Saturday, October 20, 2012

Charles M. Sheldon (1857-1946)

Charles M. Sheldon was born in Westville, New York in 1857. He was one of five children of a Congregational minister. Like a lot of preacher's kids, as he was growing up he moved to several different states. But when he was about ten years old, his father settled on a farm in what is now South Dakota, where the family lived in a log cabin with a dirt floor. For the rest of his life, Sheldon looked back fondly to those years on the farm, characterized by hard work and self-reliance. Later in life--much like his father, apparently--he never shied away from a spartan existence or a new challenge.

When he was a teenager, Sheldon was sent back east to receive his education. He graduated from Phillips Academy, and earned degrees from Brown University (B.A. 1883), and Andover Theological Seminary (B.D., 1886). He spent the next two years serving as minister of the Congregational church in Waterbury, Vermont. In 1888, Sheldon accepted the invitation to become pastor at Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas, a position he held for the next thirty-one years. Not long after he began his ministry in Topeka, Sheldon met Mary Abby Merriam. The two were married in 1891 and had one son.

Estimates indicate that in 1890 the population of Topeka was about 31,000. By that time, the town had become a railroad shipping center, and in the subsequent decades its population steadily grew. In short, not long before Charles Sheldon arrived there, Topeka was quickly outgrowing its status as a frontier town and was becoming a Midwestern city.

As Topeka grew, it attracted hundreds of former slaves from the Old South and immigrants who came looking for jobs with the railroad. Recognizing that their world was very different from the world of his white, middle-class congregation, Sheldon decided to spend some time among these groups he hardly knew. He planned to spend one week in "Tennesseetown," the black section of Topeka. But he wound up staying three weeks, instead, observing firsthand the effects of racial prejudice, chronic unemployment, and poverty. Soon afterwards, he enlisted members of his congregation to help him with special projects designed to better the prospects and lift the spirit of the black community. For example, Sheldon established in Topeka the first black kindergarten west of the Mississippi River. And the youth organization from his church met regularly to worship with the residents of Tennesseetown. (One of the most illustrious graduates of Sheldon's kindergarten went on to become an attorney. Later, the attorney had two sons who also became attorneys. And those two eventually argued the case known as Brown v. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education).

In 1891, Sheldon was wondering what to do with the Sunday-evening service. Attendance was down to nearly nothing. He decided that he would dispense with the regular sermon on Sunday nights. Instead, he would read to the congregation successive chapters in a fictional series he was writing. Before launching the plan, he spoke about it with his mother who told him "the deacons will never allow it." Ignoring his mother's advice, every Sunday night Sheldon read his stories that focused on Christianity as the antidote to racial and class prejudice, poverty and crime, corporate corruption, and the culture of greed and extravagance. He sent each chapter to be published in a Congregational magazine called Advance. Later, a completed series would be published as a single novel.

The first two or three of Sheldon's novels received little attention. But in 1897, he published In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? which immediately became a bestseller. The publisher of the book, who was supposed to have sent two copies to the copyright office, sent only one. Consequently, the book was not under copyright protection, and was pirated by about a dozen publishers (who evidently weren't concerned about what Jesus would do). Within just a few years, millions of copies were sold in a total of about twenty different languages. Sheldon reportedly claimed that in its first forty years, In His Steps sold 30 million copies. The article in American National Biography suggests it was more like 6 million. When Sheldon died, the New York Times said it was 23 million.

At any rate, Sheldon eventually published a total of about 50 novels. Most of them, like In His Steps, are stories with Social Gospel themes. But none of the others ever approached the success of his one great book. In 1919, after recovering from a serious illness, Sheldon resigned from his post at Central Church. For the rest of his life, he served as editor for a magazine called the Christian Herald, in which he published hundreds of articles.

Charles Sheldon's great legacy is his bestseller, one of the most influential books in American history, and that its author defended the civil rights of African Americans, Jews, women, and people who had recently immigrated to the U.S., long before that sort of thing was popular.


Bowden, Henry Warner. Dictionary of American Religious Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1977.

Brown, J. C. "Sheldon, Charles Monroe (1857-1946)." In Dictionary of Christianity in America, edited by Daniel G. Reid, 1082. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990.

Luker, Ralph E. "Sheldon, Charles Monroe." In American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, 19:780-81. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. An excellent brief source on Sheldon.

"Rev. Dr. Sheldon, Noted Writer, Dies," New York Times. February 25, 1946.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Social Gospel

Next week, I'm supposed to make a presentation about the Christian classic, In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon. At this point, I'm planning to spend the first five minutes or so describing the Social Gospel Movement, the historical backdrop for the novel. Here are the notes I've come up with so far:

"The Social Gospel" refers to a movement within some Protestant churches in North America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement was a Christian response to a widely-perceived problem.

During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the U.S. and Canada experienced first agricultural and then industrial expansion. The immigration of tens of millions of people, primarily to the U.S., made the scale of this expansion possible.

This "modern situation," as it was called also generated what observers referred to as "the social question." That phrase included issues like the tension--and sometimes outright conflict--between labor and capital, the question of a just wage, the unprecedented growth of cities, and above all poverty and its effects (Schweicker, 67).

One of the basic convictions of the Social Gospel was that "society is a web of mutually interdependent relations and interests" (Otatti, 468). The problems of the unemployed person or the poor laborer are not simply individual. Instead, they are environmental or systemic. Therefore, the solutions to poverty and its effects are not only personal, but are also systemic. Advocates of the Social Gospel believed that this insight spoke not only about the world, but also to the church.  For that reason, they insisted that the church "could no longer claim that true religion is entirely a matter of personal conversion and individual salvation" (Otatti, 469).

Social Gospelers, as they are sometimes called, were convinced that their age had presented the church with a basic question: is our general, collective economic and social life beyond the scope of Christian ethics? Or is it the case that "the social question" pertains to the church; that responding to it is part of the business of the body of Christ? Leaders of the Social Gospel answered by saying that the church's obedience to a God of justice, its faith in a God of mercy, was exactly what North America needed. Why? Because it was the church that could say, "Unregulated industrial expansion and laissez-faire economics must be tempered by the command 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself' (Ahlstrom, 786-77). Because that was the message of the Social Gospel, some people have said it was the religious face of the progressive movement and reform impulses in American politics of the time.

A couplet from the Lord's Prayer epitomizes what advocates worked for and really expected. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The Social Gospel movement began with the burden that the will of God was not being done in North America. To that extent, the kingdom had not yet come. But it could.

An interesting group of people provided leadership for the Social Gospel. Any short list would include the name Washington Gladden (1836-1918), a Congregational minister who spent a good number of his working years in Columbus, Ohio. Gladden was a popular speaker, and wrote about 40 books. One of the first, published in 1886, was titled Applied Christianity. Because his influence was early and immense, he is commonly called the father of the Social Gospel.

Another early leader was Josiah Strong (1847-1916). Like Gladden, Strong was a Congregational minister. He served mainly as a peacemaker and organizer among the various Protestant denominations. From 1886 to 1898, he was general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance. He was also one of the founders in 1908 of the interdenominational group, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America.

Probably the most significant non-preacher in the group was Richard Ely (1854-1943), a layman in the Episcopal Church. Ely was a political economist who took an interest in theological and religious issues. His expertise on economic questions made the Social Gospel movement seem more credible, and this was basic to its influence.

The best theological thinker and most eloquent prophet of the movement was the great Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). The son of German immigrants, in the 1880s Rauschenbusch began working as pastor of a Baptist congregation near that part of Manhattan called Hell's Kitchen. Ministering there, he was forever changed by his experience of what he called "an endless procession of men out of work,  . . . out of shoes, and out of hope." This became the burden that drove his ministry (Wooden, 267). In his later years, Rauschenbusch taught at Rochester Theological Seminary. In 1907, he published Christianity and the Social Crisis. He said that he wrote that book "to discharge a debt" that he owed to the working men among whom he had served. The book became a bestseller. In 1917, he published another significant book, A Theology for the Social Gospel.

And then there was the great creative writer of the movement, the Congregational minister, an activist, and novelist named Charles Sheldon. My next post will be about him.


Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. See especially Chapter 47, "The Social Gospel," pp. 785-804. This source provides uncommon insight for understanding the Social Gospel Movement.

Cross, F. L., and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed., revised. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Erikson, Millard J. Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology. revised ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001.

Handy, R. T. "Social Gospel Movement." In Dictionary of Christianity in America, edited by Daniel G. Reid, 1104-06. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

Hutchinson, William R. American Protestant Thought in the Liberal Era. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1968.

Ottati, Douglas F. "Social Gospel." In New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology, edited by Donald W. Musser and Joseph L. Price, 468-70. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003.

Schweiker, William. "Social Gospel." In Encyclopedia of Christianity, edited by Erwin Fahlbusch, Jan Milic Lochman, John Mbiti, Jaroslav Pelikan, Lukas Vischer, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and David B. Barrett, 5:67-69. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.

Wooden, W. Frederick. "Social Gospel." In Encyclopedia of American History, edited by Ari Hoogenboom and Gary B. Nash, 6:266-67. New York: Facts On File, 2003.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

More about R. W. Officer and His Family

Since I last posted about the life and times of R[obert] W[allace] Officer, I have been able to discover additional information about him and his family. These new-to-me facts pertain to Officer's later years, which he spent in Red River and Hall Counties, Texas.

According to a record I obtained through "Find A Grave" by way of, the wife of R. W. Officer, Alice Crenshaw Gist Officer, died on September 21, 1921. As the photo and description in my first post indicate, the Crenshaw name does not appear on her tombstone. And, the stone lacks the birth and death dates for Alice.

Further, according to the 1910 United States Federal Census (Justice Precinct 4, Red River, Texas, Roll: T624_1585, page 10B), Alice Officer was born in 1860, and was then 50 years old, fifteen years younger than R. W., born in 1845, making him then 65 years old.

Now, Red River County, Texas is in the northeastern part of the state, hundreds of miles from Turkey, in Hall County. Yet, everything I've ever read has R. W. moving to Turkey in the early part of the 20th century. I'm confident that Officer did come to Turkey in the early part of the 1900s. But it's intriguing to find that the U.S. Census places him and his second wife, Alice, in Red River County in 1910.