"In His Steps" by Charles Sheldon: A Review

So he went on. “The stranger’s appearance and words in church last Sunday made a very powerful impression on me. I am not able to conceal from you or myself the fact that what he said has compelled me to ask as I never asked before, ‘What does following Jesus mean?'” (11)

I confess I am a product of the 1990s and was involved in the “What Would Jesus Do” craze that began with simple bracelet’s and spread to countless other products and campaigns. I not only owned a number of bracelets of various colors, but also sported a book bag, notepads, t-shirts, books, and CDs with the four-word slogan “What Would Jesus Do?”[1] I knew then that the slogan was based on the late 19th century book In His Steps by Charles M. Sheldon and even tried to read it, but it, frankly, was not my cup of tea at the time. I have since grown in age and, hopefully, wisdom with a different appreciation for Sheldon and the book that a hundred years later sparked a Christian industry craze.

The book tells a simple story of a local pastor named Rev. Henry Maxwell who serves at the First Church of Raymond which is described as a financially stable congregation populated by the communities respectable members. One afternoon, Maxwell is interrupted by a “tramp” (Sheldon’s word) who asks for help finding a job. Maxwell refuses and begs him to move along. The following Sunday after his sermon from 1 Peter 2:21ff, that same beggar walked to the front of the service and complained about the hypocrisy among the Christians. Most notable is the following paragraph:

“What would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following His steps? It seems to me the people in the big churches have good clothes and nice houses to live in, and money to spend for luxuries, and could go away on summer vacations and all that, while the people outside the churches, thousands of them, I mean, die in tenements, and walk the streets for jobs, and never have a piano or a picture in the house, and grow up in misery and drunkenness and sin.” (9)

This monologue convicted Maxwell greatly. He vows to dedicate an entire year to radically live like Jesus and inviting a group from his church to do the same. That decision dominates the rest of the story. One man who makes the same vow, Edward Norman, is the chief editor of the local newspaper and decides to radically change the stories they cover and the ads they carry. This has serious financial consequences that leads to much derision and fear from his employees. Rachel Winslow, who takes the same pledge, sacrifices a promising singing career to serve the people of the Rectangle (the name of the local community within Raymond). Others, likewise, take the same pledge and make similar sacrifices to faithfully ask “What Would Jesus Do?” Eventually their vow brings major changes to the local community and spreads to Chicago when Rev. Calvin Bruce and Bishop Edward Hampton both step down from their church in order to follow the same pledge.

The story ends with a hopeful tone. The author clearly prays that the reader will make the same pledge and what happens in the fictional world he created will spread across America. At this point, the reader should celebrate Sheldon’s dream and pray for the same. He has a genuine belief that the gospel should transform the believer and, as a result, their community. For that, we should celebrate this work.

The problem for me, however, is Sheldon’s understanding of what the gospel actually is. Unfortunately, the author was an early pioneer of the social gospel (which is all social and no gospel) and this work reflects that.

Sheldon’s connection to the social gospel is well-documented. In the book, Sheldon’s application of what Jesus would do is social in nature. The pledge takers become very socially active. One character utilizes her inheritance to build a safe space for those in the Rectangle. Furthermore, the main characters get involved in local politics and vow to fight against the salons and alcohol (Sheldon was a advocate of prohibition). Through his characters, Sheldon says:

“Do you think anyone can ever remove this great curse of drink?” asked Jasper.

“I have thought lately as never before what Christian people might do to remove the curse of the saloon. Why don’t we all act together against it? What would Jesus do? Would He keep silent? Would He vote to license these causes of crime and death?

He talked to himself more than to the others. He remembered that he had always voted for license, and so had nearly all his church members. What would Jesus do? Would the maser preach and act against the saloon if He lived today? Supposed it was not popular to preach against license? Suppose the Christian people thought it was all that could be done to license the evil and so get revenue from the necessary sin? Or suppose the church members themselves owned the property where the saloons stood – what then? (37)

Clearly for Sheldon WWJD personal sanctification is best demonstrated through political and social engagement. This is articulated by Rev. Maxwell when he confesses that all his parish work, trials, self-sacrifices “are as nothing to me compared with the breaking into my scholarly, intellectual, self-contained habits of this open, coarse, public fight for a clean city life. The answer to the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ in this case leaves me no peace except when I say Jesus would have me act the part of a Christian citizen. We can do no less than take up this cross and follow Him.” (50) This is well and good, yet one must wonder if the right reverend would first use that intellectual work of holiness to better contemplate what WWJD actually means before picking up empty water buckets and trying to put out the fires of Hell. Did Jesus not say more of gospel-citizenship more than earthly citizenship?

Finally (and other examples could be given), there is the example of Edward Norman, the paper editor. He refuses to advertise worldly business and turns the paper into a Christian paper. At one point, he asks, “Are there enough genuine Christian people in Raymond who will rally to the support of a paper such as Jesus would probably edit?” (59). Later, he recites a number “of the things that it has seemed to me Jesus would do” (74) at the paper. Some are interesting for our purposes here. Number two is that Jesus “would conduct the political part of the paper from the standpoint of the advancement of the kingdom of God on earth.” (74) Number six is that “Jesus would give large space to the work of the Christian world – devoting space to the facts of reform, sociological problems, institutional church work, and similar movements.” (74-75). Finally, Number eight suggests “Jesus would not issue a Sunday edition.” (75)

Add to this social gospel motive throughout the narrative, there are hints of a liberal hermeneutic throughout the text. When asked how they will know what Jesus would do, the local pastor does point them to the work of the Holy Spirit but in the subjective sense. Maxwell says:

“There is no way that I know of,” replied the pastor, “except as we study Jesus through the medium of the Holy Spirit. You remember what Chris said speaking to His disciples about the Holy Spirit in John 16:13: ‘Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.’ There is no other test that I know of. We shall all have to decide what Jesus would do after going to that source of knowledge.” (13)

Though pious on the surface, this methodology should concern us. The passage Maxwell points his listeners to lacks context and is misapplied. Furthermore, one should note the subjective nature that the Holy Spirit is being used. The primary means by which the Holy Spirit speaks is through the Spirit-inspired Word of God which Sheldon, through the voice of the spiritual leader of the narrative, so easily overlooks in favor of a Schleiermacher-hermeneutic. One should note throughout the book that when the characters decide WWJD they do not open their Bible in search for God’s Word, but inside their own hearts for it. At best they seek counsel from one another but even that is faulty.

Take for example the following when Virginia tells Rachel “You mustn’t ask me to decide for you . . . Mr. Maxwell was right when he said we must each one of us decide according to the judgment we feel for ourselves to be Christlike.” (26) This is nothing short of theological, ecclesiological, and soteriological disaster and lies at the root of liberal theology that drives the social gospel.

What would be more beneficial for the reader (and for Sheldon) would be an exploration of what the Bible teaches on social engagement, vocation, citizenship, poverty, holiness, the role of the local church, evangelism, and missions. Yet all of that is lacking even though Jesus directly speaks to each of them throughout Scripture. What would Jesus do is an excellent question to ask, but it must be asked with the right motivates and with a desire to obey the Jesus of Scripture. Sheldon fails to accomplish that.

Finally, there is a hint of Sheldon’s Christian socialism sympathies and anti-capitalism in the text. Near the end of the book, Sheldon’s gives voice to a character named Carlsen who is described as “the Socialist leader” who reports:

“The whole of our system is at fault. What we call civilization is rotten to the core. There is no use trying to hide it or cover it up. We live in an age of trusts and combines and capitalistic greed that means simply death to thousands of innocent men, women and children. I thank God, if there is a God, which I very much doubt, that I, for one, have never dared to marry and try to have a home. Home! Talk of hell! Is there any bigger one than this man with his three children has on his hands right this minute? And he’s only one out of thousands. And yet this city, and every other big city in this country, has its thousands of professed Christians who have all the luxuries and comforts, and who go to church Sundays and sing their hymns about giving all to Jesus and bearing the cross and following Him all the way and being saved! I don’t say that there aren’t good men and women among them, but let the minister who has spoken to us here to-night go into any one of a dozen aristocratic churches I could name and propose to the members to take any such pledge as the one he’s mentioned here to-night, and see how quick the people would laugh at him for a fool or a crank or a fanatic. Oh, no! That’s not the remedy. That can’t ever amount to anything. We’ve got to have a new start in the way of government. The whole thing needs reconstructing. I don’t look for any reform worth anything to come out of the churches. They are not with the people. They are with the aristocrats, with the men of money. The trusts and monopolies have their greatest men in the churches. The ministers as a class are their slaves. What we need is a system that shall start from the common basis of socialism founded on the rights of the common people-” (128)

In the end, this work was influential in the work of Walter Rauschenbusch who is recognized as the primary leader of the social gospel movement of the 20th century. By the time Rauschenbusch rose to prominence, many like Sheldon had already laid the necessary foundation. Later, Sheldon praised Rauschenbusch’s book Prayers of the Social Awakening writing on January 30, 1914, “We have been strengthened at morning and evening worship in this home by the prayers which voice our longing and our need, as we were not able to voice them.”[2]

Yet what is most troubling about the book isn’t its content, for it does not take much work to discover that Sheldon’s theology is suspect. What is troubling is the wide audience that continues to receive it without any discernment. The copy I read was put out by the Billy Graham library selection. Does the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association not understand the dangerous theology that lies behind its narrative? On the copyright page it notes, “Our mission is to publish and distribute inspirational products offering exceptional value and biblical encouragement to the masses” and then includes the classic Billy Graham message of salvation at the end which runs contrary to the book’s author and the narrative. Graham’s traditional gospel call does not compute with Sheldon’s understanding of the same.

In conclusion, In His Steps is significant in the historical sense but I trust it will soon fade into insignificance due to its weak and dangerous theology which lies behind it. There is no gospel here and if you looking to discover what Jesus would do in today’s world, don’t turn here. The Bible is sufficient for that.

[1] It wasn’t long before manufacturers added to the craze trying to profit from it. Another slogan I remember, and there were many, was the acronym “F.R.O.G.” which stood for “Fully Rely on God.”
[2] See Gary Scott Smith, The Search for Social Salvation: Social Christianity and America, 1880-1925, 125 note 76. See also Christopher Evans, The Kingdom is Always But Coming, 218.

One thought on “"In His Steps" by Charles Sheldon: A Review

  1. Very good exploration on the book. Most of us didn’t pick up on the truths you’ve shared. We will have to carefully explain ourselves if we use this book or its movies.

    Liked by 1 person

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