Newspapers and Religion: If Jesus Christ Were an Editor Part 3 Charles Sheldon Takes Over

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

The regular editor in chief of the Topeka Capital, J. K. Hudson, as well as his entire staff, felt strongly that no newspaper could be edited as Christ might have edited one and still be readable. Journalism professionals felt that Sheldon's theories were fresh but without "intrinsic merit." Sheldon, on the other hand, felt that a newspaper publishing mainly good news would become twice as readable and be a real asset to the community. Moreover, he felt its circulation would rise. This the veteran newspapermen doubted very much. So circulation, in the end, was to be the criterion for judging the project's success.

Between Tuesday, March 13, and Saturday, March 17, 1900, Dr. Sheldon moved into the paper's city room and took over the editor-in-chief's desk, and the entire Fourth Estate watched with curiosity. Dr. Sheldon's effort was looked upon as a news event in its own right, and 19 correspondents (including reporters from the New York World and the San Francisco Examiner, with the Emporia Gazette represented by William Allen White) converged upon Topeka. Meanwhile, thousands of advance subscriptions poured in for the Sheldon edition, among them one from Oom Paul Kruger, President of the Boer Republic in South Africa, then engaged in a war with Great Britain. All eyes were focused on the Topeka clergyman, and Dr. Sheldon made certain not to disappoint them.

Settled in behind the editor's desk, Dr. Sheldon tried to imagine how Christ would have acted in this role. There were practical difficulties, of course. As Dr. Sheldon recalled later, "Christ never saw an automobile, a motion picture, a railroad train, a printing press, a telephone, a sewing machine, a twine binder, a radio set, a skyscraper, a daily paper, an electric light, a printed book. He never saw a church or a Sunday school or a peace society or a republic.... But the inward world that Christ saw and knew is exactly the same in its loves and hates and its ambitions and passions and its heroisms, and in its pettiness and sordid scorn of goodness."

Under Dr. Sheldon's editorial guidance, all stories of scandal, vice, and crime were played down. Not omitted, but reduced to what the minister felt was their proper length. Society-page news was condensed to almost nothing. Theatrical news was dropped. For the 1st time, perhaps, in newspaper history, virtue and goodwill became hot news. Editorials were moved to the front page, and each was fully signed. Sheldon objected to the customary editorial "we" and the lack of by-line on opinions as sheer cowardice. Every front-page news story was followed by balanced editorial comment in footnotes. A great famine in India, ignored or treated casually by the competition press, was headlined by Dr. Sheldon--not only headlined but followed up by an appeal for the distant sufferers. As a result of this handling of the India famine, over $1 million in food and other relief supplies was sent to Bombay. "Sometimes, when people have asked me if the paper were not a failure as the press reports for the most part said it was," stated Dr. Sheldon, "I have replied that if it accomplished nothing more than saving several thousand children from starvation, I would always feel as if it were a success." The Sunday edition of the paper was dropped for a special Saturday night issue, which front-paged the Sermon on the Mount and featured religious stories.

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