SHELDON, CHARLES (1857-1946)
Born February 26, 1857, at Wellsville, New York, son of a poor congregational preacher, Charles Monroe Sheldon was the author of some thirty Christian social novels, including In His Steps (1897), a phenomenally successful instructional novel. His latter youth was spent in the Dakotas. Subsequently educated at Brown University and Andover Theological Seminary, he ministered at Waterbury, Vermont, for two years before accepting a call to Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas (1889), where he remained for the rest of his life.
Sheldon began writing in his teens and seems never to have stopped. At Central Church he delivered Sunday evening serial sermons dealing in a fictional manner with the challenge to church and society of a host of contemporary ills: unemployment, poverty, the alienation of upper and lower classes, exploitation by landlords, racial discrimination, the menace of the liquor trade, sensationalism in the media, corruption at city hall, labor extremists and radical nostrums, hypocrisy in the churches, and the failure of philanthropy and the gospel of wealth to cure an ailing world. First published by installment in religious magazines and then as full novels, Sheldon's works reflected his own unceasing activism as a social reformist minister. He made an indelible impact, bringing the larger world of Christian social reform to Topeka and the Great Plains and making the region's single most important contribution to the popular Christian social movement that was at the core of early-twentieth-century progressivism.
In His Steps was the best-seller among a growing genre of Christian social novels welling up out of the 1870s and 1880s, whose success owed much to the widespread Protestant proscription of reading secular fiction but probably owed more to the anxiety among middle- and upper-class Protestants in the face of dramatic social changes undermining both their sense of community and their sense of social control. Entirely unsophisticated in plot, characterization, theology, or social analysis, the novels prescribed a simple, enduring formula: "What would Jesus do?" Sheldon presented the resulting encounter of upper- and middle-class Protestants with working-class America in unabashedly sentimental and melodramatic terms that touched the consciences of millions.
Sheldon gave no sign of the radical Christian socialism of George Herron in Iowa or W. D. P. Bliss in Boston, with whom he, however, had considerable contact, and he seems not to have recognized the strain of labor Christianity among labor leaders like Eugene Debs, although he saw more potential in the working class than was normally allowed in midcentury Christian novels. Like his counterpart best-selling western Canadian Christian social novelist Ralph Connor (Rev. C. W. Gordon), Sheldon's locus of social progress lay in changing the hearts of persons of standing, which linked him in certain ways with the contemporary revivalism of Dwight Moody. Sheldon died in Topeka on February 24, 1946, after a long, active retirement increasingly focused on the cause of world peace.
See also LITERARY TRADITIONS: Gordon, Charles W.
Richard Allen Hamilton, Ontario
Boyer, Paul S. "In His Steps: A Reappraisal." American Quarterly 23 (Apr. 1971): 60–78.
Ferré, John P. A Social Gospel for Millions: The Religious Bestsellers of Charles Sheldon, Charles Gordon, and Harold Bell Wright. Bowling Green OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1988.
Miller, Timothy. Following in His Steps. A Biography of Charles M. Sheldon. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.