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January 30, 2023

In His Steps

In the middle of a church service in the late 1800s, a suffering vagrant stumbled up near the pulpit and pleaded with the congregation. “How can you claim to follow a man who served the destitute while you lead lives of luxury and self-indulgence?” Then the man put the question even more pointedly: “What would Jesus do?”

The poor man collapsed and died—but the congregation took up his challenge and their lives were forever changed. This is the plot of In His Steps, an 1896 novel made from a collection of stories that Charles Sheldon preached to his congregation in Topeka, Kansas. In His Steps emphasized the themes of the social gospel movement, which sought to apply the principles of the Bible to social problems like poverty, fair labor practices, racial tensions and social inequalities. Sheldon sold In His Steps to a weekly magazine for $75. It exploded. Today it ranks as one of the bestselling books of all time with over 30 million copies sold. The publisher failed to register the copyright properly, so neither Sheldon nor his family have earned a single penny in royalties. But the book inspired people around the globe, in 21 languages, and popularized the ancient idea to imitate Jesus in the question “What Would Jesus Do?”

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