WWJD? Sheldon’s Great Grandson Still At It


By Garrett Sheldon

Garrett is John Morton Beaty Professor of Political Science Professor at the University of Virginia (Wise). He is the great-grandson of Charles Sheldon, the author of the legendary, In His Steps.

In 1896, Rev. Charles M. Sheldon published the book In His Steps which raised the question for Christians to ask when facing decisions: “What would Jesus do”?  The book had a faulty copyright, immediately went into the “public domain” where anyone could print and sell the book without paying the author royalties.  It is estimated the book sold 30,000,000 copies in 20 languages, making it the most widely read Christian book after the Bible.  Its author rejoiced at this providential success of the book, even though he made almost no money on it.

Sheldon believed it was God’s providential way of spreading this life-changing message of personal, immediate discipleship in everyday life. How a Christian lives, speaks, thinks, acts, relates to all others, spends time, sees life is highlighted by this question. It has touched millions and revived the church.  In 1993, Charles Sheldon’s great-grandson, Rev. Dr. Garrett W. Sheldon (whose book on the “Christian ” James Madison recently appeared on this site) updated In His Steps as “What Would Jesus Do”?, which with WWJD bracelets, songs, a movie, and other books, revived the message in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Dr. Garrett Sheldon is a professor of Political Theory at the University of Virginia at Wise and a Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church in Big Stone Gap, VA.  His favorite story of speaking on the WWJD theme at a church was an old man who came up to him and said, “I wish I’d never read your book!!!”  Sheldon asked him why.  The man said, “I always considered myself a ‘good Christian’!”  It seems the man had been in church all his life, had all the “right” positions on things, and led a decent life. But as he continued speaking he began to weep:  “I have been Christian in the abstract; I haven’t shown Christ’s love and charity in my daily life, with the people closest to me! My family, employees, friends, associates.  I only hope I live long enough to show as much Christian love and grace as I’ve shown coldness and neglect.”

That question “what would Jesus do”? is not some magic formula.  It is simply a way to focus on Christ, immediately, in our lives; everyday, with everyone we encounter. Some, even evangelicals have called it impossible or even presumptuous to imitate our Lord.  But believers have the Spirit of Christ within them: as a guide, teacher, helper, convicter, and comforter.  We can live the life of Christ as we yield to that Spirit of God.

Charles Sheldon was a Congregational minister in Topeka, Kansas; known as “St. Charles of Topeka” because he lived his faith in every day life.  Known as a Social Gospel writer, his concern for society was really a traditional Christian appreciation of human sin: greed, hatred, selfishness; and the answer of spreading the truth of the Gospel to change people internally to transform the world outside.  It’s so easy to become a self-righteous reformer and use activism as an excuse to neglect one’s duties close to home.  He lived a simple life, unconcerned with money, constantly thinking of spiritual things.  God provided for him by having him fall in love and marry the daughter of a Vermont banker, who WAS practical and good with money. It was said if she, Mary, had not bought his clothes, Charles would have worn the same tattered suit he had in seminary all his life. Her wealth and care supported his otherworldly lifestyle and his ministry. A favorite family story was that she gave him 5 one-dollar bills every day as he left the house, because he followed Jesus’s dictum to “give to all who ask” and would give something to everyone he saw in need.  If she’d given him five $100 bills, he would have given those away!  He had a great sense of humor, loved laughing, singing and was a cheerful, fun companion.  Although deadly serious about the evils of life, and the truth of God, he knew cheerfulness was a gift from God to be shared. Once, when staying in a rather rundown hotel, he remarked that the walls were so thin you could hear the person in the next room change his mind!

His great-grandson, Garrett Sheldon, felt called to update the WWJD in a book entitled “What Would Jesus Do?” about 100 years after the publication of In His Steps.  At the same time, simultaneously and without knowledge of what the others were doing, many revived this theme in the 1990’s: a youth group at the church in Michigan invented the bracelets WWJD; songs, plays, a movie, children’s’ books all celebrated this theme, and spread it worldwide.  The younger Sheldon began to be asked to speak and preach on this theme after the publication of the book.  At one small Baptist chapel near his college, made up mostly of coal miners and farmers, Sheldon was invited back many times until they asked if he would be their pastor. “That is very kind, ” he said, “but I am not a Baptist.”  They said that didn’t matter: “You preach the Gospel and care for us, and that is all we need in a pastor.” So he served as a bi-vocational minister there for six years. It was quite different from the Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church he had grown up in in Wisconsin.  “It was just like growing up English Catholic,” Sheldon says.

It wasn’t until he saw Billy Graham on TV at age 10; and later Charles Stanley, that he heard the Word preached under the power of the Holy Spirit and was truly converted.  He largely left church in college and graduate school (at Rutgers) until he began to attend the Presbyterian Church in Princeton, where his wife was at the seminary.  They moved around evangelical and charismatic churches until he was called to the ministry in the Southern Baptist Church.  He is now Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, near the farm in Powell Valley where he lives with his family.  “It is a church of diverse background, blending an evangelical emphasis on the Bible; a reverence for tradition, and an openness to the Holy Spirit.”  Like Sheldon, it is very ecumenical, not your “typical” First Baptist Church (if there is a “typical” anymore).  “Nothing pleases me more, on a Sunday morning before the service, sitting in my church study, hearing the sounds of happy children playing.”  Our Church appreciates the many troubles and trials of this life and world; but we are open to receiving and sharing the joy of the Lord; happiness; encouragement.”  That, for him, is “following In His Steps.”

Professor Sheldon’s book can be found here: What Would Jesus Do?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.