The name Charles Sheldon may not jump out at you… but if you were a teen in the middle 90’s you might know his slogan: WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? We’ll get to that in a bit, but first a little history.
Charles Monroe Sheldon was born February 26, 1857, in Wellsville, New York, to Stewart and Sarah Sheldon. His father was a minister, who moved the family around a great deal, until settling in South Dakota.
Sheldon studied at Phillips Academy, graduated from Brown University in 1883 and Andover Theological Seminary in 1886.
Sheldon believed in the social gospel movement, which called on churchgoers to help solve social problems. He was hired to lead Central Congregational in Topeka.
To bring in the young people, Sheldon ended every Sunday evening sermon with a cliffhanger asking the congregation, “What would Jesus do?” His sermons covered alienation between the classes, the evils of alcohol, corrupt politicians, poverty, hypocrisy in churches, sensationalism in the media, exploitation by landlords, labor extremist and unemployment.
A religious weekly magazine picked up on the stories and started publishing them eventually turning them into a book called, “In His Steps.”
Sheldon retired from Central Congregational in 1920 but continued to fight for the social issues like believing all persons were equal and should be treated as such. He was among the first Protestant ministers to welcome black people into a mainstream church. He was also a strong supporter of the feminist struggle for equal rights, pushing for full equality in the workplace
Sheldon, a vegetarian, also promoted compassion towards animals, even criticizing circuses for their treatment of animals.
Sheldon died February 24, 1946, in Topeka. The minister and his wife are buried at Mount Hope Cemetery in Topeka, Kansas.
His novel, “In His Steps”, introduced the principle of “What Would Jesus do?” which became popular at the turn of the 20th century and had a revival almost one hundred years later.
In the 1990s WWJD bracelets became a popular item among young people; the motto showed up on t-shirts, necklaces, and other marketing items.
Kansas honored him by naming US Highway 24 through Topeka the Charles Sheldon trafficway.
The congregation continued to welcome all of God’s children, focusing on the LGBTQ+ community. They eventually had to sell their building and for awhile met at Temple Beth Sholom. The rabbi blessed the agreement and told the Topeka Capitol Journal, “it’s a progressive congregation with very similar values to ours. They, too, are involved in social justice and equality work.” The congregation did find a new home.
The church building still stands and welcomes Hispanic speaking Christians every week.