We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Erin A. Smith, author of What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America. Since the late nineteenth century, religiously themed books in America have been commercially popular yet scorned by critics. Working at the intersection of literary history, lived religion, and consumer culture, Smith considers the largely unexplored world of popular religious books, examining the apparent tension between economic and religious imperatives for authors, publishers, and readers. Smith argues that this literature served as a form of extra-ecclesiastical ministry and credits the popularity and longevity of religious books to their day-to-day usefulness rather than their theological correctness or aesthetic quality.
In today’s post, Smith explores the history of the famous slogan What Would Jesus Do? and the phrase’s present-day implications.
“What Would Jesus Do About Measles?” asks Paul A. Offit, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in the opinion pages of the New York Times. Recalling the 1991 measles epidemic in Philadelphia (1400 people were infected; 9 children died), Offit points out that the outbreak was so virulent because two fundamentalist Christian churches that discouraged vaccination were at its epicenter. Public health officials brought the epidemic under control—in part—by getting a court order to vaccinate children over their parents’ protests. Citing the current measles outbreak and the approximately 30,000 children in the United States who are unvaccinated for religious reasons, Offit makes the case for eliminating the religious vaccination exemption. Moreover, Offit thinks Jesus—who stood up for children—would get them vaccinated against measles to keep them safe and to protect others.
Offit is only one of many continuing to invoke the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” (abbreviated WWJD). In the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush claimed Jesus was his favorite philosopher. Al Gore claimed that he asked “What would Jesus do?” before taking any action. The question frames dilemmas about what contemporary Christians should drive (not SUVs) and their diets (a diet plan and cookbook called What Would Jesus Eat?).
The question comes from an 1897 novel, Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? Sheldon was a Congregationalist minister in Kansas, and he originally preached In His Steps as a series of Sunday evening “sermon-stories,” stopping at a cliffhanger each week to bring his congregants back to hear more. It is an account of twelve latter-day (ca. 1890s) disciples who are roused from their comfortable, complacent lives by the death of a homeless man in their town, a man to whom none of them had offered help. They agree to meet after Sunday services each week for a year to support each other in taking no action until they have asked themselves what Jesus would do. This pledge upends their lives. For example, the local college president feels called to leave behind his books and his study to do battle with the liquor interests for political control of their town. A gifted singer renounces a promising potential career singing opera to use her voice bringing souls to Jesus at revival meetings instead.
Before being published as a novel, In His Steps was serialized in the Chicago Congregational periodical The Advance, which paid Sheldon a flat fee and did not seek copyright protection. As a consequence, at least 26 American publishers and more than 30 in the United Kingdom sold more than 8 million copies of the novel (for which Sheldon received few royalties). It was translated into 23 different languages and inspired comic book, stage, and screen versions. In His Steps is still in print (the latest book version is from 2012), and a film based on the novel, WWJD, was released straight to DVD in 2010.
The WWJD revival started in the mid-1990s. Janie Tinklenberg, a youth minister at Calvary Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, remembered the book from her childhood and periodically reread the novel. After talking with the youth at her church about the book in 1989, she decided to investigate ways to keep Sheldon’s question, “What would Jesus do?” in the forefront of students’ minds. Because woven friendship bracelets were all the rage at the time, Tinklenberg decided WWJD bracelets were the way to go—jewelry to remind believers of their faith and to provide an easy way to witness to others. Although she initially had only a couple hundred bracelets made and distributed to youth at her church, kids kept coming back for more to give away to friends and family. It was an astonishingly successful grassroots campaign. Samples ended up at a Christian bookshop and convention; Paul Harvey mentioned the bracelets on his syndicated radio show every day for a week in 1997. By the spring of 1997, 20,000 bracelets a week were being produced. Estimates of the number of bracelets sold in the 1990s run from 15 million to 52 million. Much like Sheldon, Tinklenberg did not make any money from WWJD products. Although she became the registered trademark holder in 1998, the slogan was ruled already in the public domain.
Although In His Steps—like many much-loved religious bestsellers from the last century—lacks theological rigor and aesthetic beauty, it continues to be part of the lived religion of people who see immediate relevance for their own lives in these powerful stories.
Erin A. Smith is associate professor of American studies and literature at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her book, What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America, is now available.
- See “What Would Jesus Do?” by Sandy Sheppard, Christianity Today, accessed 3/24/2015, http://www.christianity.com/11622298/
“WWJD What Would Jesus Do Bracelets,” Mortal Journey, 11/24/2010, http://www.mortaljourney.com/2010/11/1990-trends/wwjd-bracelets
“What would Jesus do–about copyright,” by Damien Cave, Salon, 10/25/2000, http://www.salon.com/2000/10/25/wwjd/↩