In His Steps has long been one of my favorite Christian novels. Upon reading it for the first time in my teens, I tried for a long time to live by the question asked of its characters: “What would Jesus do?” While I don’t remember the results of my attempts, I do recall having long conversations with my dad about how as a Christian I should approach writing fiction. Thus, I felt both apprehensive and excited at the chance to read In His Steps again for our family book discussion. Anytime I reread a novel that I’ve first encountered years ago, I worry that it won’t hold the same appeal. Yet remembering how much In His Steps had impacted me as a Christian, I really wanted to still love it. For the most part, I do.
A lot of interesting stuff happens in the all-important first chapter. For example, the first scene always grabs me. It’s Friday morning and the Reverend Henry Maxwell is trying to prepare his Sunday morning sermon. He’s been interrupted several times and thus is growing nervous. It’s such a tiny incident, yet one to which I fully relate because of how frustrated I feel when my work is interrupted. Next comes an ironic moment. The Reverend is writing about how Christians should follow in Jesus’s steps, when a shabbily dressed man knocks on his door. Although the Reverend is polite about it, he basically tells him he doesn’t have time to deal with his needs and so loses the chance to minister as Jesus might. Moving quickly forward, it’s now Sunday morning and the Reverend is standing in his pulpit and feeling proud of his church, congregation, and sermon. However, his comfortable and orderly world is about to be turned upside down by the presence again of the tramp. One week later, the Reverend challenges his congregation to pledge to do everything after asking: “What would Jesus do?”
As for the subsequent chapters, I appreciate how real the church members are who accept the pledge. These aren’t your average stereotypical Christians for whom following Jesus is the easiest thing in the world. For example, there is Edward Norman, editor of the Raymond Daily News. Anyone who has responded to a call for repentance or renewal at a religious service will relate to how hard it is to keep these promises when living in the “real” world again. Similarly, as the regular life of the paper starts on another week’s whirl of activity, Edward wavers in his resolve and so must turn to God for strength. And before the morning is even half over, he’s already facing decisions about what kind of stories to run. Will he cave? And if he doesn’t, will his paper survive?
Then there’s Rachel Winslow, a beautiful and talented singer. Rachel has received an offer of a place with a large traveling company. Moreover, the salary is large. All of her high society associates keep telling her a voice like hers belongs to a larger audience than First Church. I like the description Sheldon provides of her uncharacteristically outspoken reaction to one of those associates: “But with all her repression there was possible in her an occasional sudden breaking out that was simply an impulsive, thoroughly frank, truthful expression of her utmost inner personal feeling.” Rachel might be popular and pretty, but she’s also complex. As a Christian himself, Sheldon knows that Christians aren’t all cut from the same cloth.
A "What Would Jesus Do?" (WWJD) bracelet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There are several other engaging stories, but I’ll note just that of Jasper Chase. The heroine of his first novel had been his own ideal of Rachel Winslow, with whom Jasper is in love. One night as he walks Rachel home, he openly reveals his love. When Rachel rejects him, Jasper throws himself into his next novel. As he writes, he continually struggles with the question: “What would Jesus do?” Naturally, he served as the inspiration so many years ago when I asked my dad about how as a Christian I should approach writing fiction.
In His Steps is full of interesting situations and unique characters. It also contains a thought-provoking theme. Yet it’s not without flaws. Sheldon’s writing style sometimes feels overwrought: “What were the flippant, perfumed, critical audiences in concert halls compared with this dirty, drunken, impure, besotted mass of humanity that trembled and wept and great strangely, sadly thoughtful under the touch of this divine ministry of this beautiful woman.” There are also some redundant moments such as the inclusion of a letter by the Reverend Calvin Bruce, wherein readers essentially receive a summary of the events which have transpired to date at the Raymond Church. What caused me most to skip paragraphs however was the prohibitionist agenda that it’s clear Sheldon wanted to push. The increasing number of tirades for prohibition especially in the latter part of In His Steps grew wearisome.
Despite these few criticisms, In His Steps remains one of my favorite Christian novels. I’m also thinking again about how to answer the question: “What would Jesus do?” And so, in a highly entertaining form, Sheldon has successfully gotten across an important message.
My rating?Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
Kansas 150/150 (Photo credit: Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library)
“What would Jesus do?” Charles Monroe Sheldon initiated this approach to Christian theology at the turn of the twentieth century through his novel In His Steps, where he writes about a congregation’s yearlong pledge not to do anything without first asking that question. Sheldon believed the pledge had the power to transform society. Whether or not it can, In His Steps is still a best-selling favorite among millions of believers today.
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This week, I’ll share biographical information about Sheldon and review his book. To overview his life, Charles Monroe Sheldon was born February 26, 1857 in New York. Sheldon’s family supported the temperance movement and at the age of seven he signed an abstinence pledge, promising not to use alcohol and tobacco. Like his father he became a Congregational minister and inspired by the social gospel movement he encouraged churchgoers to help solve social problems of the day. When his Waterbury congregation proved non-receptive to his ideas, he jumped at the opportunity in 1889 to minister at the newly organized Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas.
Charles Sheldon, the Christian author (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Beliefs of Charles Sheldon
While rereading In His Steps, what stood out most to me is how prevalent a few themes were. I began to wonder how its author Charles Monroe Sheldon felt about certain beliefs. It came as no surprise to me to read that prohibition was one of the social issues that Sheldon strongly supported during his lifetime. By the time Sheldon had settled in Topeka, fighting the saloon had become a major preoccupation. He was one of a group of clergy who played a pivotal role in winning the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment, which established national prohibition. He continued to champion the cause throughout the fourteen-year life of Prohibition and urged its reinstatement after a repeal in 1933.
While I was also not surprised to learn that Sheldon believed all persons should be treated equal, I was surprised to what extent he acted on this belief. According to various online sources, he believed in fair treatment for Jews and Catholics. A supporter of equal rights for women, he thought that women should have full equality in the workplace and saw nothing wrong with men working in traditionally feminine jobs as domestic service. He also urged women to become involved in politics. A pioneer among Protestant ministers in welcoming blacks into a mainstream church, he also opposed racist activity in Topeka and spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan whenever the group appeared there.
Inspiration Behind In His Steps
Ever wonder about how Charles Monroe Sheldon came to write the classic In His Steps? Apparently, to attract followers, Sheldon developed a serial of sermon stories that he read as a weekly series from the pulpit of Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas. A religious magazine from Chicago subsequently published the stories in weekly installments and then in book form. The main theme of these stories wasn’t about the gospel message itself of redemption, but rather about the moral choices Christians should make. For that reason, In His Steps has received criticism for promoting a social gospel. Despite critics, the question What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD) is still one of the most widely recognized acronyms in Christian history.
Practicing What He Preached
Cover via Amazon
While rereading In His Steps, I wondered if any of the principles and stories in it were founded in real-life events. As I’ve already noted above, Charles Monroe Sheldon espoused beliefs in abstinence and equality. He also frequently put these beliefs in practice. A few examples that I could find included:
Sheldon traveled throughout the world to support the temperance movement.
He labored a week at a time for numerous Topeka businesses, railroads, and merchants to understand their concerns.
His congregation sponsored the first African American kindergarten west of the Mississippi River.
The most often repeated example however involves his week as an editor. In 1900 the Topeka Daily Capital offered Sheldon the chance to publish for a week “as Jesus would do.” The front page contained what Sheldon felt to be the most vital issues that affected humanity as a whole. The word “news” was defined as anything in the way of daily events that the public ought to know for its development and power in a life of righteousness. Instead of stories about boxing matches and violent crimes, he ran pieces on social reform, the progress of Christian missions, and crises needing attention. He also made changes in the paper’s advertising, refusing to run ads for tobacco, liquor, and other products he disapproved of, and changing other ads to remove any hints of false claims. Circulation exploded from around 15,000 to more than 350,000. What would you do as a newspaper editor for a week?
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