Born FEBRUARY 26, 1857The sermon ended. Singers prepared for the final song. A voice from the back of the church startled the congregation. The stranger in shabby clothes talked his way up the center aisle to the front of the church.
He faced the worshippers. Having introduced him-self and his sad circumstances, he made his point: “It seems to me there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sang such songs (about surrendering everything to Jesus) went and lived them out. I suppose I don’t understand. But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following His steps?”
Then the stranger keeled over. He died a few days later. The following Sunday, the pastor told his congregation to accept the man’s visit as a message from God. He challenged as many as would to pledge for the next year to do only what they thought Jesus would do. Those scenes launched the book In His Steps. The novel quickly became one of the best-selling Christian books of all time.
Who was Charles Sheldon, the man who wrote the book? What influence has he and his novel actually had on Christianity?
JESUS-HEARTED PASTORCharles began pastoring the First Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas, in 1889. He preached for salvation and discipleship. His own conversion experience took place in his teens in Yankton, South Dakota. The sense that “a great burden rolled off my back,” caused him to feel “strangely happy.”
Charles was convinced that when God transforms us, we’re to have a positive impact on the world around us. As a pastor, he saw numerous situations within Topeka that needed God’s touch and set about to make a difference.
SOCIAL IMPACT IN TOPEKA
Charles detested how alcohol destroyed families and individuals. When he moved to Kansas in the late 1880s, it was a dry state prior to Prohibition. However, drugstores sold alcohol disguised as medicine. He worked hard to overthrow that and other practices in Topeka.
Pastor Sheldon saw another need for the church to rise up and address. He led a campaign to help part of the city’s African-American population. The Tennesseetown community sprang up in 1880 when hundreds of migrating ex-slaves settled in Topeka. They struggled to be fully accepted and to improve their financial and social standing.The First Congregational Church visited the sick, provided food and clothing, and sought to help the men of Tennesseetown find work. The most successful endeavor Charles led to help Tennesseetown was starting a kinder-garten. The church operated it for eighteen years, until the Topeka Board of Education began its own kindergarten system.
The First Congregational Church’s Sunday evening attendance was waning. Charles didn’t want the evening services to cease. So in 1891, the writer in him (who’d sold his first magazine article in his early teens) began reading novelized versions of sermon ideas to those who showed up on Sunday night. Each week’s chapter ended with a cliffhanger. That drew listeners back the following Sunday. The evening attendance grew, remaining strong from 1891 until Charles retired in 1919.
Charles began reading In His Steps in October of 1896. It was his seventh Sunday evening sermon story. Like the six previous ones, In His Steps reminded listeners that true Christianity touches and changes the world around us.
In the story, a number of parishioners agree to take the pledge to make decisions based on what Jesus might do in their circumstances. They include a singer, a railroad superinten-dent, a property owner, and a newspaper editor. Each face tough ethical decisions during the year. They weigh their desire for wealth, fame, and acceptance with their peers against honestly following Jesus’ teachings.
A BEST SELLER
A denominational magazine began publishing installments of In His Steps in November of 1896. The next year, a book version followed. But the magazine didn’t copyright the story. Publishing companies discovering it was in the public domain sprang on the opportunity. Copies of the non-copyrighted story sold well in the United States and around the world.
The novel’s popularity remained strong during the 1900s. It’s reported that in the 1960s, sales figures averaged 100,000 copies per year. Total sales into the new millennium are estimated at 40 million-plus copies.
One of the book’s storylines follows the decisions of a newspaper editor. In 1900, fiction became reality. The Topeka Daily Capital offered Charles an opportunity to serve as editor for one week. During its week as a converted “Christian” newspaper, the Topeka Daily Capital sold over 3,ooo percent more copies. From the profits, $5,000 was given to Charles to distribute among his choice of charities.
HIS FINAL STEPS
The publication of In His Steps had brought Charles recognition outside of Topeka and beyond the United States. His stint at the Topeka Daily Capital increased his status as a high-profile ambassador for Christianity. He used his national and international clout to push the causes closest to his heart.
Charles retired from First Congregational Church in 1919, increasing his freedom to travel and speak. His topics most often ran against alcohol and for Christian unity. He wrote articles and editorials, many in his role as a contributor to the Christian Herald magazine.
He passed away in February of 1946 following a stroke. His funeral was held on what would have been his 89th birthday.
WHAT WOULD JESUS DO TODAY?
Beginning in the late 1980s, Christians breathed fresh life into the nearly century old question “What would Jesus do?” The renewed interest began in 1989 with a Holland, Michigan youth group. After reading In His Steps and discussing it with the group, the leader had an idea for helping the teens remember to let Jesus’ teachings guide their actions. She had bracelets made with the initials WWJD.
After Paul Harvey reported the story in 1997, there was a large demand for the bracelets. The company that made the initial ones, expanded production. Sales abounded. Soon, those four letters were imprinted on all the standard Christian merchandise: ink pens, key chains, bumper stickers, Bible covers, etc. The letters WWJD spawned a marketing sensation, but more importantly, helped people stop and think before acting.
In the 1990s, the WWJD movement (along with new youth-based events and ministries such as See You at the Pole, True Love Waits, and Dare 2 Share) helped a new generation define their personal faith in Jesus Christ.
The question “What would Jesus do?” continues reverberating within Christianity. In 1997, a number of Christian singers recorded a CD titled WWJD (with Big Tent Revival covering the title track). A movie What Would Jesus Do? was released in 2010.
LET ME KNOW: How has Charles’ story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
- Miller, Timothy. Following in His Steps: A Biography of Charles M. Sheldon. Knoxville, Tennessee: The University of Tennessee Press, 1987.
- Petersen, William and Randy Petersen. 100 Christian Books That Changed the World. Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2000.
- Sheldon, Charles. In His Steps. Lincoln, VA: Chosen Books, 1984.
- Shepherd, Sandy. “What Would Jesus Do?” Christianity.com. Retrieved on February, 24, 2014. http://www.christianity.com/11622298/.
- “WWJD, Part 1: Origin of the Phrase.” The Jesus Question. January 6, 2012. http://thejesusquestion.org/2012/01/06/wwjd-part-1-the-origin-of-the-phrase/.
- Find In His Steps at CBD: http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/search?author=Charles%20M%20Sheldon&detailed_search=1&action=Search and along with other books by and about Charles Sheldon at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=charles+sheldon.
- Here’s the full text of In His Steps online: http://www.kancoll.org/books/sheldon/.
- You can watch the entire 1964 film version of In His Steps: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRpyebCifF4&list=PLhmta0Z52SPnsEfBpz7PZUtEVYcXTdV_e.
- …or the 2010 updated version, What Would Jesus Do?: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1AKU0KHrEQ.
- Listen to Big Tent Revival singing What Would Jesus Do?: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7_pqxM22q8 or listen to the version from the 2010 film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUze3ug1Jtg.
- “52 for 150: What’s So Special About Charles Sheldon?,” YouTube video, 7:03, posted by TopekaLibrary, March 23, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCBHNVZmuU8.