Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club — Charles Sheldon’s “In His Steps”

August 22, 2012

Somehow this summer has just galloped away from me! So much so that I forgot July’s Book of the Month, and all but forgot August’s as well. The mere fact that no one jogged my memory about the omission makes me wonder how many of our readers are seriously into reading our selections. So belatedly, here is September’s selection.

“For hereunto were ye called: because Christ also
suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye
should follow his steps.”
1 Peter 2:21

1897 Edition

In 1889, a young minister named Charles M. Sheldon founded the Central Congregational Church of Topeka, Kansas. Profoundly convicted that it was long past time for Christians everywhere to forsake their doctrinal warfare against each other and instead—really study Christ’s example while on this earth: in short, our Lord’s example of humble selfless service for others. The 1890’s produced a veritable explosion of interest in Christ’s Didoche (one is saved, not by doctrine or creed, but by loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind, and unconditionally loving and serving one’s neighbor)—and, of course, by the Cross.

1899 Edition

Sheldon couldn’t help but notice that Story was about the only thing that caused his parishioners to be faithful in their attendance, so he began packaging his Social Gospel sermons in story serializations. Presto! Church attendance swelled. Each chapter would conclude with a fictional cliffhanger of sorts—so people naturally had to show up for the next installment. The core of the story had to do with the question, What would Jesus do? were He faced with the same circumstances and decisions the parishioners were.

As Sheldon read his story to his congregation, a religious weekly of Topeka published it serially, gathering the chapters together in a paper-bound book in 1897. Within two years In His Steps went through five editions. In 1899, ten different publishers, finding a flaw in Sheldon’s copyright, and disregarding the central premise of the book, What would Jesus do?, unleashed a veritable torrent of new editions, not paying its author a dime. It was then pirated overseas as well. But one good thing resulted from all this chicanery: it became one of the best-selling books of all time. 115 years later, it is still selling.

1900 Edition

If you have not yet read it, now is the time! Do let me know what you think of it.


Hart, James D., The Popular Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).
Mott, Frank Luther, Golden Multitudes (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1947).