Allison's Book Bag

What Would Jesus Do?

Posted on: March 23, 2012

Kansas 150/150

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.

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

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 of "In His Steps (Barbour Christian...

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?

6 Responses to "What Would Jesus Do?"

Nice teasers! I’m looking forward to reading your review of In His Steps, a long-time favourite of mine which our family will be reading and discussing in our family reading next month.

Thanks! Now that I’ve read about Sheldon’s life, I have even more admiration for him.

It’s a great question to ask, and I’m looking forward to hearing what else you have to share about this author and his books.

But Jesus wasn’t always nice and kind. He challenged the status quo and the religious powers of that time. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have killed him.

One of the reasons I like In His Steps is that the characters sometimes face pretty tough responses to the question of “What would Jesus do?” From what I’ve read about author Charles Sheldon, seems as if he tried to live by that pledge too.

Sounds like a cool book

In His Steps has been one of my favorites since I first read in high school.

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