WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?)

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WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?)

The twentieth century has seen no phrase so consistently popular with Protestant America as "What Would Jesus Do?" What began as a series of evening story-sermons delivered by a Kansas preacher in 1896 became by the end of the century a billion dollar industry as millions of Americans purchased bracelets, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other paraphernalia with the acronym "WWJD?" inscribed upon them. For some the remarkable sales which the phrase engendered bespoke a hunger for the Christian gospel in the American public sphere, but to others it showcased the ability of market-savvy capitalists to turn even the deepest religious impulses into profit-making ventures.

Charles M. Sheldon (1857-1946), a social gospel minister at the Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas, landed on the idea of the story-sermon as a cure for chronically poor attendance at Sunday evening services. These serial messages would then be printed in the private weekly magazine The Advance and later compiled and released in book form. In 1896 the series he composed was entitled "In His Steps," recounting the experiences of Rev. Henry Maxwell as he and his congregation discovered spiritual awakening and moral regeneration when they asked themselves "What would Jesus do?" in every situation they faced and sought to act accordingly.

The Advance series proved so popular that Sheldon decided to reissue the material as a book. But when he applied for copyright protection, it was discovered that the original magazine series had not itself been copyrighted and so the story was in public domain. Thus as the book began to sell, many firms other than the Advance Publishing Company rushed to meet the demand. By mid-century 41 companies had published the book in the United States, 15 in Great Britain, and the original text had been translated into 26 languages. The results of all this activity were mixed for Sheldon. He was catapulted to international fame, with his book selling no fewer than 8 million copies and perhaps as many as 30 million, but Sheldon himself received very little in the way of royalties on the sales. Thus was born a mythology about In His Steps, the book which outsold all others save the Bible but whose author received not a penny in royalties.

In His Steps has been continually in print since 1896, usually in more than one edition. But the end of the twentieth century saw an astonishing revival in its popularity. In 1989 Janie Tinklenberg, youth leader at the Calvary Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, read Sheldon's book and discussed it with her youth group. Noticing that many of her kids were making "friendship bracelets" for one another, she hit upon the idea of creating a bracelet which would remind her charges to ask themselves what Jesus would do in a given situation. She contacted the Lesco Corporation, based in Lansing, Michigan, and had them make two hundred bracelets with the acronym "WWJD?" stitched into them. Many of the students in her group began explaining the message of Jesus Christ to their classmates, who would often themselves ask for a bracelet. The original supply was quickly depleted and the phenomenon began to spread across the country. During the first seven years of marketing, Lesco Corp. sold 300,000 bracelets. But in the spring of 1997 Paul Harvey mentioned them on his syndicated radio show and sales skyrocketed. Fifteen million bracelets were sold by Lesco in 1997, and dozens of other corporations rushed to capitalize on the market craze.

Lesco quickly expanded its merchandising beyond the bracelets to include baseball caps, coffee mugs, key chains, jewelry, sweaters, and t-shirts, all sold by Christian bookstores around the country. An Indiana-based web site (http://www.whatwouldjesusdo.com) was selling 300,000 bracelets a month by 1998. 1998 also witnessed several Christian publishing companies compiling youth curriculum materials and offering inspirational publications using the moniker. Fore-Front Records released a WWJD? compact disc showcasing some of the most popular artists in Contemporary Christian Music, and publishing giant Zondervan issued the WWJD Interactive Devotional Bible. Most releases sold quite well. Some, like Beverly Courrege's Answers to WWJD?, became bestsellers.

By 1998 the fad had caught the attention of mainstream media outlets such that WWJD? materials could be purchased from high-profile stores like Kmart, Wal-Mart, Hallmark, Barnes and Noble, and Borders Books and Music. The Christian press was astir with debate over whether Jesus Himself would smile upon such vigorous marketing of His message, and controversy emerged over copyrights on the phrase itself. Fuel was added to the flames of controversy when it was found that some of the pewter jewelry bearing the WWJD inscription contained such high quantities of lead that children were contracting lead poisoning.

Despite such difficulties, it was clear that the message Charles Sheldon had preached first to his congregation and then to millions of readers around the world at the beginning of the twentieth century was still being heeded and put into practice over one hundred years later in a characteristically American blend of religious zeal and the entrepreneurial spirit.

—Milton Gaither

Further Reading:

Miller, Timothy. Following in His Steps: A Biography of Charles M. Sheldon. Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1987.

Sheldon, Charles M. In His Steps; "What Would Jesus Do?." Chicago, Advance Publishing Co., 1899.

Singleton III, William C. "W.W.J.D. Fad or Faith?" Homelife. August, 1998.

Smith, Michael R. "What Would Jesus Do? The Jesus Bracelet Fad:Is It Merchandising or Ministry?" World Magazine. January 10, 1998.

"WWJD? What Would Jesus Do?" http://www.whatwouldjesusdo.com. February 1999.