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Charles Sheldon

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Title: Charles Sheldon  
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Subject: What would Jesus do?, Social Gospel, In His Steps, Fellowship of Companies for Christ International, Writers from Topeka, Kansas
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Charles Sheldon

A 1913 photograph of Sheldon

Charles Monroe Sheldon (February 26, 1857 in Wellsville, New York – February 24, 1946) was an American minister in the Congregational churches 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 Memorial Highway in his honor.


  • Education and ministry 1
  • Novel and theological influence 2
  • Newspaper "career" 3
  • What Would Jesus Do? 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Education and ministry

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.[1] 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.[2]

Novel and theological influence

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.

  • Profile on Sheldon from the Congregational Church, Topeka, Kansas [3]
  • Works by Charles Sheldon at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Charles Sheldon at Internet Archive
  • Works by Charles Sheldon at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Kansas State Historical Society archived documents on Charles Sheldon [4]
  • "Charles Sheldon".  
  • Inventory of the Charles Monroe Sheldon Papers, Special Collections, University of Vermont Library
  • PBS Documentary "Beyond Theology: What Would Jesus Do?

External links

  • James Smylie, "Sheldon's In His Steps: Conscience and Discipleship," Theology Today, Volume 32, number 1 (July 1975) pp. 32–45.

Further reading

  1. ^ Sheldon, Charles M. (1897), In His Steps: "What would Jesus do?", Chicago: Advance Publishing, p. 3 
  2. ^ Ferré, John P. (1988), "Charles Sheldon's moral formula", A social gospel for millions, Bowling Green State University: Popular Press, pp. 15–17 
  3. ^ a b Smiley, J.H. (July, 1975). "Sheldon's In His Steps: Conscience and Discipleship." Theology Today 32(1):44.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Sheldon, “The Confessions of a Vegetarian,” Independent 60 (June 21, 1906): 1458
  6. ^ Sheldon, “The Show That Would have Stunned New York,” unpublished sermon, Sheldon’s manuscript file, Kansas Historical Society.
  7. ^ The Capital-Journal's roots run deep - Topeka Capital Journal - June 1, 2003


A ten part mini-series produced by 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.

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.

What Would Jesus Do?

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.[7]

Newspaper "career"

Sheldon was also a vegetarian who promoted compassion towards animal just as he did towards humans.[5] He even criticized circuses for their treatment of animals.[6]

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.[4]


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