An Analysis of Charles Sheldon's Liberal Classic
In His Steps
by
Adrin Raikes
West Virginia University

     The latter quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed great economic disparity in the United States. A small percentage of the population enjoyed the majority of the nation's wealth, creating a stark contrast between the luxurious life of the millionaire and the impoverished life of the working person. From this environment arose Christian liberalism, a utopian world view interested in bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth, particularly by means of social and--in anticipation of the Social Gospel--labor reforms. When Charles Sheldon wrote In His Steps, a novel which continually poses the question "What would Jesus do?" he was proposing to combat social and economic polarization in a Christ-like way.

     The novel opens with Henry Maxwell, a rather

"These characters represent Sheldon's primary targets--the pampered, the shrewd, the lettered, the wealthy, the gifted--and are cast as obvious archetypes rather than as separate and unique individuals. "

stodgy minister who is trying to finish Sunday's sermon, working diligently in his study. A tramp, a working man out of work and near death, knocks on the door and asks for help, but Maxwell simply sends him away with good wishes. A few days later, the tramp comes into First Church and interrupts Maxwell's polished speech with an accusatory monologue: "It seems to me," the tramp says, "there's an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn't exist if all the people who sing ["all for Jesus"] . . . went and lived [it] out" (11). Pastor Maxwell broods over the dying man's words for a week.

     On the Sunday following, Maxwell delivers a sermon which revolutionizes "the definition of Christian discipleship" (13). He challenges his wealthy, conservative congregation to live for one year constantly asking "What would Jesus do?" and answering honestly in their actions without counting the cost (17). Several volunteers take the vow and together Maxwell and his people attempt to approach every situation with this singular guiding principle in mind. Sheldon's concept of a more utopian social system is evident in these very volunteers. "Among them [were] Rachel Winslow and Virginia Page, Mr. Norman, President Marsh, Alexander Powers, the Railroad Superintendent; Milton Wright, Dr. West, and Jasper Chase" (19). Listed respectively by occupation, this collection includes a beautiful singer, a charismatic heiress, the editor of the city's daily newspaper, the president of nearby Lincoln College, the railroad shop superintendent, a powerful merchant, a talented surgeon, and a successful young author (16). These characters represent Sheldon's primary targets--the pampered, the shrewd, the lettered, the wealthy, the gifted--and are cast as obvious archetypes rather than as separate and unique individuals.

     Sheldon's archetypes are very predictable in their actions. After taking the pledge, Alexander Powers appropriately exposes a web of illegal deceit in the railroad monopoly and becomes estranged from his family as a result. Virginia appropriately gives one part of her fortune to the establishment of a daily Christian newspaper and another part to cleaning up the slums, and becomes estranged from her grandmother in the process. With only two notable exceptions, Sheldon rarely allows his actors to break out of their cast, archetypal molds. One is when the narrator reveals that "Felicia at first had a habit of rubbing her nose forgetfully when she was trying to remember some recipe" and the second is when Felicia says to Stephen, "I fell in love with a little pine shaving above your ear" (209, 248). In fact, the majority of character reaction in the novel is prophesied by the title, even when the outcome seems dubious.

     Though the Bishop and Dr. Bruce confess to one another that they did not take their charges seriously at first, they both rectify the situation by leaving their posts and establishing a settlement house in the heart of Chicago. Though Burns had every intention of robbing the Bishop, he refused to do it when the clergyman made himself known. This seemingly ubiquitous predictability in character serves to illustrate the idea that following Jesus, or, at least, following His archetypal ideal, should be a universal objective adhered to by all the upper-class people in America.

     The results of the extraordinary pledge to  

"Sheldon's interest in food is a reflection of Christian Liberalism because he clearly believes that poor social conditions create sinful actions, and that by improving the food of the masses, Christians can help bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. "

"walk as Jesus did" are soon apparent. Edward Norman removes all unchristian opinions, articles, and advertisements from "The Raymond Daily News," subsequently losing money and respect (23). Milton Wright decides to love his employees and begins to reorganize his business giving the employees literal ownership rights (87). Rachel Winslow gives up a lucrative position with a touring opera company to sing in the slums under the direction of an evangelistic preacher (54). Maxwell realizes that the saloon is the enemy of decency and begins to preach against it, an action that has ramifications for all citizens in the city. Using his characters as his voice, Sheldon targets certain habits and institutions as well as society's upper crust. Institutional evil, as opposed to the personal sin of greed, is represented by the Rectangle, "the great slum and tenement district of Raymond [which] congested its worst and most wretched elements . . . it was shut in by rows of saloons, gambling hells, and cheap, dirty boarding and lodging houses . . . [it was] a stronghold of the devil" (85). "Oaths and impurity and heavy drinking" are the hallmarks of this wasteland of sin; to Sheldon, then, these qualities are a scourge, and much like slavery they should be totally removed from society. The saloon is the root of the problem (89, 235). To fight the saloon, Sheldon calls for political activism, for "consecrated money to move things with" (145). After all, "how much had prayers helped to make Raymond better while votes and actions had really been on the side of the enemies of Jesus?" (99) Obviously, Maxwell says, not much. The Christian citizens of Raymond band together to vote people into office who would remove the "great curse of drink" from their city (75).

     The plight of women in the nineteenth century is another social problem explored by Sheldon. Working-class women labored long hours in heinous conditions for low wages and were, of course, as open to evil temptations, if not more so, than men. Sheldon creates Virginia Page with a desire to give "refuges to poor women, asylums for shop girls, safety for many and many a lost girl" (143). In reaching the women, there is hope for the next generation, because if reformers can rescue women from misery and teach them not to sin, they will in turn teach their children. The lack of properly prepared food is also a social ill targeted by Sheldon, for "one of the great miseries of comparative poverty consist[s] in poor food" (209). Sheldon's interest in food is a reflection of Christian liberalism because he clearly believes that poor social conditions create sinful actions, and that by improving the food of the masses, Christians can help bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. To that end, Felicia moves into the slums and begins to teach mothers how to cook purely and wholesomely.

     The lack of beauty in the industrialized slums is abhorrent from the beginning of the novel when Rachel Winslow moves the drunken crowd with her stunning voice, and continues down to the converted violinist who stays with Felicia. To Christian Liberals, industrialization, and the foul air and dilapidated buildings that accompany it, is the prime cause of social evils. Interestingly, in all these cases, Sheldon chooses women to address the needs of women.

     At the death of Loreen, a converted drunk, Sheldon asks "Who killed this woman?" He responds, "The saloon killed her (133, 134). In order to get close to God, one must get close to the people, the "outcast[s], the wreck[s]"(120). "It is the personal element that Christian discipleship needs to emphasize. 'The gift without the giver is bare,"' says Maxwell in his final sermon (268). Christians who believe they should follow Jesus need to be active in the community, providing a healing touch to the masses, for "to love a multitude of sinners is a distinctively a Christlike quality" that requires uncommon perseverance (74). It is not enough, Sheldon says, to delegate service to certain charities; walking in Jesus' steps requires deep personal sacrifice (269).

     In His Steps is significant to the study of American religious history because it represents a concern with the coming millennium and because it demands a quantifiable result from Christian service (164). Sheldon outlines major social problems and, through his characters and their actions, tells the reader to change those worldly problems through volunteerism and social activism because that is what Jesus would do. The actual salvation of souls becomes almost a corollary to the correction of social ills: "the value of good food" is Felicia's "gospel," stopping the saloon becomes Henry Maxwell's, and providing beauty to the masses is Rachel Winslow's (222). Ironically, In His Steps is widely encouraged as required reading among modern evangelical Christians. Yet what most evangelicals fail to recognize is that the book is definitely a tool of late nineteenth-century Christian liberalism which sought to bring the Kingdom of God to earth through social action.



Return to the American Religious Experience Student Center