Charles 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.
Education and Ministry
Sheldon is 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
. In the 1880s Sheldon developed a series of sermons
that he preached from the pulpit of the Congregational church in Topeka, Kansas
. The unifying theme of these sermons was based on posing the question, "what would Jesus do
?" when facing moral decisions.
Novel and Theological Influence
The theme of the sermons was later fictionalised 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, and it helped to inspire the theologian Walter Rauschenbusch
who is generally credited with creating the Social Gospel. However, Rauschenbusch acknowledged that Sheldon was the source of his ideas. Sheldon's own parish work became identified with the Social Gospel, an expression of early Liberal Christianity
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
What Would Jesus Do?
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?
One theologian, James Smylie, has analyzed the impact of Sheldon's novel and argues that it offers a poor calculus for mature ethical and moral decision making on the part of Christians.
Sheldon believed in full equality for men and women and vocally supported the feminist struggle for equal rights. He urged women to become involved in politics. He supported that women should have full equality in the workplace and saw nothing wrong with men working in traditionally feminine jobs, such as domestic service.