Friday, July 21, 2006

In His Steps - Charles Sheldon

I read In His Steps during my first year as a Christian. It had a profound effect on my life. This was written by Reverend Charles Sheldon (February 26,1857 to February 24, 1946. He was an American minister in the Congregational churches and leader of the Social Gospel movement. He lived in Wellsville, New York

Sheldon was an advocate of the late nineteenth century stream of thought known as Christian Socialism. His theological outlook focused on the practicalities of the moral life, with much less emphasis on the doctrinal traditions of personal redemption from sin in Christ. In the 1880s Sheldon developed a series of sermons that he preached from the pulpit of the Congregational church in Topeka, Kansas. The unifying theme of these sermons was based on posing the question, "what would Jesus do?" when facing moral decisions.

The theme of the sermons was then fictionalised into the novel In His Steps. The central ethos of the novel was not about personal redemption but about moral choices related to encountering circumstances of poverty and deprivation. Sheldon's theological motif reflected his socialist outlook, and it helped to inspire the theologian Walter Rauschenbusch who is generally credited with creating the Social Gospel. However, Rauschenbusch acknowledged that Sheldon was the source of his ideas. Sheldon's own parish work became identified with the Social Gospel, which was a clear cut expression of early Liberal Christianity.

Towards the end of the twentieth century Sheldon's novel was brought back into print in a discerning marketing stratagem that was accompanied by a variety of consumer goods carrying the slogan "What would Jesus do?". The primary consumers of these goods are within the Evangelical and Pentecostal churches whose conservative theology and biblical beliefs are the antithesis of the Social Gospel.

The irony being then that today's consumer who attaches deep significance to the slogan, is largely unaware of the context in which it was coined. Once again it is proven that the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Sheldon's Christian Socialist ideology was reflected in his belief in full equality for men and women and vocally supported the feminist struggle for equal rights. He urged women to become involved in politics, believing that there they would make a difference for the better. He also supported that women should have full equality in the workplace and saw nothing wrong with men working in traditionally feminine jobs, such as domestic service.

Reverend Sheldon's hope was for what he saw as necessary social reform of the conditions of his day. I'm sure he never had a clue that The Lord would use his words for the Spiritual reform that is necessary in this day.

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