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.

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