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George Diepenbrock
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Book traces origin of phrase in WWJD movement to Topeka minister, social activist

Mon, 05/04/2015

LAWRENCE — When Christians began wearing bracelets with the acronym for "What would Jesus do?" in the 1990s, the phrase was a reminder for them to attempt to act in a way that personifies Jesus' teachings from the Gospels.

While most know the WWJD movement as a recent development, the wording has been around for more than 100 years as Charles M. Sheldon, a Topeka minister and evangelical Christian writer, used it in his 1897 novel, "In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?"

"The idea of imitating Jesus and trying to be like Jesus is something that's been around forever," said Tim Miller, a University of Kansas professor of religious studies and expert on Sheldon's life. "What he did was create the phrase."

Miller recently finished an updated edition of his 1987 book, "Following in His Steps: A Biography of Charles M. Sheldon."

"That was the watchword, and the whole scenario of Sheldon's novel is you're asking that question every time you have a moral decision to make," Miller said. "What would Jesus do if he were in my shoes right now? And you're supposed to try to conscientiously figure that out and decide what you should do."

There is still widespread interest in Sheldon today, Miller said. Even though Sheldon died in 1946, he was a national leader in what was known as the Social Gospel movement that put social issues at the forefront of religious life. His book was so widely read that there was a time when just about every Protestant in the country was familiar with the novel, Miller said.

Sheldon served as pastor of the Central Congregational Church in Topeka from 1889 to 1919, but he's widely known for his writings and his social activism, including in civil rights, religious ecumenism, tolerance, prohibition, Christian journalism and peace.

His Christian Daily Newspaper, a one-week version of the Topeka Daily Capital, was widely circulated across the world.

"For much of his life, he argued we ought to focus on good news and not bad news," Miller said. "The media should be uplifting and make a moral point in the news."

You could argue that his focus on civil rights and race relations paved the way for the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit that originated in the Topeka school district and ended racial segregation in schools, Miller said.

Sheldon worked to bring better education to poorer residents of Topeka, and through his Tennessee Town projects, in 1893 he established the first kindergarten for black children west of the Mississippi River. Most residents of the neighborhood, which was on the southwestern edge of Topeka at the time, had emigrated from plantations in the South.

One kindergarten graduate was Elisha Scott, who became an attorney, and two of his sons, Charles and John, later argued the Kansas portion of the Brown case. Elisha, whom Sheldon had also helped get through law school, named his son Charles Sheldon Scott.

Miller said Sheldon's communication skills helped make his overall message effective.

"His message was simple, straightforward and obvious," Miller said. "At the same time, it was challenging. It wasn't unreasonable. It wasn't strident. It wasn't partisan. It was simple."

Even though his message was challenging and could create disagreements, he seemed to earn respect from everyone, which is uncommon for outspoken leaders of movements, Miller said.

"To my mind, a major part of his appeal was just his person. He was a person of unquestioned integrity and high standards and high values," he said. "He inspired a lot of people, just by his personal example, I think. I worked on this research for several years, and I just couldn't find any chinks in the armor, basically. I couldn't find a single person who had known him and didn't like him."

The University of Tennessee Press re-released Miller's Sheldon biography in February.



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