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The American Christ
He was a capitalist. He was an urban reformer. He was a country boy. He was “Comrade Jesus,” a hardworking socialist. He was the world’s first ad man. For a century and a half, novelists have been trying to recapture the “real” Jesus.
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
America was a dynamic, commercially expanding society in the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, and its people must have found reassuring the coexistence of Christianity with immense wealth in Ben Hur. Charles Sheldon, with In His Steps (1896), did little to disturb the picture. At first it seems that the people of the city of Raymond (modeled on Sheldon’s hometown of Topeka, Kansas) are going to be financially ruined by pledging to ask at every turn of their lives, “What would Jesus do?” In the short run there are many difficulties. The citizen who discloses corruption on the railroad loses his job, the newspaper whose editor refuses to print descriptions of a prizefight loses circulation, and the dry-goods merchant who decides to treat his work force as one big happy Christian family surrenders his steady profits. All endure temporary reversals. But as the book moves to its climax, we discover that Christian honesty is the best policy and that the people are thriving commercially as never before.
Sheldon does not remind readers of the Gospel passages in which Jesus commands those who would follow him to give up all their worldly possessions or of his declaration that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven. Instead, the newspaper editor, Edward Norman, tells himself, “I am very confident that a Christian daily such as Jesus would approve, containing only what He would print, can be made to succeed financially if it is planned on the right lines.” And the Reverend Henry Maxwell notes of the dry-goods merchant, “It is a fact...that while he has lost heavily in some directions, he has increased his business, and is today respected and honored as one of the best and most successful merchants in Raymond.”
In His Steps is a fascinating guide to the social reform priorities of American Protestants in the depression decade of the 1890s. It is, above all, a temperance novel, arguing that the woes of poor Americans spring principally from the temptations of drink. The middle-class characters in the novel devote themselves to contesting the political privileges of the saloonkeepers and to rescuing the “fallen women” who lurk in the shadows of these taverns. “Was not the most Christian thing they could do to act as citizens in the matter, fight the saloon at the polls, elect good men to the city offices, and clean the municipality?”
Sheldon was also interested was the settlement-house movement. In the slums of Chicago and New York, progressive reformers like Jane Addams and Lillian WaId had established settlements of middle-class volunteers to help poor immigrants adapt to urban life and to improve conditions of public health and sanitation. One of the characters in In His Steps, Felicia Sterling, relinquishes her soft and privileged existence to do likewise, and Sheldon remarks of the settlementhouse movement: “It was not a new idea. It was an idea started by Jesus Christ when He left His Father’s House and forsook the riches that were His in order to get nearer humanity and, by becoming a part of its sin, helping to draw humanity apart from its sin. The University Settlement idea is not modern. It is as old as Bethlehem and Nazareth.”
In His Steps was so popular throughout the early twentieth century that in 1950 Glenn Clark attempted a sequel, What Would Jesus Do?, “wherein a new generation undertakes to walk in His steps.” The action begins when the minister of Raymond, grandson of the original Henry Maxwell, hears a victory sermon to celebrate the Japanese surrender in 1945. When a Japanese visitor commits suicide in the church, the younger Maxwell realizes that he has failed in his charitable mission, and he takes the pledge once again after rereading his grandfather’s narrative. Just as In His Steps was a reliable guide to the social concerns of the 1890s, so What Would Jesus Do? concerned itself with the great issues of the late 1940s, above all the struggle against war and communism.
In His Steps and What Would Jesus Do? are different from Ben Hur and the Jesus biographies in that Jesus himself never actually appears but is, rather, contained within the minds of the characters. Another literary sensation of the 1890s using the same device of an implicit Jesus was William T. Stead’s If Christ Came to Chicago (1893). Stead was an English urban reformer with a particular ardor for stamping out prostitution, and he scandalized Chicago by printing a list of all the businessmen and local dignitaries who were implicated in the prostitution trade. He went on to claim that Jesus would do the same thine were he to reappear in Chicago. “If Christ came to Chicago, it seems to me that there are few objects that would more command His sympathy and secure His help than efforts to restore the sense of brotherhood to man and to reconstitute the human family on a basis adjusted to modern life.” Stead, more than Sheldon or Wallace, preached a hard lesson on the basis of Jesus’ example, and he exhorted his readers and fellow reformers: “Be a Christ. The more you disbelieve in Christianity as it is caricatured, the more earnestly you should labor to live the life and manifest the love and, if need be, to die the death, of Jesus of Nazareth.”