Meet Charles Sheldon

Posted 2/99

After the Christian teenagers of today have grown into adulthood, they’ll look back on the late 1990s as being a pivotal period in their spiritual walk. They’ll remember the WWJD movement, the national ministry effort that challenged them to ask one simple question before they did anything: What would Jesus do? They’ll realize how much that question shaped their lives, and they’ll be forever grateful, much like their predecessors of the late 1890s were. That’s when the classic book In His Steps was first published. It was the original source of the question, "What would Jesus do?" The author was Charles M. Sheldon.

Charles was born in Wellsville, New York, in 1857. He graduated from Phillips Academy, Brown University, and Andover Theological Seminary, and was ordained in 1886. After ministering in Waterbury, Vermont, for three years, Charles became the pastor of Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas.

As an advocate of the social gospel movement, he developed outreach programs for those in need and wrote numerous stories that expressed his views. Those stories eventually became books, and the most popular of his 50-plus works was In His Steps. It sold over 15 million copies and was translated into many different languages—and it’s still a best-selling favorite among millions of believers today. The primary theme of the book—total commitment to Christ—is wrapped in a story about a congregation’s yearlong pledge not to do anything without first asking the question, "What would Jesus do?" The outcome of this promise has entertained and challenged readers for more than 100 years, and Charles believed it had the power to transform society as a whole.

Following the success of In His Steps, Charles was invited to edit the Topeka Daily Capital for a week. The invitation wasn’t all that unusual, except for the fact that he was asked to edit "the way Jesus would edit." This meant rejecting all tobacco and alcohol advertisements (Charles was an active participant in the Prohibition movement), along with cutting all objectionable editorial content. The approach proved to be fruitful for the newspaper—circulation increased significantly. Charles later became editor-in-chief of the Christian Herald after retiring as pastor of his church in Kansas.

Charles M. Sheldon died in 1946, leaving Christians young and old with a deeply spiritual question to ponder . . . and a richly rewarding goal to reach.

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