So from time to time in this blog we examine the unsung heroes who changed our lives or at least added a phrase to the language. This week I priced one of those quote-a-day calendars, the kind that came in a little book so you could use it as a diary besides being inspired by the quotes from the writer so saluted. Over the years, we’ve had plenty of William Shakespeare quote-a-days, as well as Tennyson, Winnie-the-Pooh, and John Keats, to name but a few literary immortals.
This fellow is not so remembered as some, though the phrase he started is alive and doing well. He was kind of a Civil Rights leader, expressing honest bewilderment that different races could not work together on an equal footing. He was much the same about religion—he was Protestant, but didn’t see this as giving him a monopoly on grace and goodness. Catholics and Jews certainly had as much a part in that as any church he was involved with. He was puzzled about why women HAD to fight for rights, when equality was such a natural result of human thought. He was also a vegetarian, and his feelings about animal rights led him to criticize circuses for their animal acts.
AND he came up with a phrase that was not only sold widely on bracelets and bumper stickers, but has been appropriated by authors ever since. Oh, and by the way, he turned 160 this last February.
Born in 1857 in Wellsville, New York, he was taken west at an early age. It was in South Dakota, at the age of 7, that he signed the Pledge. (It’s easier to get people to give up tobacco and alcohol if you get them in their grade school years. Yeah, he was an ardent Prohibitionist, too, but you have to allow him SOME faults.)
He went to school back east, and after being graduated by Andover Theological Seminary, Charles M. Sheldon went into preaching. His sermons were inspired by a movement called the Social Gospel, a philosophy that stressed service to others as an end in itself rather than a path to personal salvation. He began to develop a catchphrase to help inspire people to work for the outsiders of society, and his sermons caught on. One day he sat down and pulled all of the sermons and thoughts into a novel published just 120 years ago this year.
This was “In His Steps”, and if you have not heard of the book, certainly at the height of the fad it inspired, one hundred years after it was published, you knew someone with a bracelet or necklace or lanyard bearing the acronym “WWJD”. This was short for his catchphrase “What Would Jesus Do?”
And if you have not seen such a thing, you must have visited the Newberry Book Fair, where you could buy a guide to “distinctive living” (What Would Jackie Do—being Jackie Kennedy, of course), a guide to being a real man in a wimpy century (What Would Frank Do—naturally Sinatra), or a book by Rob Sachs on how to make it through an undignified world, called What Would Rob Do? I have not seen copies of WWWD: What Would W Do?, a salute to a recent President of the United States, or what seems to be a children’s book called What Would Jane Do? Roaming across the Internet I can find What Would Buddha Do, What Would Michelle Do, What Would Wonder Woman Do (both of these no doubt sequels to What Would Murphy Brown Do), What Would Keith Richards Do, and What Would MacGyver Do? For those who want to stick more closely to the source material, but still have questions, we have What Would Jesus Not Do, and What Would Jesus Really Do. Authors know a good catchphrase when they see one.
Charles M. Sheldon died just two days short of his 89th birthday, and if you don’t want to read his whole sermons or his novel, you can buy the quote-a-day book next July. In case you thought “What would Jesus do?” was all he ever thought of, he’s also responsible for “Good resolutions are like babies crying in church. They should be carried out immediately.”