The Story of “In His Steps”

The following article is reprinted with permission from Guideposts Magazine. Copyright 1996 by Guideposts, Carmel, NY 10512. One of the most-read books in the world, this classic story was written by a man with an amazing history of his own.

A book that may have changed more lives than any other outside of the Bible has a fascinating history. In His Steps is a novel written by Charles M. Sheldon in 1896. As it celebrates the one hundredth anniversary of its publication, experts have ranked it as the tenth-most-read book in the world.

In simple style, In His Steps tells the story of self-satisfied congregants of a midwestern church who are challenged by a tramp during a Sunday service to live up to their declaration of faith. The tramp then dies in their midst. So moved are the minister and his parishioners that they pledge to live their lives for one year asking themselves, “What would Jesus do?” Their example how they suffered, faced ridicule and emerged victorious inspires other churches throughout the country to do the same.

Reading In His Steps wrought such a profound change in my own life that I, being an actor, was inspired to adapt the book to the stage. I was also driven to delve into the background of this classic. Fortunately, I found a recent biography of Charles Sheldon called Following ln His Steps, written by Timothy Miller (University of Tennessee Press). Much of the information in this article is taken from Millerts fascinating book. I was deeply moved by the life of Charles Sheldon and his remarkable influence.

Charles Monroe Sheldon was born in 1857 and grew up in the Dakota Territory, where his parents homesteaded in a log cabin he helped build. His father was the Territory’s first home missionary superintendent, founding 100 churches in 10 years. Young Sheldon “hunted with the Dakotas, fished with them, slept with them on the open prairie, and learned some of their language.”

The Sheldons had daily Bible reading and prayer, and Charles gained a deep love of books and learning. After his conversion in a Yankton church, he began writing at age 12, selling his work to a Boston newspaper. It was the beginning of a prodigious lifelong output resulting in dozens of books and hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles. In his freshman year at Brown University, he came to know Lee Wong, his Chinese laundryman,and founded what he said was “the first Sunday school for Chinese laundrymen in Americad.” They learned English by studying the Bible.

After graduating from Andover Theological Seminary, he became minister of a church in Waterbury, Conn., and met a young woman, Mary Merriam, who would become his wife. In Waterbury he helped promote neat and attractive housing, small-business assistance and a good local newspaper, as well as Bible study groups. He organized a reading club for young people, ending up with some 100 participants. They read A Tale of Two Cities aloud the first winter and interest ran so high that Sheldon launched a successful drive to create a town library. When more than two dozen townspeople died of typhoid many called it providence but Sheldon, working with a young physician, demonstrated to local folk that the real problem was their wells were too close to pigpens. With clean water, the typhoid epidemic ceased.

In 1889 he moved west to become pastor of the fledgling Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kan. He announced he would preach “a Christ for the common people. A Christ who belongs to the rich and poor, the ignorant and learned, the old and young, the good and the bad . . . a Christ who bids us all recognize the Brotherhood of the race, who bids throw open this room to all.”

For Sheldon this was not just rhetoric. Topeka was in a depression, and full of disheartened men searching for jobs. Determined to know more about the unemployed, Sheldon put on old clothes and spent a week hunting employment. He tried stores, coal yards and mills to no avail. Finally, he joined laborers shoveling snow from the Santa Fe rail yard tracks at no pay for “the simple joy of working.”

He took his experience to the pulpit and realized there was much more he needed to learn about the working man. He decided to spend a week with laborers and professionals, “living as nearly as I could the life they lived, asking them questions about their work, and preaching the gospel to them in whatever way might seem most expedient.”

And so Topekans found him riding with streetcar operators one week, attending classes with college students the next, traveling on freight trains with rail workers, attending court with lawyers, going on rounds with doctors, working with businessmen, and pursuing a beat as an unpaid reporter for the local paper.

Not only did this deepen Sheldon’s empathy with workers, but it also helped his largely above-working class congregation understand them better. And since he invited everyone he worked with to his church the following Sunday to hear his report on them, many came and some stayed.

Probably his most moving experience was one that awakened Sheldon to the ugly reality of racism. He spent three weeks visiting black people in Topeka, learning firsthand the prejudices they faced. He also became acquainted with Tennesseetown, a destitute community just outside Topeka of freed slaves and their children. It was there he launched an innovation that had an effect not only on Topeka but the nation.

In 1892 the idea of kindergartens came to America from Germany. A year later, with the help of his parishioners, Sheldon started two kindergartens, one at his church and one in Tennesseetown, the first black kindergarten west of the Mississippi. It proved a boon for Tennesseetown mothers desperate for day care. Some of the alumni became leaders in the community. Probably the most prominent was Elisha Scott, whom Sheldon helped attend law school. Scott became a respected Topeka attorney as did his son, Charles Sheldon Scott, who in 1954 argued the winning side of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka school desegregation case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

By 1897, Central Church had built a laboratory for one of the first kindergarten-teacher training schools in the nation. Soon its graduates were eagerly snapped up by schools from Maine to Texas.

Sheldon’s church continued to flourish as well; by 1891 there were four meetings on Sunday, including an evening service. Sunday evening services attendance was weak, however, and to build it up Sheldon wrote “sermon stories” from which he read a chapter, always ending with a cliffhanger to draw people back the following week. These proved popular, and soon Sunday evening services became crowded. Then in the summer of 1896 he began to write In His Steps. He read the first chapter to his congregation the night of October 4, 1896.

In His Steps proved immensely popular; The Advance, a weekly religious magazine, bought serial rights and in November 1896 began publishing it chapter by chapter. In 1897 The Advance published it as a book and sales skyrocketed. Some critics complained it was too simplistic, but its simplicity seemed to have a powerful effect on readers, many of whom vowed to follow the book’s title.

Over the years In His Steps appeared in millions of copies of news papers, comic books, magazines, and was translated into scores of different languages and produced in countless plays. But because of a mix-up in copyright, the book went into public domain, and Sheldon received practically no royalties, what little he did receive he gave to charity. When he was informed by Publishers Weekly that the book had a greater circulation than any other except the Bible, Sheldon said, “No one is more grateful than I am, as it confirms the faith I have always held that no subject is more interesting and vital to the human race than religion.”

Sheldon kept on working indefatigably, writing sequels to In His Steps and continuing to put his faith to work. When the owner of the Topeka Daily Capital offered him full rein editing the paper for one week “as Jesus would do it,” he labored 13 to 16 hours a day. The Capital’s average daily circulation was just over 11,000, but during Sheldon’s week it shot up to more than 362,000.

He kept up his community work, even voluntarily spending a week in jail, which resulted in local prison reforms. His fight against prejudice was highlighted in 1939 by his outcry against the Nazi persecution of Jews.

Sheldon retired from his pulpit in 1919, but continued working, becoming editor-in-chief of the Christian Herald in 1920. As he grew older, he spoke with great anticipation of his new life to come: “It is not death but life I greet . . . when he who loves me calls me home.”

On February 24, 1946, two days before his eighty-ninth birthday, Charles Sheldon, after suffering a stroke, died peacefully in bed. As I closed the book on his life, I realized Charles Sheldon left us all an enduring legacy with his powerful question, one which I ask myself each time I face a crossroad: What would Jesus do?

Chuck Neighbors

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