A book I neglected to list on my “15 books that stick with me” (see July 2009 post) and that I have read at least three times, is In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. In 1896, this Congregationalist pastor wrote the novel that spawned the question: What Would Jesus Do?
The story centers around Rev. Henry Maxwell, a pastor of a large church. One Sunday morning, at the end of the 11:00 service, a homeless man asks to speak to the congregation. He relates a commonly heard story of the day and asks some probing questions – then falls on the floor and dies. The last years of the nineteenth century was a time of depression in the United States, the beginning of the industrial age when many men lost their jobs. During this time, if you had no job, you had no income. Zero. Zilch. There was no welfare, no rehab, no stimulus package, nor any of the other programs that people today love to hate. When you were evicted for non-payment of rent, you moved in with family or you were homeless. Not living in a shelter. Homeless.
Churches had their mission projects but the worship services in the large affluent churches were for the rich. As the destitute man stood before the congregation that morning, he related how he was a Christian, knew he should follow Jesus, but he was puzzled as to how Jesus would have him live. What would Jesus do? Would he starve rather than beg? Would he watch his child go hungry rather than steal a loaf of bread? When employment opportunities came, were there certain jobs Jesus would have turned down regardless of his family’s need?
After this incident, Henry Maxwell was led to challenge his congregation to take a pledge to live one year asking themselves the question “What Would Jesus Do?” Many volunteered to take the vow and the book tells the story of what happened to those who undertook to live as a true disciple, following Jesus’ steps as closely as they could. As I said, this was written in 1896, contemporary to the times. Some who pledged could not stick it out, found such a lifestyle impossible. Some suffered, all were changed.
In the early 1990’s a youth director in Holland, Michigan was taken with Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps. After sharing the story with the youth, she had bracelets with the words “What Would Jesus Do?” or “WWJD” printed on them, as a reminder to the youth to live as Jesus would. The idea caught on and you probably remember seeing displays of bracelets, key chains and magnets with this message.
Charles Sheldon had never copyrighted his work, and it has been reprinted numerous times without any compensation for the author or his heirs. Since the slogan WWJD was in public domain, the youth director was able to use it without cost. Though the opportunity was there, the youth director also did not seek to copyright the slogan. It’s not clear why, except that perhaps she, as well as Charles Sheldon, thought the message was more important that any profits they might see. The youth director was later able to gain control of the WWJD Trademark in order to protect it from being misused or defamed.
Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps, has had 20 million copies published in 20 languages.