Chapter Nineteen of In His Steps by Charles Sheldon – inspiration for the “What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD) movement
[Letter from Rev. Calvin Bruce, D.D., of the Nazareth Avenue Church, Chicago, to Rev. Philip A. Caxton, D.D., New York City.]
“My Dear Caxton:
“It is late Sunday night, but I am so intensely awake and so overflowing with what I have seen and heard that I feel driven to write you now some account of the situation in Raymond as I have been studying it, and as it has apparently come to a climax today. So this is my only excuse for writing so extended a letter at this time.
“You remember Henry Maxwell in the Seminary. I think you said the last time I visited you in New York that you had not seen him since we graduated. He was a refined, scholarly fellow, you remember, and when he was called to the First Church of Raymond within a year after leaving the Seminary, I said to my wife, ‘Raymond has made a good choice. Maxwell will satisfy them as a sermonizer.’ He has been here eleven years, and I understand that up to a year ago he had gone on in the regular course of the ministry, giving good satisfaction and drawing good congregations. His church was counted the largest and wealthiest church in Raymond. All the best people attended it, and most of them belonged. The quartet choir was famous for its music, especially for its soprano, Miss Winslow, of whom I shall have more to say; and, on the whole, as I understand the facts, Maxwell was in a comfortable berth, with a very good salary, pleasant surroundings, a not very exacting parish of refined, rich, respectable people–such a church and parish as nearly all the young men of the seminary in our time looked forward to as very desirable.
“But a year ago today Maxwell came into his church on Sunday morning, and at the close of the service made the astounding proposition that the members of his church volunteer for a year not to do anything without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ and, after answering it, to do what in their honest judgment He would do, regardless of what the result might be to them.
“The effect of this proposition, as it has been met and obeyed by a number of members of the church, has been so remarkable that, as you know, the attention of the whole country has been directed to the movement. I call it a ‘movement’ because from the action taken today, it seems probable that what has been tried here will reach out into the other churches and cause a revolution in methods, but more especially in a new definition of Christian discipleship.
“In the first place, Maxwell tells me he was astonished at the response to his proposition. Some of the most prominent members in the church made the promise to do as Jesus would. Among them were Edward Norman, editor of the DAILY NEWS, which has made such a sensation in the newspaper world; Milton Wright, one of the leading merchants in Raymond; Alexander Powers, whose action in the matter of the railroads against the interstate commerce laws made such a stir about a year ago; Miss Page, one of Raymond’s leading society heiresses, who has lately dedicated her entire fortune, as I understand, to the Christian daily paper and the work of reform in the slum district known as the Rectangle; and Miss Winslow, whose reputation as a singer is now national, but who in obedience to what she has decided to be Jesus’ probable action, has devoted her talent to volunteer work among the girls and women who make up a large part of the city’s worst and most abandoned population.
“In addition to these well-known people has been a gradually increasing number of Christians from the First Church and lately from other churches of Raymond. A large proportion of these volunteers who pledged themselves to do as Jesus would do comes from the Endeavor societies. The young people say that they have already embodied in their society pledge the same principle in the words, ‘I promise Him that I will strive to do whatever He would have me do.’ This is not exactly what is included in Maxwell’s proposition, which is that the disciple shall try to do what Jesus would probably do in the disciple’s place. But the result of an honest obedience to either pledge, he claims, will be practically the same, and he is not surprised that the largest numbers have joined the new discipleship from the Endeavor Society.
“I am sure the first question you will ask is, ‘What has been the result of this attempt? What has it accomplished or how has it changed in any way the regular life of the church or the community?’
“You already know something, from reports of Raymond that have gone over the country, what the events have been. But one needs to come here and learn something of the changes in individual lives, and especially the change in the church life, to realize all that is meant by this following of Jesus’ steps so literally. To tell all that would be to write a long story or series of stories. I am not in a position to do that, but I can give you some idea perhaps of what has been done as told me by friends here and by Maxwell himself.
“The result of the pledge upon the First Church has been two-fold. It has brought upon a spirit of Christian fellowship which Maxwell tells me never before existed, and which now impresses him as being very nearly what the Christian fellowship of the apostolic churches must have been; and it has divided the church into two distinct groups of members. Those who have not taken the pledge regard the others as foolishly literal in their attempt to imitate the example of Jesus. Some of them have drawn out of the church and no longer attend, or they have removed their membership entirely to other churches. Some are an element of internal strife, and I heard rumors of an attempt on their part to force Maxwell’s resignation. I do not know that this element is very strong in the church. It has been held in check by a wonderful continuance of spiritual power, which dates from the first Sunday the pledge was taken a year ago, and also by the fact that so many of the most prominent members have been identified with the movement.
“The effect on Maxwell is very marked. I heard him preach in our State Association four years ago. He impressed me at the time as having considerable power in dramatic delivery, of which he himself was somewhat conscious. His sermon was well written and abounded in what the Seminary students used to call ‘fine passages.’ The effect of it was what an average congregation would call ‘pleasing.’ This morning I heard Maxwell preach again, for the first time since then. I shall speak of that farther on. He is not the same man. He gives me the impression of one who has passed through a crisis of revolution. He tells me this revolution is simply a new definition of Christian discipleship. He certainly has changed many of his old habits and many of his old views. His attitude on the saloon question is radically opposite to the one he entertained a year ago. And in his entire thought of the ministry, his pulpit and parish work, I find he has made a complete change. So far as I can understand, the idea that is moving him on now is the idea that the Christianity of our times must represent a more literal imitation of Jesus, and especially in the element of suffering. He quoted to me in the course of our conversation several times the verses in Peter: ‘For even hereunto were ye called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye would follow His steps’; and he seems filled with the conviction that what our churches need today more than anything else is this factor of joyful suffering for Jesus in some form. I do not know as I agree with him, altogether; but, my dear Caxton, it is certainly astonishing to note the results of this idea as they have impressed themselves upon this city and this church.
“You ask how about the results on the individuals who have made this pledge and honestly tried to be true to it. Those results are, as I have said, a part of individual history and cannot be told in detail. Some of them I can give you so that you may see that this form of discipleship is not merely sentiment or fine posing for effect.
“For instance, take the case of Mr. Powers, who was superintendent of the machine shops of the L. and T. R. R. here. When he acted upon the evidence which incriminated the road he lost his position, and more than that, I learn from my friends here, his family and social relations have become so changed that he and his family no longer appear in public. They have dropped out of the social circle where once they were so prominent. By the way, Caxton, I understand in this connection that the Commission, for one reason or another, postponed action on this case, and it is now rumored that the L. and T. R. R. will pass into a receiver’s hands very soon. The president of the road who, according to the evidence submitted by Powers, was the principal offender, has resigned, and complications which have risen since point to the receivership. Meanwhile, the superintendent has gone back to his old work as a telegraph operator. I met him at the church yesterday. He impressed me as a man who had, like Maxwell, gone through a crisis in character. I could not help thinking of him as being good material for the church of the first century when the disciples had all things in common.
“Or take the case of Mr. Norman, editor of the DAILY NEWS. He risked his entire fortune in obedience to what he believed was Jesus’ action, and revolutionized his entire conduct of the paper at the risk of a failure. I send you a copy of yesterday’s paper. I want you to read it carefully. To my mind it is one of the most interesting and remarkable papers ever printed in the United States. It is open to criticism, but what could any mere man attempt in this line that would be free from criticism. Take it all in all, it is so far above the ordinary conception of a daily paper that I am amazed at the result. He tells me that the paper is beginning to be read more and more by the Christian people of the city. He was very confident of its final success. Read his editorial on the money questions, also the one on the coming election in Raymond when the question of license will again be an issue. Both articles are of the best from his point of view. He says he never begins an editorial or, in fact, any part of his newspaper work, without first asking, ‘What would Jesus do?’ The result is certainly apparent.
“Then there is Milton Wright, the merchant. He has, I am told, so revolutionized his business that no man is more beloved today in Raymond. His own clerks and employees have an affection for him that is very touching. During the winter, while he was lying dangerously ill at his home, scores of clerks volunteered to watch and help in any way possible, and his return to his store was greeted with marked demonstrations. All this has been brought about by the element of personal love introduced into the business. This love is not mere words, but the business itself is carried on under a system of co-operation that is not a patronizing recognition of inferiors, but a real sharing in the whole business. Other men on the street look upon Milton Wright as odd. It is a fact, however, that while he has lost heavily in some directions, he has increased his business, and is today respected and honored as one of the best and most successful merchants in Raymond.
“And there is Miss Winslow. She has chosen to give her great talent to the poor of the city. Her plans include a Musical Institute where choruses and classes in vocal music shall be a feature. She is enthusiastic over her life work. In connection with her friend Miss Page she has planned a course in music which, if carried out, will certainly do much to lift up the lives of the people down there. I am not too old, dear Caxton, to be interested in the romantic side of much that has also been tragic here in Raymond, and I must tell you that it is well understood here that Miss Winslow expects to be married this spring to a brother of Miss Page who was once a society leader and club man, and who was converted in a tent where his wife-that-is-to-be took an active part in the service. I don’t know all the details of this little romance, but I imagine there is a story wrapped up in it, and it would make interesting reading if we only knew it all.
“These are only a few illustrations of results in individual lives owing to obedience to the pledge. I meant to have spoken of President Marsh of Lincoln College. He is a graduate of my alma mater and I knew him slightly when I was in the senior year. He has taken an active part in the recent municipal campaign, and his influence in the city is regarded as a very large factor in the coming election. He impressed me, as did all the other disciples in this movement, as having fought out some hard questions, and as having taken up some real burdens that have caused and still do cause that suffering of which Henry Maxwell speaks, a suffering that does not eliminate, but does appear to intensify, a positive and practical joy.”