Charles Sheldon

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Charles Monroe Sheldon
Charles M Sheldon.jpg
BornFebruary 26, 1857
DiedFebruary 24, 1946
Alma materPhillips Academy, Andover
Known forChristian socialism
The Principle of "What would Jesus do?"
Notable work
In His Steps

Charles Monroe Sheldon (February 26, 1857 – February 24, 1946) was an American Congregationalist minister and leader of the Social Gospel movement. His novel, In His Steps, introduced the principle of "what would Jesus do?" which articulated an approach to Christian theology that became popular at the turn of the 20th century and had a revival almost one hundred years later. The stretch of US-24 on the north side of Topeka, Kansas between US-75 and K-4 is named the "Charles Sheldon Trafficway" in his honour.[1][2]

Education and ministry[edit]

Sheldon was a graduate of Phillips Academy, Andover (class of 1879). He became an advocate of the late nineteenth century school of thought known as Christian Socialism. His theological outlook focused on the practicalities of the moral life, with much less emphasis on the doctrinal traditions of personal redemption from sin in Christ. In the winter of 1896 Sheldon developed a sermon story that he read as a weekly series from the pulpit of Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas.[3] The unifying theme of these sermons was based on posing the question, "what would Jesus do?" when facing moral decisions. He viewed this question as traditional within Christianity and likely drew some inspiration from William T. Stead's If Christ came to Chicago! (1893) and other earlier sources.[4]

Novel and theological influence[edit]

The theme of the sermons was later fictionalized into the novel In His Steps. The central ethos of the novel was not about personal redemption but about moral choices related to encountering circumstances of poverty and deprivation. Sheldon's theological motif reflected his socialist outlook. Sheldon's own parish work became identified with the Social Gospel.

Walter Rauschenbusch, widely viewed as the chief architect of the Social Gospel, acknowledged the importance Sheldon placed on imitating Jesus. He saw the significance of Sheldon's work in bringing home the realization that it is hard to live a Christ-like life, given the temptations of modern society. While Rauschenbusch found this awareness valuable, he saw that it did not demand what he believed was a necessary transformation of social institutions.[5] Sheldon was in touch with the concerns of middle-class America at the end of the century. He saw his role as one of communication—to introduce his congregation and the wider public to the ideas of Lyman Abbott, Richard Ely, George Herron, and Rauschenbusch. That was his intention in writing In His Steps.[5]

Of the social issues Sheldon espoused during his lifetime, the two he was most passionate about were equality and prohibition. He believed that all persons were equal and should be treated as such. He was a pioneer among Protestant ministers in welcoming blacks into a mainstream church. He was also committed to fair treatment for Jews and Catholics, and proclaimed the equality of men and women. A strong supporter of the feminist struggle for equal rights, he urged women to enter politics. He also pushed for full equality in the workplace.[6]

Sheldon was also a vegetarian who promoted compassion towards animals just as he did towards humans.[7] He even criticized circuses for their treatment of animals.[8]

Newspaper "career"[edit]

In March 1900 he became editor for a week of the Topeka Daily Capital applying the "what would Jesus do?" concept. In that short time, the newspaper's circulation exploded from just under 12,000 to 387,000, overwhelming the paper's Topeka printing plant causing it to print 120,000 copies each in Chicago, Illinois and New York City.[9]

After his retirement from Central Congregational Church in 1920, Sheldon edited "Christian Herald, An Illustrated News Weekly for the Home", a religious periodical, from 1920 to 1924 and continued to write articles after his final retirement in 1924.[10]

"What would Jesus do?"[edit]

In the 1990s WWJD bracelets became a popular item among young people and publishers increased sales of the public domain book In His Steps and tied it in with marketing of "what would Jesus do?" items.

A ten part mini-series produced by Topeka PBS affiliate KTWU featured an hour-long segment "Beyond Theology: What Would Jesus Do?" which examines how this question might be considered in context of the political, social and cultural changes that have taken place in America. The program also takes a look at the manner in which Sheldon applied the social gospel in his own life and in his community.

List of works[edit]

  • 1892: Richard Bruce, or the Life That Now Is
  • 1893: Robert Hardy's Seven Days; a Dream and its Consequences
  • 1893: The Twentieth Door
  • 1894: The Crucifixion of Phillip Strong
  • 1895: His Brother's Keeper; or Christian Stewarship
  • 1897: In His Steps "What Would Jesus Do?"
  • 1898: The Redemption of Freetown
  • 1898: Malcom Kirk: A Tale Of Moral Heroism In Overcoming The World
  • 1898: One of the Two; "Be not overcome the evil, but overcome evil with good"
  • 1899: John King's Question Class
  • 1899: The Miracle at Markham; How Twelve Churches Became One
  • 1899: Lend a Hand
  • 1899: For Christ and the Church
  • 1900: Born to Serve: a story
  • 1900: Edward Blake: College Student
  • 1901: The Reformer
  • 1903: His Mother's Prayers
  • 1903: The Narrow Gate
  • 1904: The Wilderness of the Upper Yukon; a hunter's explorations for wild sheep in sub-arctic mountains
  • 1905: The Heart of the World: A Story of Christian Socialism
  • 1906: The spirit's power: or the revival
  • 1909: Paul Douglas-journalist
  • 1911: The High Calling
  • 1912: A Builder of Ships; The Story of Brander Cushing's Ambition
  • 1914: "Jesus is Here!" Continuing the Narrative of In His Steps (What Would Jesus Do?)
  • 1912: In His Steps; a Dramatic Adaptation of the Story (with Frank H. Lane)
  • 1912: The Wilderness of the North Pacific Coast Islands: A Hunter's Experiences while Searching for Wapiti, Bears, and Caribou on the Larger Coast Islands of British Columbia and Alaska
  • 1916: Howard Chase, Red Hill, Kansas
  • 1916: Of One Blood
  • 1917: Modern Pagans
  • 1919: All The World
  • 1920: Heart Stories
  • 1921: In His Steps To-day. What would Jesus do in solving the problems of present political, economic and social life?
  • 1921: The richest man in Kansas
  • 1924: The everyday Bible (as editor)
  • 1924: The Mere Man and His Problems
  • 1925: Charles M. Sheldon: His Life Story
  • 1925: Two Old Friends
  • 1926: The Life of Jesus
  • 1927: Casework Evangelism: Studies in the Art of Christian Personal Work (only Introduction)
  • 1928: The 13th Resolution
  • 1929: Life's Treasure Book, Past, Present, and Future
  • 1930: The Wilderness of Denali
  • 1941: The Golden Book of Bible Stories: Favorite Stories from the Old and New Testaments Retold for Children


  1. ^ "Statute | Kansas State Legislature". Retrieved 2018-11-26.
  2. ^ Service, Religion News; Press, Associated (2001-12-22). "Road Named for 'What Would Jesus Do?' Author". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2018-11-26.
  3. ^ Sheldon, Charles M. (1897), In His Steps: "What would Jesus do?", Chicago: Advance Publishing, p. 3
  4. ^ Ferré, John P. (1988), "Charles Sheldon's moral formula", A social gospel for millions, Bowling Green State University: Popular Press, pp. 15–17
  5. ^ a b Burnidge, Cara L. (Spring 2009). Charles M. Sheldon and the Heart of the Social Gospel Movement (M.A.). Florida State University. Archived from the original on November 10, 2016. Retrieved June 2, 2017.
  6. ^ Brooking, N. (2004-02-01). 1. Charles Monroe Sheldon (1857 - 1946). From "Charles M. Sheldon and the Social Gospel." Georgetown College. Retrieved on: 2010-08-07.
  7. ^ Sheldon, “The Confessions of a Vegetarian,” Independent 60 (June 21, 1906): 1458
  8. ^ Sheldon, “The Show That Would have Stunned New York,” unpublished sermon, Sheldon’s manuscript file, Kansas Historical Society.
  9. ^ The Capital-Journal's roots run deep - Topeka Capital Journal - June 1, 2003
  10. ^ Charles Monroe Sheldon/Central Congregational Church Collection

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]