II. In His Steps
The most unique form of expression during this reform movement was the social-gospel
novel. Great causes have almost invariably produced a popular propagandist literature,
and to this rule American social Christianity was no exception.
The social-gospel novel achieved its greatest success in the hands of a journalistically
inclined mid-Western minister who in 1891 tried the experiment of reading serial sermon
stories to his Sunday-evening congregation of young people. Charles M. Sheldon became
the pastor of the newly formed Central Congregational Church of Topeka in 1889. Upon his
arrival in the city, Sheldon set out to learn as much as possible about its social
conditions. Living a week each with various social groups, he investigated unemployment,
made himself familiar with the status of such classes as railroad men, college students,
professional people, Negroes, and newspaper workers. This firsthand knowledge of all types
and classes provided a realistic background for the novels that were to bring him
Sheldon's book, In His Steps, was written and read to his congregation in 1896. The story
opened with the closing of a smooth sermon on following Jesus when the contented
congregation of the First Church of "Raymond" was startled by the sudden appearance of a
"dusty, worn, shabby-looking young man" who arose from the front row and quietly told his
hearers a tale of unemployment and want. "Of course," he said, in effect, "you can't all
go out hunting up jobs for people like me, but what I am puzzled about when I see so many
Christians living in luxury and singing 'Jesus I my cross have taken, all to leave and
follow thee,' is what is meant by following Jesus? I remember how my wife died gasping
for air in a New York tenement owned by a member of a church. I suppose I don't
understand, but what would Jesus do?" - and the questioner collapsed in the center aisle
of the church.
Cared for in the pastor's home, the young man died the next Sunday morning. Shortly after,
the deeply stirred minister challenged an unusually large congregation with the implications
of the previous Sunday's question. Interpreting the stranger's query as "a challenge to
Christianity as it is seen and felt in our churches," the pastor asked his hearers to
join him in a pledge "not to do anything without first asking 'What would Jesus do?'"
and then "to follow Jesus exactly as [they] knew how, no matter what the results." Among
the fifty volunteers were an heiress, a gifted soprano, and the president of the local
college, a railroad superintendent, a newspaper editor and a leading merchant. The
efforts of these characters to live out the pledge comprised the narrative of In His
For the most part this literature reflected the ideology characterized of the period.
Sentimental and usually mediocre, the social-gospel novel was basically critical of the
church's failure to recognize the new needs of the urban areas. The leading figure of
In His Steps dreamed of the "regeneration of Christendom" when there would be a church
"without spot or wrinkle".
The central feature of this fiction was its emphasis upon stewardship. The dedication
of person and resources to the task of social betterment, while relying upon a
traditional methodology, nevertheless marked a step toward a social religion in that its
ultimate aim was a changed status of society as well as saved individuals. A new exhibition
of discipleship called not only for consecration of wealth but also for personal
But the utopian nature of these stories was doubtless the real secret of their success.
They revealed how the simple adaptation of a familiar method would quickly accomplish the
reforms for which the times so passionately yearned. Asking for charity while unaware of
the need for justice, this literature was a plea for a socialized Christianity, not for a
Christian socialism - a distinction worthy of note. Fully awake to the social emergency,
its evangelistic fervor yet failed to project social goals and techniques commensurate
with the demands of the crisis. Nevertheless, the social-gospel novel brought social
religion to the attention of millions of laymen who might never have heard of it otherwise.9
8The Rise of the Social Gospel In American Protestantism, 1865-1916, page 140.
9Ibid, pages 140-144.
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