Newspapers and Religion: If Jesus Christ Were an Editor Part 2 Sheldon In His Steps

About Dr. Charles Sheldon, a clergyman who wrote the famous Christian book In His Steps and became editor for the Topeka Capital, mixing journalism and religion.

The Day Christ Edited a Newspaper

When in 1890 he noticed a dwindling number of youthful forces in his congregation, the 33-year-old Sheldon decided to abandon old-fashioned sermons and replace them with fictional serials. One chapter would be read every Sunday evening to an audience of young people, and each chapter would end on a note of suspense, in order to bring his flock back to church the following week. That summer, with the heat at 100deg, Dr. Sheldon sat on his front porch scribbling what was to be his most successful novel-length serial. The story that resulted--and which he read to the younger members of his congregation, one chapter a week for 12 weeks--he called In His Steps, or What Would Jesus Do? In this story, a young minister, troubled by the modern human condition, requests his parishioners to take the following pledge: "Ask yourselves, 'What would Jesus do?'--then be guided, for this next year, by your best answer to that question." Sheldon proceeded to show the effects of this pledge on the tangled lives of a newspaper editor, an heiress, a singer, a railroad magnate, a college president.

The reading of this story filled Dr. Sheldon's pews to capacity week after week. "While it was being read, it was being published in the Chicago Advance, a religious weekly, as a serial," Dr. Sheldon recalled in 1935. "The publisher did not know the conditions of the copyright law, and he field only one copy of the Advance each week with the department, instead of 2, which the law required. On that account the copyright was defective, and the story was thrown into the public domain." The Advance Company published In His Steps as a paperback novel in 1897, but because of the defective copyright, it was pirated throughout the world. In the next half century there were 45 translations, including versions in Russian, Welsh, Armenian, Turkish, Japanese, and Arabic. The book was said to have sold 30 million copies, the greatest single-volume best seller in history excepting only the Bible, Shakespeare, and Chairman Mao. However, no accurate figures were ever available, but even the lowest estimate of its sales--8 million, according to Frank Luther Mott, of Iowa University--is staggering. According to Twentieth Century Authors, "Dr. Sheldon received only a few hundred dollars for the work and was hard put to answer the 900 letters received every week suggesting that he should live up to the thesis of the book ('What Would Jesus Do?') and divide his profits with those less fortunate than he."

Three years after the book was published, there were 10 different editions of it on the market, and its fame and message were known throughout the reading world. The fictional account of the newspaper editor in the book--an editor taking the pledge to conduct himself and his paper as Christ would, by ceasing to print sensational news, distortions, and liquor advertising--caused much debate in various reallife journalistic circles. At last, Frederick O. Popenoe, publisher of the Topeka Capital, which had a daily circulation of 11,223, confronted Dr. Sheldon and asked him, "Well, Sheldon, if we should tender you the Capital to make the same experiment, would you take it?" Surprised, Dr. Sheldon said, "Do you really mean it?" Popenoe replied firmly, "I do." With that, the great experiment became a reality.

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