Holy Bowlers

Strikes and spares as sacraments

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Not only was bowling once part of a religious rite, but long after it developed into a strictly secular game Martin Luther is said to have determined the number of pins used. Although it is not known just how far back in time variations of the game were played, evidence suggests at least 7,000 years.

The game as we know it today originally played a role in the religious rites held in third- and fourth-century monasteries in Germany. In fact, the game could be described as an early example of the use of visual aids in religious instruction.

In early times a man never went anywhere, even to church, without a club to protect both his family and himself. These clubs—Kegel in German—were stood in a corner of the church and were believed to represent sin, evil, the devil, or heathens. By rolling a stone at the clubs and toppling them, a man supposedly cleansed himself of sin. If he failed to knock the clubs down, he would need to work harder at being a good Christian.

This religious rite grew quite popular with both priests and peasants and eventually spread to the nobility and landed gentry. By the Middle Ages, it had been transformed into a universally popular game performed in village festivals and celebrations.

Until the end of the 15th century, any number of pins between 3 and 17 were used to play the game. Martin Luther—he and his family being great enthusiasts of the sport—is credited with fixing the number of pins at nine during the 16th century.

Nine-pin bowling was introduced in the United States by the Dutch in the 18th century. Unfortunately, as the game grew in popularity, so did gambling. The perceived connection between the two practices forced lawmakers in New York and Connecticut to outlaw bowling.

The law banned only nine-pin bowling, however, and said nothing about games using any other number of pins. A clever sports fan thus came up with the idea of adding a tenth pin, which also resulted in the rearrangement of the pins from a diamond to a triangle formation.

Today, ten-pin bowling is played in the United States, but in Germany nine-pin bowling continues its 400-year-old tradition.