Chapter Thirty of In His Steps by Charles Sheldon – inspiration for the “What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD) movement
“Now, when Jesus heard these things, He said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow Me.”
WHEN Henry Maxwell began to speak to the souls crowded into the Settlement Hall that night it is doubtful if he ever faced such an audience in his life. It is quite certain that the city of Raymond did not contain such a variety of humanity. Not even the Rectangle at its worst could furnish so many men and women who had fallen entirely out of the reach of the church and of all religious and even Christian influences.
What did he talk about? He had already decided that point. He told in the simplest language he could command some of the results of obedience to the pledge as it had been taken in Raymond. Every man and woman in that audience knew something about Jesus Christ. They all had some idea of His character, and however much they had grown bitter toward the forms of Christian ecclesiasticism or the social system, they preserved some standard of right and truth, and what little some of them still retained was taken from the person of the Peasant of Galilee.
So they were interested in what Maxwell said. “What would Jesus do?” He began to apply the question to the social problem in general, after finishing the story of Raymond. The audience was respectfully attentive. It was more than that. It was genuinely interested. As Mr. Maxwell went on, faces all over the hall leaned forward in a way seldom seen in church audiences or anywhere except among workingmen or the people of the street when once they are thoroughly aroused. “What would Jesus do?” Suppose that were the motto not only of the churches but of the business men, the politicians, the newspapers, the workingmen, the society people–how long would it take under such a standard of conduct to revolutionize the world? What was the trouble with the world? It was suffering from selfishness. No one ever lived who had succeeded in overcoming selfishness like Jesus. If men followed Him regardless of results the world would at once begin to enjoy a new life.
Maxwell never knew how much it meant to hold the respectful attention of that hall full of diseased and sinful humanity. The Bishop and Dr. Bruce, sitting there, looking on, seeing many faces that represented scorn of creeds, hatred of the social order, desperate narrowness and selfishness, marveled that even so soon under the influence of the Settlement life, the softening process had begun already to lessen the bitterness of hearts, many of which had grown bitter from neglect and indifference.
And still, in spite of the outward show of respect to the speaker, no one, not even the Bishop, had any true conception of the feeling pent up in that room that night. Among those who had heard of the meeting and had responded to the invitation were twenty or thirty men out of work who had strolled past the Settlement that afternoon, read the notice of the meeting, and had come in out of curiosity and to escape the chill east wind. It was a bitter night and the saloons were full. But in that whole district of over thirty thousand souls, with the exception of the saloons, there was not a door open except the clean, pure Christian door of the Settlement. Where would a man without a home or without work or without friends naturally go unless to the saloon?
It had been the custom at the Settlement for a free discussion to follow any open meeting of this kind, and when Mr. Maxwell finished and sat down, the Bishop, who presided that night, rose and made the announcement that any man in the hall was at liberty to ask questions, to speak out his feelings or declare his convictions, always with the understanding that whoever took part was to observe the simple rules that governed parliamentary bodies and obey the three-minute rule which, by common consent, would be enforced on account of the numbers present.
Instantly a number of voices from men who had been at previous meetings of this kind exclaimed, “Consent! consent!”
The Bishop sat down, and immediately a man near the middle of the hall rose and began to speak.
“I want to say that what Mr. Maxwell has said tonight comes pretty close to me. I knew Jack Manning, the fellow he told about who died at his house. I worked on the next case to his in a printer’s shop in Philadelphia for two years. Jack was a good fellow. He loaned me five dollars once when I was in a hole and I never got a chance to pay him back. He moved to New York, owing to a change in the management of the office that threw him out, and I never saw him again. When the linotype machines came in I was one of the men to go out, just as he did. I have been out most of the time since. They say inventions are a good thing. I don’t always see it myself; but I suppose I’m prejudiced. A man naturally is when he loses a steady job because a machine takes his place. About this Christianity he tells about, it’s all right. But I never expect to see any such sacrifices on the part of the church people. So far as my observation goes they’re just as selfish and as greedy for money and worldly success as anybody. I except the Bishop and Dr. Bruce and a few others. But I never found much difference between men of the world, as they are called, and church members when it came to business and money making. One class is just as bad as another there.”
Cries of “That’s so!” “You’re right!” “Of course!” interrupted the speaker, and the minute he sat down two men who were on the floor for several seconds before the first speaker was through began to talk at once.
The Bishop called them to order and indicated which was entitled to the floor. The man who remained standing began eagerly:
“This is the first time I was ever in here, and may be it’ll be the last. Fact is, I am about at the end of my string. I’ve tramped this city for work till I’m sick. I’m in plenty of company. Say! I’d like to ask a question of the minister, if it’s fair. May I?”
“That’s for Mr. Maxwell to say,” said the Bishop.
“By all means,” replied Mr. Maxwell quickly. “Of course, I will not promise to answer it to the gentleman’s satisfaction.”
“This is my question.” The man leaned forward and stretched out a long arm with a certain dramatic force that grew naturally enough out of his condition as a human being. “I want to know what Jesus would do in my case. I haven’t had a stroke of work for two months. I’ve got a wife and three children, and I love them as much as if I was worth a million dollars. I’ve been living off a little earnings I saved up during the World’s Fair jobs I got. I’m a carpenter by trade, and I’ve tried every way I know to get a job. You say we ought to take for our motto, ‘What would Jesus do?’ What would He do if He was out of work like me? I can’t be somebody else and ask the question. I want to work. I’d give anything to grow tired of working ten hours a day the way I used to. Am I to blame because I can’t manufacture a job for myself? I’ve got to live, and my wife and my children have got to live. But how? What would Jesus do? You say that’s the question we ought to ask.”
Mr. Maxwell sat there staring at the great sea of faces all intent on his, and no answer to this man’s question seemed for the time being to be possible. “O God!” his heart prayed; “this is a question that brings up the entire social problem in all its perplexing entanglement of human wrongs and its present condition contrary to every desire of God for a human being’s welfare. Is there any condition more awful than for a man in good health, able and eager to work, with no means of honest livelihood unless he does work, actually unable to get anything to do, and driven to one of three things: begging or charity at the hands of friends or strangers, suicide or starvation? ‘What would Jesus do?’” It was a fair question for the man to ask. It was the only question he could ask, supposing him to be a disciple of Jesus. But what a question for any man to be obliged to answer under such conditions?
All this and more did Henry Maxwell ponder. All the others were thinking in the same way. The Bishop sat there with a look so stern and sad that it was not hard to tell how the question moved him. Dr. Bruce had his head bowed. The human problem had never seemed to him so tragical as since he had taken the pledge and left his church to enter the Settlement. What would Jesus do? It was a terrible question. And still the man stood there, tall and gaunt and almost terrible, with his arm stretched out in an appeal which grew every second in meaning. At length Mr. Maxwell spoke.
“Is there any man in the room, who is a Christian disciple, who has been in this condition and has tried to do as Jesus would do? If so, such a man can answer this question better than I can.”
There was a moment’s hush over the room and then a man near the front of the hall slowly rose. He was an old man, and the hand he laid on the back of the bench in front of him trembled as he spoke.
“I think I can safely say that I have many times been in just such a condition, and I have always tried to be a Christian under all conditions. I don’t know as I have always asked this question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ when I have been out of work, but I do know I have tried to be His disciple at all times. Yes,” the man went on, with a sad smile that was more pathetic to the Bishop and Mr. Maxwell than the younger man’s grim despair; “yes, I have begged, and I have been to charity institutions, and I have done everything when out of a job except steal and lie in order to get food and fuel. I don’t know as Jesus would have done some of the things I have been obliged to do for a living, but I know I have never knowingly done wrong when out of work. Sometimes I think maybe He would have starved sooner than beg. I don’t know.”
The old man’s voice trembled and he looked around the room timidly. A silence followed, broken by a fierce voice from a large, black-haired, heavily-bearded man who sat three seats from the Bishop. The minute he spoke nearly every man in the hall leaned forward eagerly. The man who had asked the question, “What would Jesus do in my case?” slowly sat down and whispered to the man next to him: “Who’s that?”
“That’s Carlsen, the Socialist leader. Now you’ll hear something.”
“This is all bosh, to my mind,” began Carlsen, while his great bristling beard shook with the deep inward anger of the man. “The whole of our system is at fault. What we call civilization is rotten to the core. There is no use trying to hide it or cover it up. We live in an age of trusts and combines and capitalistic greed that means simply death to thousands of innocent men, women and children. I thank God, if there is a God–which I very much doubt–that I, for one, have never dared to marry and make a home. Home! Talk of hell! Is there any bigger one than this man and his three children has on his hands right this minute? And he’s only one out of thousands. And yet this city, and every other big city in this country, has its thousands of professed Christians who have all the luxuries and comforts, and who go to church Sundays and sing their hymns about giving all to Jesus and bearing the cross and following Him all the way and being saved! I don’t say that there aren’t good men and women among them, but let the minister who has spoken to us here tonight go into any one of a dozen aristocratic churches I could name and propose to the members to take any such pledge as the one he’s mentioned here tonight, and see how quick the people would laugh at him for a fool or a crank or a fanatic. Oh, no! That’s not the remedy. That can’t ever amount to anything. We’ve got to have a new start in the way of government. The whole thing needs reconstructing. I don’t look for any reform worth anything to come out of the churches. They are not with the people. They are with the aristocrats, with the men of money. The trusts and monopolies have their greatest men in the churches. The ministers as a class are their slaves. What we need is a system that shall start from the common basis of socialism, founded on the rights of the common people–”
Carlsen had evidently forgotten all about the three-minutes rule and was launching himself into a regular oration that meant, in his usual surroundings before his usual audience, an hour at least, when the man just behind him pulled him down unceremoniously and arose. Carlsen was angry at first and threatened a little disturbance, but the Bishop reminded him of the rule, and he subsided with several mutterings in his beard, while the next speaker began with a very strong eulogy on the value of the single tax as a genuine remedy for all the social ills. He was followed by a man who made a bitter attack on the churches and ministers, and declared that the two great obstacles in the way of all true reform were the courts and the ecclesiastical machines.
When he sat down a man who bore every mark of being a street laborer sprang to his feet and poured a perfect torrent of abuse against the corporations, especially the railroads. The minute his time was up a big, brawny fellow, who said he was a metal worker by trade, claimed the floor and declared that the remedy for the social wrongs was Trades Unionism. This, he said, would bring on the millennium for labor more surely than anything else. The next man endeavored to give some reasons why so many persons were out of employment, and condemned inventions as works of the devil. He was loudly applauded by the rest.
Finally the Bishop called time on the “free for all,” and asked Rachel to sing.
Rachel Winslow had grown into a very strong, healthful, humble Christian during that wonderful year in Raymond dating from the Sunday when she first took the pledge to do as Jesus would do, and her great talent for song had been fully consecrated to the service of the Master. When she began to sing tonight at this Settlement meeting, she had never prayed more deeply for results to come from her voice, the voice which she now regarded as the Master’s, to be used for Him.
Certainly her prayer was being answered as she sang. She had chosen the words,
“Hark! The voice of Jesus calling, Follow me, follow me!”
Again Henry Maxwell, sitting there, was reminded of his first night at the Rectangle in the tent when Rachel sang the people into quiet. The effect was the same here. What wonderful power a good voice consecrated to the Master’s service always is! Rachel’s great natural ability would have made her one of the foremost opera singers of the age. Surely this audience had never heard such a melody. How could it? The men who had drifted in from the street sat entranced by a voice which “back in the world,” as the Bishop said, never could be heard by the common people because the owner of it would charge two or three dollars for the privilege. The song poured out through the hall as free and glad as if it were a foretaste of salvation itself. Carlsen, with his great, black-bearded face uplifted, absorbed the music with the deep love of it peculiar to his nationality, and a tear ran over his cheek and glistened in his beard as his face softened and became almost noble in its aspect. The man out of work who had wanted to know what Jesus would do in his place sat with one grimy hand on the back of the bench in front of him, with his mouth partly open, his great tragedy for the moment forgotten. The song, while it lasted, was food and work and warmth and union with his wife and babies once more. The man who had spoken so fiercely against the churches and ministers sat with his head erect, at first with a look of stolid resistance, as if he stubbornly resisted the introduction into the exercises of anything that was even remotely connected with the church or its forms of worship. But gradually he yielded to the power that was swaying the hearts of all the persons in that room, and a look of sad thoughtfulness crept over his face.
The Bishop said that night while Rachel was singing that if the world of sinful, diseased, depraved, lost humanity could only have the gospel preached to it by consecrated prima donnas and professional tenors and altos and bassos, he believed it would hasten the coming of the Kingdom quicker than any other one force. “Why, oh why,” he cried in his heart as he listened, “has the world’s great treasure of song been so often held far from the poor because the personal possessor of voice or fingers, capable of stirring divinest melody, has so often regarded the gift as something with which to make money? Shall there be no martyrs among the gifted ones of the earth? Shall there be no giving of this great gift as well as of others?”
And Henry Maxwell, again as before, called up that other audience at the Rectangle with increasing longing for a larger spread of the new discipleship. What he had seen and heard at the Settlement burned into him deeper the belief that the problem of the city would be solved if the Christians in it should once follow Jesus as He gave commandment. But what of this great mass of humanity, neglected and sinful, the very kind of humanity the Savior came to save, with all its mistakes and narrowness, its wretchedness and loss of hope, above all its unqualified bitterness towards the church? That was what smote him deepest. Was the church then so far from the Master that the people no longer found Him in the church? Was it true that the church had lost its power over the very kind of humanity which in the early ages of Christianity it reached in the greatest numbers? How much was true in what the Socialist leader said about the uselessness of looking to the church for reform or redemption, because of the selfishness and seclusion and aristocracy of its members?
He was more and more impressed with the appalling fact that the comparatively few men in that hall, now being held quiet for a while by Rachel’s voice, represented thousands of others just like them, to whom a church and a minister stood for less than a saloon or a beer garden as a source of comfort or happiness. Ought it to be so? If the church members were all doing as Jesus would do, could it remain true that armies of men would walk the streets for jobs and hundreds of them curse the church and thousands of them find in the saloon their best friend? How far were the Christians responsible for this human problem that was personally illustrated right in this hall tonight? Was it true that the great city churches would as a rule refuse to walk in Jesus’ steps so closely as to suffer–actually suffer–for His sake?