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Charles Sheldon put faith into action

  • Published Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, at 11:18 p.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties."

When Charles Sheldon first arrived in Topeka in 1889, Kansas and much of the nation was in an economic bust.

The bottom had fallen out of the economy.

Charles Sheldon had come to Kansas to be the minister of the Central Congregational Church in Topeka.

But within less than a decade, the feisty minister’s name would become one of the best known reformers in the nation, preaching equal rights for minorities, women and the working class. His book, “In His Steps,” would become an international best-seller.

“What would Jesus Do?” wasn’t just a whim for Sheldon. It was a question he repeatedly asked himself.

He would sometimes disguise himself in shabby and worn clothing and walk through the streets of Topeka to see how people treated him. He did it to study working conditions of local railroad workers and laborers and to empathize .with the unemployed.

“What do you Christians mean by following the steps of Jesus?” he would write in his 1897 book, “In his Steps.”

Continually, Sheldon asked the question.

Sheldon insisted social reform begins at home.

He was born in Wellsville, New York in 1857, the son of a Congregational minister.

At the age of 7, he signed a pledge of abstinence, promising never to use tobacco or alcohol.

He attended a seminary in Massachusetts and was assigned a church in Vermont before moving to Kansas in 1889.

The Topeka church board challenged Sheldon.

When he became minister in Topeka, Sheldon was required to give two sermons each Sunday – one in the morning, the other at night.

At first he balked.

He said the morning sermon had his best insights and the evening service was always poorly attended.

The church board wouldn’t give in.

So, for the evening Sunday service, Sheldon wrote spiritual episodic stories – with cliffhangers to entice the congregation to come back the following week.

The story-sermons – which became the basis for his book, “In His Steps”— were about people down and out.

Would people who professed to be Christian help them? What would Jesus do?

To put the gospel into practice, Sheldon turned to Tennesseetown – a neighborhood in Topeka of 3,000 ex-slaves. When Topeka city officials refused to aid the people in Tennesseetown with public funds, Sheldon and the members of his congregation stepped in. They founded the first black kindergarten west of the Mississippi River.

He took the question even further.

. In 1900, Sheldon was asked to edit the Topeka Daily Capital for one week. Circulation increased from 11,000 to 362,000 worldwide.

And, although Kansans a century later may not easily recognize Charles Sheldon’s name, his question is still seen on bracelets, key chains and bumper stickers: “What Would Jesus Do?”

Sometimes the question is simply “WWJD?”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com

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