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In the Galleries: The Origins of WWJD

By Io Montecillo

In the 1890s, Kansas minister Charles M. Sheldon (1857–1946) turned to “sermon stories” to engage his congregation. In 1896, Sheldon began reading to the Central Church of Topeka a new series of stories called In His Steps. Like other Sheldon sermon stories, In His Steps ran as a serial in The Advance (Chicago) before being published as a book.

Sheldon and his publishers, who had failed to properly secure a copyright for In His Steps, were stunned at the novel’s success—and all of the pirated editions that emerged. In His Steps became a runaway bestseller in the United States and England.

Sheldon took his inspiration and title from I Peter 2:21 and used the newly revised King James Bible (1881/1885) as his source text: “For here unto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps.”

The 12 central characters in the novel take a pledge to live their lives guided by the question, “What would Jesus do?” As Sheldon was part of the larger Social Gospel movement that sought to improve social problems throughout the world, much of the novel centers on how characters used the pledge to minister to the needs of the urban poor and to fight the destructive effects of alcohol. The popularity of the novel waned, but it was “rediscovered” in the 1990s, and the question “What would Jesus do?” again swept the country, with the four letters “WWJD” appearing on bracelets, bumper stickers, and t-shirts.

Sheldon’s manuscript and pen holder, along with the works of other authors inspired by the King James Bible, are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

 

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