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“What Would Jesus Do?” was coined by a Brown alum, class of 1883.

Charles M. Sheldon, Class of 1883, became Pastor of the Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas, and was inspired to change the social inequalities of his time.
What would Charles Monroe Sheldon do? It doesn’t quite trip off the tongue as easily as “WWJD,” or “What Would Jesus Do?,” but neither did “WWJD” until Charles Monroe Sheldon, class of 1883, came along.

For anyone born before the 1990s, “WWJD” recalls a brief boom of bracelets and other accessories; for those born after it likely registers as some widespread cultural artifact from a vague past. The “WWJD” format is by now so ubiquitous it’s passé; there are t-shirts where now equally passé embodiment of destruction Chuck Norris’s face replaces the “J” and mugs featuring the face of Jethro Gibbs from the television show NCIS occupying the same position. But, of course, cultural artifacts do not merely arise. The origin of this phrase in the American consciousness begins in Topeka, Kansas, and the work of Charles Monroe Sheldon ’83— that’s 1883—as pastor of the Central Congregational Church.

When Sheldon arrived at Brown, Inman Page, the first African-American graduate of Brown, had received his degree two years earlier. The University was still several years out from creating what would become Pembroke College, let alone fully integrating the student body. But Sheldon went on to write In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, a book that was an expression of progressive values, love for humanity, and distaste for hypocrisy that seems completely on point for 2017. Since its publication in 1896, more than 30 million copies have been sold.

Sheldon's typewriter.
Sheldon’s impact on the United States and, indeed, the world, goes beyond a simple phrase emblazoned on wristbands no one wears anymore. After graduation, Sheldon made his way to Vermont and then Kansas, where he preached at the church founded by his wife’s parents. The sermons he gave became his book, but it is important to note here that Sheldon’s book is not merely a self-help book or theological tome. It is a novel. According to the Kansas Historical Society, the sermons he gave were more like a radio serial, fictional accounts meant to keep the congregants coming back with cliffhangers that all the while instilled his faith in them. Sheldon was not only a pastor and teacher, but an excellent narrativist and storyteller. Perhaps it was his ability to see the power in a story that enabled his progressive values; in a time when many clung to the literal words of the Bible to defend the ways they hurt one another, he could see the overarching themes that they had left behind.

Beyond asking others what Jesus would do in their situations, Sheldon was determined to do good of his own. The Tennessee Town Neighborhood Improvement Association describes him as “the first white man to show any real interest in Tennessee Town,” Tennessee Town being a small community of African-Americans that had been routinely ignored and stepped on by the city of Topeka. Sheldon helped them set up their first kindergarten, which was also the first black kindergarten in the American West at all, and according to some he personally mentored its graduate Elisha Scott, father of John and Charles Scott, lead plaintiff’s attorneys in the landmark Brown v. Board case.

Charles Monroe Sheldon made an impact on the world that resonates even today, making it clear that others could do the same if they only followed what they claimed they believe. In today’s political landscape, that might be just something we need. So what would Charles Monroe Sheldon do? Let’s find out by doing it.

In the meantime, the Kansas Shawnee County Parks and Recreation Foundation is currently attempting to preserve Sheldon’s home and study where he penned his sermons and works. You can check out their campaign at http://sheldonslegacylives.com/.


Comments (1)
Thank you Charles Monroe Sheldon for your inspiring leadership, may many continue to listen and follow! And thank you Brown for bringing Charles Monroe Sheldon into the light of today's need for such inspiration.
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