26 February 2009

Socialist birthdays, vol 1 (of any)

The Rev. Charles Monroe Sheldon was born on this date in 1857.

Sheldon ,as a young pastor in Topeka, KS, became more concerned with the social and practical aspects of the life of Jesus than than with hollow spiritualism. Arriving in town during an economic depression, Sheldon would don ragged clothes and cross the town applying for work to better understand the lives of the unemployed. Swept up in the populist moment enveloping the Midwest and Great Plains, he would help lay the popular foundation for what became known as the Social Gospel, an important strain of evangelical thought throughout the first half of the 20th century and on through the civil rights movement of the 1960's.

In 1896, Sheldon published his first novel, a collection of sermons titled "In His Steps," which, as its title suggests, was an exhortation to believers to consider how Christ would live in their individual situation. The book became an immediate sensation, selling an estimated 30 million copies; as of 2002 good enough for the 39th best-selling book in history. This was largely due to the publisher failing to secure the copyright, meaning Sheldon saw very little of the wealth he would otherwise have coming from his bestseller. "In His Steps" does bear some of the peculiarities of its time--Sheldon was a staunch prohibitionist, and demon rum is a key antagonist of the book--but its concern for peace and care for the destitute was a revolutionary message then as now.

Sheldon's message had an unusual revival in the 1990's, when "In His Steps" became the impetus for the "What Would Jesus Do?" craze in evangelical pop culture. Alas, the WWJD? fad was mostly stripped of Sheldon's message of social justice and replaced with the modern evangelical mantra of personal moral choices. That's too bad, as an honest revival of Sheldon's populist social gospel could do much to invigorate American Christianity at a similar point in history.