culture of white Protestantism— would not be familiar with other Christian athletes might seem far-fetched. Undoubtedly, Huntner would have known teammates who attended Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist churches, and some who attended a Catholic church. Many of these athletes would have identified themselves as Christians. But for Huntner and his fellow Beacon Street Bible Church fundamentalists, only those who could point to a specific supernatural salvation experience were Christians; only those who adhered to fundamentalist behavioral expectations (no smoking, no drinking, no Sabbath-breaking, no dancing, and plenty of evangelistic zeal) could be certain that they were truly converted.

If one defined “Christian” along these lines, there were indeed few nationally prominent Christian athletes on the American scene in the 1940s. That is not to say they did not exist. Gil Dodds, the top American miler in the 1940s, had fundamentalist credentials and was outspoken about his faith. And at the local level, fundamentalist athletes could be found. But at the highest levels of baseball, football, and basketball, there were precious few outspoken fundamentalists. In that sense, at least, Huntner’s anxiety about being both a Christian and an athlete was well founded.

Fortunately for Huntner, a hero arrives in Dodge City when Dyke Southern takes over as high school football, basketball, and baseball coach. A former star football player at an unnamed Big Ten school, Southern volunteered to serve with Britain’s air force when World War II began. He was wounded in battle and given an honorable discharge, which is how he ended up in Dodge City coaching high school sports while American men all around him went off to battle (recall that the first book was written in 1944).

Southern’s war wounds were not his only life-changing experience overseas. He also accepted Jesus Christ as his savior. Thus, when Southern moved to Dodge City, he was everything a young fundamentalist yearning for masculine heroes could hope for: he was a former college football star, a war hero, and a born-again believer.

Dyke Southern’s presence causes Huntner to reassess his belief that Christianity and athletics are incompatible. Southern—who attends Beacon Street Bible Church—is muscular and confident, commanding respect even by those outside the fundamentalist fold. And he makes sure to capitalize on that respect for fundamentalist aims. Take, for example, Southern’s speech at a homecoming banquet during the football season. After giving the standard lines thanking fans for supporting the team, Southern turns the occasion into a revival service. "There was a Man who lived twenty centuries ago. He's still alive today!" Southern tells the audience. "He didn't have time for athletics, but if He would have had time, He would have been the world's best in all of them...because He had a perfect body. He was more than a man. He was the Son of God…If I may, I would like to offer that Man to you. You can never be really successful if you leave Him out of your plans."

Sophomore Halfback ends with Huntner finally surrendering his life to Christ in a Sunday School class taught by Southern. Huntner’s conversion happens the day after Dodge City’s football season comes to a dramatic end (spoiler alert: the final game ends in a tie).

But all is not well. While Huntner’s salvation is secured, the salvation of Huntner’s best friend, Lanky Bates, is still up in the air. Bates, like Huntner, is a high school athlete whose family attends Beacon Street Bible Church. Bates, however, stiff-arms the Holy Spirit, refusing to heed the “persuasive tugging at his heart" urging him to accept Jesus Christ as his savior. Instead, Bates spends his time at Joe’s Tavern, a disreputable place on the outskirts of town.

The final page of Sophomore Halfback sets the stage for the central drama of the last two books in the series. "Lanky is having a great spiritual struggle,” Dyke Southern informs Huntner. “I am sure he wants to be saved. But it may take time. We'll work together to win him, Tom...together with the Lord."

In the next two books, Huntner, Southern, and Dodge City win conference titles in basketball and baseball as they attempt to secure Lanky Bates’s salvation. But their efforts only drive Bates further away. He spends more and more time at Joe’s Tavern, getting involved with gambling, drinking, smoking, and swearing. By the end of the final book in the series, the Dodge City baseball team is celebrating its conference championship while Lanky Bates is dragged off to jail, implicated in a gambling ring. The reader is left to wonder whether Bates will ever accept Jesus as his savior. But they can be sure that Huntner and Coach Southern will be trying.

"I want you to help me, Tom,” Coach Southern declares at the end of the final book. “We've got to prove to Lanky—by straight pitching, fellow—that a person can have real happiness only when he knows Jesus Christ as his Saviour.”

In the contrast between Lanky Bates and Tom Huntner, one gets a glimpse of the neo-evangelical impulse to maintain a set-apart posture while also pursuing respectability in mainstream American society. On the one hand, the fundamentalist sense of difference remains. There is a cost that Tom Huntner pays for his conversion: his friendship with Lanky. "Sure, we used to be buddies,” Lanky tells Tom at one point in the second book. “We can't be anymore, not like we were, because we just aren't interested in the same things. You went and got yourself all excited about religion…"

Anderson emphasizes other fundamentalist distinctives, too. He writes in one passage that “the evolutionary lie and criticism that opposed the Bible were accepted without question at Dodge City High School." Elsewhere he contrasts “worldly” high school students who listen to swing music and hum popular tunes with the converted students who hum “gospel choruses.”

But if fundamentalists are depicted as different and “set apart” from certain cultural trends, those differences are mostly cosmetic. Ultimately, the message of Tom Huntner—its primarily apologetic—is not so much that the fundamentalist faith makes one different; rather it is that the fundamentalist faith fulfills the typical American desire for success and happiness.

Thus, Dyke Southern concludes his homecoming banquet speech with the claim that “You can never be really successful if you leave Him out of your plans.”

Elsewhere, Anderson writes that a recently converted student no longer needed “shows and dances to keep a grin on his face and a sparkle in his eyes."

And when Lanky expresses his disapproval of Tom’s born-again faith, Tom turns to its practical benefits. “The reason I became a Christian is because the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart, just as He has been speaking to yours,” Tom declares. “And honest, Lanky, the Lord has really done a lot for me! I've got victory over sins that I thought I never could lick! And I've got peace in my heart! It's great stuff, this peace that comes to a guy's heart when he lets the Lord in! I tell you, Lanky, it's wonderful!"

In contrast to the happy, positive, Tom Huntner, a rising star in Dodge City, is the morose, brooding Lanky Bates, whose athletic performance gradually declines. “He even seemed to have aged,” one passage declares, “as though something were working in his body, a disease, maybe. Tom knew that disease was...sin!"

The Tom Huntner series was not a best seller. Published by Zondervan when the company was still in its early years, it reached a limited audience in the 1940s. But by emphasizing the connection between born-again faith and worldly benefits—more happiness, more peace, more pep in one’s step—the Tom Huntner books pointed towards the fundamentalist movement’s evangelical future. There was still a desire to be distinct from “the world” (thus the need for a born-again version of Frank Merriwell). But increasingly there was also overlap between the promised results of evangelical conversion and dominant American ideas of happiness and success.

This dual impulse of distinctiveness and cultural accommodation defined the consumer-driven evangelical subculture that surged to national prominence in the 1970s. Indeed, Ken Anderson’s old publisher, Zondervan, was one of the key players in its rise. And the evangelical subculture was especially conspicuous in sports. While Ken Anderson used the fictional Tom Huntner and Dyke Southern to serve as sports heroes for fundamentalist youth, by the 1970s there was an entire industry devoted to evangelical testimonies of celebrity athletes and coaches, offering real-life examples of the All-American athlete, now born again.

Evangelical appropriation of the clean-cut All-American image has been resilient. From Bill Bradley (yes, he was once an evangelical) to David Robinson to Tim Tebow, a veritable pantheon of Christian athletes have developed public images that add born-again faith to the Merriwellian blend of clean living and athletic success. To that pantheon we should include one athlete who, like Frank Merriwell, never really existed: Tom Huntner, sophomore All-American.

(My thanks to James Van Wyck, who brought the Tom Huntner books to my attention a few years ago. If memory serves, we were playing a game of poker at the time, definitely not a Huntner-approved activity.)