College Basketball and Presbyterians

In a week where the World Series has wound down and the college basketball season gears up in America, it is worth recalling that once upon a time there were strong connections between the sport of basketball and Presbyterians.

The Rev. Dr. James Naismith - the man who invented basketball (and who is credited by some with inventing the football helmet) - was a medical doctor, Presbyterian minister, ruling elder and chaplain. It was in 1891, while at serving at Springfield (Mass.) YMCA as a physical education instructor, that he originated the game that has become so popular around the world.

A Canadian-American, he received his degree in theology from Montreal’s Presbyterian College. He would later serve “as chaplain in the Army National Guard and as a volunteer chaplain in France during World War I.” He also served as a ruling elder at the First Presbyterian Church of Lawrence, Kansas, where he would preach - and he preached at other churches as well. Not unlike Eric Liddell, James Naismith was a believer in the concept of “muscular Christianity”: strong mind, strong body, strong spirit. Naismith wrote the original rule book for the game he invented, which you can read at here, along with his posthumously-published Basketball: Its Origin and Development.

It is in the latter volume that he identifies the place where basketball was first played at the college level: Geneva College of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA).

"Geneva College, in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and the University of Iowa both played basketball in the season of 1892. Which of these two colleges may claim the first game, I do not know. Mr. C.O. Beamis [sic], a Springfield boy, had gone to Geneva College as a physical director. Beamis had seen the game played in the Training School gymnasium while he was home on a vacation. He realized that it might solve the need of a winter activity in his school. I told him of the success we had and explained to him the fundamentals of the game. On his return to Beaver Falls he started the game in Geneva College; it is my belief, therefore, that this college was the first to play basketball” (Naismith, Basketball: Its Origin and Development, p. 118). [Charles O. Bemies was the first athletic director at Geneva College.]

David Carson adds with more precision: “The first college basketball game in the United States was played at Geneva on April 8, 1893, when Geneva defeated the New Brighton YMCA” (Carson, Pro Christi et Patria: A History of Geneva College, p. 33).

Basketball today is quite different from its 19th century beginnings in many ways. But the Presbyterian heritage of this sport is not to be forgotten.