I. Charles Monroe Sheldon (1857 - 1946)
Charles Monroe Sheldon was an American preacher and inspirational writer during the time
a religious social-reform movement was prominent, known as the Social Gospel period. The
group, mostly liberal Protestants, dedicated themselves to the betterment of industrialized
society through application of the biblical principles of charity and justice. In 1889,
Sheldon founded the Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas. He would read a series
of his stories to the evening congregation and those stories proved popular when printed.
The most successful series, In His Steps, concerned the inhabitants of a town who
pledged themselves to live for a year as Jesus would live. It was first published serially
in 1896 and in book form in 1897 and for 60 years was the largest-selling book in the
United States after the Bible, with sales estimated at more than 8 million copies.2
Sheldon's favorite role, after pastor, was that of social reformer. The peak of his career
coincided with the peak of the social gospel movement, and he considered himself a loyal
member of Protestantism's reformist faction. He enthusiastically visited many settlement
houses and institutional churches, and he endorsed Ralph Albertson's social gospel commune
- the Christian Commonwealth Colony - in Georgia. As its most successful popularizer,
Sheldon's contribution to the movement was an important one. Although he failed to
provide a detailed blueprint of a thoroughly reformed society - one which discussed such
things as the ideal economic structure of society and the role of private property in the
new age - he firmly believed in the concepts most central to the movement, such as the
basic tenet that religion involves relationships between and among human beings as well
as between humans and God and the precept that it is possible and necessary for the
kingdom of God to be built on earth.3
Sheldon's ideas and own sense of context for them was based on one distinctive theme:
which was that of living according to the ideal of imitatio Christi: What would Jesus do?
Other social gospel leaders may not often have employed that terminology, but they
certainly embraced the concept. As Sheldon himself pointed out, he invented neither the
concept nor the catch phrase. By the time Sheldon took it up, the idea of pledging to
live a life of following Jesus was widespread in several evangelical Protestant social
reform organizations. His version was simple: if only people would try to follow the
Master, such basic human problems as selfishness, greed and attention only to self-interest
would melt away. That people by and large rejected the path puzzled him, he maintained:
"I live in a constant state of wonder over the stupidity of the human race in refusing to
apply the teaching of Jesus to everyday life. It is not so much what we call wickedness
that refuses to make religion practical. It is just sheer foolishness."
His critics found one stumbling block, however, that Sheldon never really surmounted
satisfactorily: how does one know single formula could cover every situation. All we can
do, he argued, is to keep in mind the basic themes Jesus taught - such fundamentals as
seeking first the Kingdom and loving one's neighbor - and then make the best decisions we
can. Sheldon's most important point was that one should engage in moral reflection before
Sheldon did believe that the "what would Jesus do?" test was applicable to every station
in life, every profession, every personal situation. He believed that one's choice of
vocation was no small matter, and that the decision should be made in light of committing
oneself to service to society, but whatever one's choice of profession, the rule of
following Jesus applied equally to all.4
Underlying Sheldon's social thinking was a fundamental and undying faith in two social
gospel staples: optimism and idealism. He was an optimist who really did believe that the
kingdom of God could be created on earth. And he was an idealist who had a clear vision
of what the future ought to look like.
Sheldon seemed to have espoused a virtually uncritical optimism throughout his life. In
1895 he wrote to the members of his church, "Every day I have more and more confidence in
the wonderful results which I believe God is going to bring about in the social and
political life of the world, using us who are Christians as instruments to do his great
will." Those were the heady rose-colored vision among the social gospelers, and like the
rest of them Sheldon seemed really to believe that human society could be reformed, that
through sacrifice and dedicated labor not only the world, but individual human behavior
could be overwhelmingly improved, and that the kingdom of God really could take shape in
Of the many social reform issues that Charles Sheldon worked on during his lifetime, two
stand out that he was most passionate about: equality among all people and prohibition.
Sheldon made it very clear that in his conviction that all persons were essentially equal
and deserved to be treated as such. He was one of the first Protestant ministers to
welcome blacks into a fashionable mainstream church. He believed in fair treatment for
Jews and Catholics, and he was nearly a century ahead of the rest of the country in
proclaiming the essential equality of men and women.
Whatever the source of his conviction, Sheldon was decades ahead of his time as a white
civil rights advocate. He actively opposed anti-black activity in Topeka and spoke out
against the Ku Klux Klan when it appeared there. He condemned anti-Semitism as roundly
as he did racism.
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, believing that
there they would make a difference for the better. He also supported that women should
have full equality in the workplace and saw nothing wrong with men working in traditionally
feminine jobs as domestic service.6
Fighting alcohol was the single greatest, most passionate social cause in Sheldon's life.
He grew up in a tee-totaling household; from the beginning of his first pastorate in
Vermont he preached abstinence. By the time he had settled in Topeka, fighting the
saloon had become a major preoccupation. He was one of a group of clergy who played a
pivotal role in finally winning the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment, which established
national prohibition; he championed the cause throughout the fourteen-year life of
Prohibition and continued to urge its reinstatement after repeal in 1933. Only in his
last two decades or so, when pacifism became his overriding concern, was prohibition ever
second to anything else in his social conscience.7
3Following In His Steps: A Biography of Charles M. Sheldon, page 137.
4Ibid, pages 137-140.
5Ibid, page 141.
6Ibid, pages 156-157.
7Ibid, page 164.
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