“I want volunteers from the First Church who will pledge themselves, earnestly and honestly for an entire year, not to do anything without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And after asking that question, each one will follow Jesus as exactly as he knows how, no matter what the result may be.”
~Charles Sheldon, from In His Steps

In the halls of my high school, back in the 1990s, the initials W.W.J.D. (What Would Jesus Do) appeared as a seemingly sudden trend, gracing armbands, lanyards, backpacks. I associated it with teens either trying to fit in or proclaiming their Evangelical Christian faith through (then) fashion-forward accessories. But, Charles Monroe Sheldon, a Kansas preacher, first coined the phrase in 1893 in his novel, In His Steps. In a sense, those woven armbands draw a loop back to the Social Gospel Movement and the Evangelical impulse it grew out of.

Sheldon was a high-profile Congregational minister and an early advocate of civil rights for African-Americans and women. He also supported prohibition to battle alcoholism, seeing it as a serious social disease. And though Sheldon had the spirit of social activism, he was in many ways out of step with his time. He intended the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” to guide moral behavior as well as be applied to all aspects of living, including one’s occupation.

The novel begins with a young man who was “evidently a tramp” in shabby clothes coming to town looking for work and for help. He approaches the fictional congregation, even the pastor of a small Kansas town (much like the one Reverend Sheldon served), and finds that no one will help him. He later walks into the middle of the Sunday service and shames those present for the hypocrisy of turning their backs on him asking, “But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following his steps?”

In the audio above, theologian John D. Caputo talks about the evolution of this powerful phrase. It’s a way to see what drives Christianity, he says, even the soul of it. But how it’s been appropriated today as mainly a slogan of the Christian Right is a degradation of a very good question, one that has a “magic to it.” According to Caputo it has most impact when applied to one’s own morality, but when used to with a prescriptive morality for others, “you take the teeth out of the question” and it becomes a kind of weapon with which to judge others.

However, Reverend Sheldon was not exclusively applying WWJD to public or private morality himself. He had a more nuanced approach. He felt that as much as one needed to be responsible for their own actions, “people were defenseless against these larger structural forces in this society,” hence his own contributions to social activism.

One intriguing interpretation issue is the challenge of actually determining what Jesus would have done. As Caputo puts it, “the question really is a question and it’s a difficult question because it involves making an interpretation, of taking Jesus who lived in a very different time a remote corner of the Roman Empire, in an occupied country, and who probably was not a very political person. So we’ve got to look at the New Testament narrative and figure out for ourselves what it’s telling us to do in our time.”

Share Your Reflection



I asked "What would Jesus do?" My "interpretation" was that he would have sung this song.

I'm not sure about Jesus-  if I go into a church, the minister shifts from his sermon right into an exorcism---but I would ask " what can each of US do?

Great idea, we must ask for personal responsibility AND consider the structural problems. This is a question to give to someone and allow them to think about, not ask it as if the answer is predetermined or could be simply looked up. 

I find another intriguing interpretative approach (that circumvents the challenge of determining what Jesus would have done) is to ask the question, "What is Jesus doing?"  

If we believe the divine works in and through us, the challenge then becomes being able to take that "sacred pause" that enables us to resist our instinctive (old brain) reaction, and instead allows the "divine indwelling" (new brain) to move into action.

Perhaps the better question might be, "What would Jesus have me do?"  (given what gifts I may have).

While hearing your comments I was moved to look into a box of books I had brought home when my mother died. Sure enough there was a copy of In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. Although there is no date in the old book, my mother had put her name and address inside, so I can figure that she did this in the early 1940's. The book looks much older than that, however. I am now moved to read it and share a journey with my mom, one she took so many years ago. Thanks for the motivation to look into is book that otherwise might have been tossed aside

I loved this novel as a teenager.  I was sad to see the question co-opted by the religious right over the past few years.  In the book, "What would Jesus do?" compelled people in a wealthy congregation to look beyond their own comfortable lives to the grinding poverty that supported that comfort.  The book had its corny moments (from our "modern" perspective) but it digs into the point that it is about our personal behavior, as well as our interaction with our community, what we buy, who we support, how we treat others that we know as well as those who we will never meet.  Thanks for the article.  

good to hear from prof. Caputo, you folks should have him on as a guest someday to discuss the "weakness" of God in his theology.

I love these pictures, beucase through them I see LOVE,HOPE, TRUTH and EVERLASTING LIFE WITH MY SAVIOR. The pictures of his CRUCIFICTION tells me that if he could endour all the pain and humiliation, then so can I. You are not worshiping the pics, but seeing what our LORD went through for all of us. We were made in HIS IMAGE and COLOR HAS NO MEANING IN HIS EYES. I am Native American and in our language that He gave us, HE is Wanka Tanka, The Great Spirit, Our Creator. All he wants EVERYONE to do is LOVE ONE ANOTHER and TELL OTHERS ABOUT HIM. Thank you Great Spirit for your Unmerciful Treatment, I am waiting for you to return. God Bless Everyone.