Book Review: In His Steps by Charles Sheldon

I’ve been talking lately about how hard it is to remain pure, because even with a strict filter on my computer for myself, avoiding most television, refusing to attend movies, etc, there are still images and concepts that enter in and pollute.

Christian books today may be pure, or they may not be pure, many are badly written and in some cases, just slow or clunky. So in attempting to find some kind of entertainment for myself, I stepped back to find some classics to read. In His Steps is one such classic.

It was written in 1897 by Charles Monroe Sheldon. It has sold more than 30,000,000 copies, and ranks as the 9th best-selling book of all time. It is where we got the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?”

The book begins with Rev. Henry Maxwell, pastor of First Church of the town of Raymond, in somewhere USA. He is self-satisfied, pleased to be pastoring a church with the best people. The town’s pillars attend his church, and all of them are pleased with the sedate regularity with which the pastor runs things. From the bell-like voice of Rachel Winslow ringing from the choir, to the heavily laden offering plate, all of them come in each Sunday, warm the pews, and leave, their Christianity never having been challenged.

Until one day a man who had been looking for a job all around town stumbles into the church, calmly and pleadingly asks the congregation to think of extending their Christian compassion to the wretched likes of him, and he collapses in front of the pulpit and dies a few days later at the Reverend’s home.

The Reverend is struck and pierced and pricked in his conscience by this. He proposes to the congregation that they undertake a project for one year, to do nothing except thinking first “What would Jesus do?” To the best of their ability to answer that timeless question before making every decision, based on their biblical understanding of His precepts, and to move in that direction no matter what the cost. We Christians, the Reverend preaches, need to count the cost.

The first third of the book is this opening, from the man who acts as the lighting bolt to shake them from complacency to the initial applications of the question, and their effects. We read of the scenarios in which the Christians who had committed begin to act according to first century Christianity. The Newspaper editor looks at the content of his paper differently. Rachel wonders how her bell-like voice can be used- for operatic entertainments or to sing to the poor in the book’s version of Hell’s Kitchen or the Bowery? The Reverend himself begins to preach according to the bible without regard for the drop in offerings or flak from congregants.

It is this part that is most compelling. The author does a good job of bringing the first century Christian’s eyes to modern life. The book is not so dated or arcane in language that we can’t see how this works. The newspaperman asks whether Jesus would put out a Sunday edition. Would He promote saloons via advertisements, or write the articles in yellow journalism prurient language. The singer asks if it violates His precepts to heap money unto herself by accepting a fancy singing position or whether it is better to sing directly for Him during evangelistic revivals in the bowels where the wretched sinners lay in the gutter- literally. The preacher wonders about his contract if he moves forward with provoking his people. The rich business owner decides to hold discipling sessions with his blue collar workers at lunchtime even though he is kind of afraid of them- but would never admit it. All these are still modern scenarios that we’re still dealing with 115 years later.

The characters continued to attend church, and they added prayer, lots of prayer whether individual or corporate, to their weekly schedule. All these things are good.

In my opinion however, the book begins to bog down about halfway through. The people to whom the question was posed begin to apply their question, “What would Jesus do?” to a Social Gospel. The Social Gospel was a real movement in the turn of the last century, reaching its peak at just before WWI. The book characters also apply their question WWJD to the Temperance Movement, which had its peak success in the passage of the 18th Amendment, in 1917, which prohibited the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol.

Wiki explains, “The Social Gospel movement is a Protestant Christian intellectual movement that was most prominent in the early 20th century United States and Canada. The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as wealth perceived as excessive, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, bad hygiene, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war.”

The book’s characters campaigned for closure of saloons, ran for office, and got involved in causes. In my opinion the Social Gospel re-directs Christian energy from individuals worshiping corporately, distracts them from personal discipling, and reduces proper witnessing. The question in the book “What would Jesus do? when applied to “Would Jesus run for City Council” was not explored adequately or applied to biblical precepts. They just thought He would.

That is the second criticism of the book “In His Steps.” There were no actual bible verses or even much reference to them. The characters asked the question, and then said, “Yes I think Jesus would do this,” or “Jesus would not do this” with no further exploration as to how they arrived at the decision from a biblical standpoint.

The sudden introduction of a new set of characters and a new city two-thirds of the way through sort of did me in. I stopped reading and only skimmed to the end. It was interesting to note the level of authenticity the author carried through. For example, not all the characters who committed to the one-year WWJD experiment stayed with it. Some quit. Some only pretended. Others did stick with it but counted a heavy cost in personal relationships and in finances. Others seemed to be blessed in this life as they increased in relationships or finances. That was realistic. They stayed praying throughout, and continued to ask the question throughout. All good.

I recommend the book for the first one-third to a half. It makes one think. Sheldon does a good job in setting the question before our eyes and comparing a lukewarm, self-satisfied Christianity with the fervent, go for it, all-out Christianity the bible commands us to. Even if I only enjoyed the first part of the book, it was still better than most of what I read that is published today in the name of Jesus.

Let me know what you think, if you come across a copy. Happy trails.