When I started digging into the life of Charles M. Sheldon–the man behind “What would Jesus do?”–I was expecting to find the caricature of a novelist: an introverted, naive, impractical dreamer who didn’t emerge much from his house, . . . Well, I discovered a very different sort of man. And Marshall Shelley was gracious enough to let me share my findings with the readers of Leadership Journal:
How Would Jesus Pastor?
The unpredictable Charles Sheldon gave it a try.
The words rang out one Sunday morning in the fictional First Church in the fictional, comfortable town of Raymond. The speaker was a tramp who had walked, mid-service, up the center aisle. “I get puzzled when I see so many Christians living in luxury and singing ‘Jesus, I my cross have taken, all to leave and follow Thee,’ and remember how my wife died in a tenement in New York City, gasping for air.
“It seems to me,” he continued, “there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don’t understand. But what would Jesus do?”
The following week, First Church’s pastor, Henry Maxwell, challenged his congregation to live up to their faith by asking themselves that same question, “What would Jesus do?” and act accordingly regardless of personal cost.
This is the story of one of the most-read religious novels of all time, In His Steps. The writer, Charles Sheldon, was himself a Congregational minister. Published serially beginning in 1896, Sheldon’s story captured people’s imaginations. Over the next 60 years, In His Steps sold more than 8 million copies.
Though it inspired countless readers, few have confused Sheldon’s novel with great literature. Today its ideals seem naïve. But Pastor Sheldon himself, while idealistic, read the Bible daily, prayed frequently, and was a surprisingly practical minister.
Leading a Church “In His Steps”
Everyone knew that Sheldon could tell a story. In fact, he told over 50 such stories, often reading them aloud in his pulpit to packed houses on Sunday nights before they were published.
But the thing that most endeared Sheldon to his contemporaries was his obsession to secure material, social, and spiritual relief for suffering people. As a pastor, he made it his business to find out the needs of every class of people-especially those disadvantaged by the prejudices of others: blacks, women, the poor, and the unemployed. When he saw a human need, he did what he could to meet it.
Doing, doing, doing, and urging others to do-this was Sheldon’s specialty.
Son of a Congregational minister, Sheldon grew up in the Dakota Territory in a log cabin he himself helped build. Young Sheldon, writes biographer Timothy Miller, “hunted with the Dakotas, fished with them, slept with them on the open prairie, and learned some of their language.” This not only produced a warmly unprejudiced person, but also gave him a special kinship with working folks.
Sheldon also drank in the Bible from an early age, as “each morning the family would sit together in the log cabin and read aloud, each member of the family old enough to participate taking two verses in turn.”
In his first pastorate in Waterbury, Connecticut, Sheldon attended not just to the souls but the daily needs of his congregation and the town. After “boarding around” (living for a week at a time) with 45 families of his 175-member church, he launched a series of practical works.
He planted a vegetable garden on church property and sold the produce. He began Bible study groups and a successful reading club that attracted 200 youth and led to a drive for a town library. When typhoid killed more than two dozen townspeople, he worked with a young doctor to convince people to move their wells farther from their pigpens.
In 1889, Sheldon was called as founding pastor of Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas. In the small room over the local butcher’s shop that served as the congregation’s first sanctuary, Sheldon preached to what would be his lifelong flock. The new preacher announced that he would preach “a Christ who belongs to the rich and to the poor, the ignorant and the learned, the old and the young, the good and the bad.”
Little did his congregation know the concrete ways that sermon would be lived out.
Close Enough to Touch the Issue
The next year Sheldon was confronted with an issue that would shape his ministry, even as it became a flashpoint for the young social gospel movement. As industrialism boomed, thousands of men were losing their jobs. The unemployed were suffering, and some launched strikes that turned bloody, striking terror in the late-Victorian middle class.
Rather than coming to the workers’ aid, the comfortable Christian majority overlooked them, or blamed them for their supposed laziness. Sheldon did not buy this callous explanation. Instead, he placed the blame squarely on a laissez faire capitalist system that cared little for the welfare of its workers.
Never one to stop at explanations, Sheldon decided to see for himself what the unemployed were experiencing. With his congregation’s blessing, he left the pulpit, put on old clothes, and set out for a week in search of work. In vain, as it turned out.
Then, hungry for more insight, he tried a new version of “boarding around.” This time he targeted social groups he felt could show him both the problems and the solutions facing Americans during that volatile time.
He ate, talked, worked, and slept for one week each with people from eight different Topeka social groups: streetcar operators, college students, blacks, railroad workers, lawyers, physicians, businessmen, and newspaper men.
The most remarkable of these boarding experiences was in Tennesseetown, a black community that comprised one-third of Topeka’s population. “Exodusters” from the south, their houses were dilapidated and their poverty abject.
Sheldon stayed there three weeks, the first trying to understand the roots of Tennesseetown’s poverty and help find work, the second visiting their schools, and the third traveling with a black man to gauge the level of prejudice in the surrounding communities.
He concluded it was not “incompetence,” as local newspapers insisted, but racism and a cycle of poverty that oppressed the people of Tennesseetown. He was the first white to say so.
Through a survey of 800 residents, he found out which basic social services were most needed, and he set out to provide them. These included the first black kindergarten west of the Mississippi. He soon drew his congregation into his efforts. When the kindergarten took off, with nearly 300 children joining during the first four years, Central Church built a training school for kindergarten teachers, with graduates fanning out across the country.
Other churches joined in. The efforts included a significant self-help component for Tennesseetown residents. Crime rates in the exoduster community fell and prosperity increased.
Former Sheldon kindergartner Minus Gentry remembered fondly, “Everybody loved him. Everybody.”
Roots of the Problem
Nor was Sheldon content sticking with local efforts. Seeking to address the racist roots of the community’s problems, he became an early civil rights advocate. He stood up against anti-black activities and spoke out against the Klan.
He also spent much effort fighting drink, Sunday labor, and many other centrifugal forces, from clubs and pool halls to long work hours, that threatened the family and community health.
But Sheldon always saw himself first as pastor of Central Church. After In His Steps spread his fame throughout the English-speaking world, he could have written his ticket anywhere. But he stayed, and later wrote, “One had better stay in an environment to which he is accustomed and with people who are familiar with his peculiarities” than go far and wide initiating “experiments.”
Throughout his pastoral life, his daily regimen included writing personal notes and letters to his congregants, answering two or three dozen phone calls a day and entertaining a steady stream of callers at his office. He also served his congregation of eventually 2,000 people (he could have parlayed his prominence into much greater growth, but never saw the need) by making frequent pastoral visits and officiating at countless weddings, funerals, and meetings.
Sheldon particularly dedicated himself to the youth and children of Central Church. He loved their energy, spiritual hunger, and openness to people who didn’t look like them. When asked about his obvious preference for youth work, he pointed out that when many of the adults of the congregation revealed their racial prejudice by refusing to help the people of Tennesseetown, the youth had readily stepped in and done much of the work.
The Sunday evening services where he read his “sermon stories” were especially popular with the church’s youth, and he oversaw a large Sunday school, Christian Endeavor group, and “The Young People’s Good Citizenship Federation of Topeka,” which published its own newspaper.
Most important of these youth groups was “the Altruist Club.” Founded in the early 1900s, the club at first consisted of “high school and college girls and women who helped out in the Tennesseetown kindergarten.” Later the group helped Sheldon in many other initiatives, becoming a sort of Jesuit-esque special force under the minister’s direction.
Not surprisingly, Sheldon’s heart and efforts for the young also resulted in a remarkable number of Central Church young people dedicating their lives to missions. These were so numerous that biographer Timothy Miller finds credible Sheldon’s claim that his church produced “more missionaries than any other church in America.”
Other innovative Central Church programs included a cemetery plot free to all church members; a funeral expense fund; a lavish alms program (generously supplemented from the pocket of Sheldon, so notoriously free with his family’s money that his wife was eventually forced to give him an allowance for his beneficences); and an “Open Door” program patterned after the Catholic confessional, but presciently similar to modern pastoral counseling.
A Liberal who Loved Evangelists
Sheldon certainly considered himself a part of his day’s liberal social-gospel movement. But in many ways he looked like what we might call an “evangelical.” The person and work of Christ were his touchstone. While he saw the need to address systemic social evils, he also saw that it was often personal habits-alcohol abuse and patterns of crime-that oppressed individuals and communities.
He believed that real change could ultimately come only through a change in individual sinners’ hearts. And he believed those individuals could be changed only by the grace of God and the willing, sacrificial work of faithful Christians (two of his famous novel’s most sympathetic figures are a tent evangelist and his wife).
In other words, though liberal in theological sympathy (Sheldon’s fictional Pastor Maxwell was preaching a sermon on the moral influence theory of the atonement when the tramp interrupted his service), he refused to become drawn into theological controversy.
A true pietist, he saw such disputes as a waste of time when so many Christians were failing to live like their Master.
Above all, Sheldon was activated by a profound sense of Christ’s love for every person-and he felt that love demanded nothing less than a life of total dedication.
When he died, on February 24, 1946, at the age of 88, there was no doubt that Charles M. Sheldon lived, pastored, and wrote, in grateful love to his Lord.
We get this sense from his own words of anticipation as he grew older: “It is not death but life I greet … when he who loves me calls me home.”
Chris Armstrong teaches church history at Bethel Seminary in Arden Hills, Minnesota.