Poverty and racism: What would Charles Sheldon, “Mr. WWJD,” do?

In researching the man who originated the phrase “What would Jesus do” for Patron Saints for Postmoderns, I discovered something exciting. This novelist, whose In His Steps immortalized the idea of asking oneself “What would Jesus do?” before making any major decision, was no starry-eyed dreamer who lived only in his writing. Rather, he was one of the most active men of his day in the cause of social justice. Here’s what minister-novelist Charles Sheldon did when, as the brand new pastor of a Topeka, Kansas church, he was suddenly confronted with the problems of urban poverty and racism. [The following is an excerpt from the chapter on Sheldon in Patron Saints.]

Crossing Class Lines

From the first, Sheldon did well for his new church. The upper room over the butcher was often full, and soon the group was building a big stone edifice. When the new building opened, on June 23, 1889, Sheldon preached a defining sermon to what would be his lifelong flock. We can imagine their mix of pride and discomfort—“what had they gotten themselves into?”—as the young pastor announced that he would always preach “a Christ for the common people. A Christ who belongs to the rich and to the poor, the ignorant and the learned, the old and the young, the good and the bad. A Christ who knows no sect or age, whose religion does not consist alone in cushioned seats, and comfortable surroundings, or culture, or fine singing, or respectable orders of Sunday services, but a Christ who bids us all recognize the Brotherhood of the race, who bids throw open this room to all.” Little did those unsuspecting congregants know what concrete shapes their activist pastor’s dreams would assume in the years to come. The very next year, Sheldon was confronted with an issue that would loom large in his life, even as it became a flashpoint for the young social gospel movement (on which, more in a moment): the destitution of many among the working classes. This happened when a tramp came to his house, seeking work, and he had to send him away empty-handed. The incident (echoed in the catalytic appearance of the tramp in In His Steps) bothered him enough that he felt he must prepare himself to do something about the conditions of the day.

By the 1890s America had slid into desperate times. It had started in the 1870s—Sheldon’s formative teens and twenties. The booming railroads had stretched their tentacles throughout the nation; thousands of young men and women were riding the rails from their small towns to the industrializing urban areas to seek their fortunes. Christian parents concerned for the safety of their migrant children’s souls amidst the temptations and alienation of the big cities supported such agencies as the Young Men’s Christian Association, which attempted to keep young people off the streets and involve them in “wholesome” activities.

But the sins of saloon and brothel were not the cities’ only dangers. The 1870s were also the beginning of the “Gilded Age,” in which industrial capitalists bankrolled corporations that, by the end of the century, would combine into monopolies who kept an iron grip on the means of production—and tended to overlook the humanity of their growing workforce en route to making their large profits. Long hours in poor conditions, child labor and pitiful wages kept the working classes in a perpetual state of bare survival. Many of the poorest workers were immigrants and blacks—the scorned, feared, “indispensable outcasts” of industrial America. And this class began, soon enough, to lash out. In 1877 wage cuts were announced in Baltimore and Ohio, and a wildcat strike spread, causing riots and looting, suppressed by vigilantes and militia.

Living conditions of the working poor were made infinitely worse by the state of city politics. The bosses of city wards and their political machines amassed support and money by helping some to find jobs, others to explain away minor crimes and so forth. But having gained power, these corrupt governments failed to ensure even minimal standards of fresh water, sewers, transportation and other infrastructure. And so this urban corruption combined with low wages and cyclical unemployment to keep a large percentage of the working classes in near-unlivable conditions.

The middle classes were aware of what was going on but not inclined to intervene. A horrified and titillated public couldn’t keep their eyes from the photo-essays of Jacob Riis (How the Other Half Lives) and the writings of sensationalist journalists and authors. These exposed the degradation of slum housing, the squalor of the urban poor and the crime and iniquity that festered in the dark warrens of the “sinful city.” The dislocation, bewilderment and suffering that growth, mechanization, urbanization and runaway capitalism were causing so many displaced, oppressed people seemed unimaginable—and for the most part, despite their appetite for sensational reports of urban squalor, the middle classes seem to have preferred not to imagine it. Most, if they thought about economics at all, took a laissez-faire view that combined a Darwinist creed of “survival of the fittest” and a Christian providentialist belief that God would somehow ensure that the self-interest of the financiers and bosses would eventually trickle down to the good of the masses.

In the 1890s all of this worsened as economic depression returned. Thousands of men began losing their jobs, and they usually could not find other employment—much like the broken-down tramp of In His Steps. The unemployed were suffering, and more strikes were launched. Some of these turned bloody, sparking terror in the growing late-Victorian middle class. Rather than coming to the workers’ aid, however, the comfortable Christian majority continued to overlook the growing ranks of the unemployed and indigent or blamed them for their supposed laziness.

Sheldon didn’t buy this callous explanation. Instead, he placed the blame squarely on the laissez-faire capitalist system that cared little for the welfare of its workers. Sheldon preached on “the horrible blunder and stupidity,” as he called it, “of our whole industrial system that does not work according to any well-established plan of a Brotherhood of men, but is driven by forces that revolve around some pagan rule of life called supply and demand.”

But, never one to stop at explanations, the young minister decided to see for himself what the unemployed were experiencing. With his congregation’s blessing he left the pulpit, put on his oldest clothes and set out in search of work. “He tried stores and factories, coal yards and flour mills,” with no success. “He walked into every store (except for the tobacco shops and theaters, of whose business he disapproved) on Kansas Avenue, Topeka’s main business street . . . and was turned down at every door.” This the young pastor kept up for nearly five days, without being recognized. Finally, “he saw a crew shoveling snow from the Santa Fe railroad tracks, and asked the foreman if he could help them without being paid. The bemused foreman agreed.” With a borrowed shovel he went to work, and kept at it for the rest of the day. The next morning he happened on a job unloading a car of coal, which he finished by noon, earning fifty cents.

The Tennesseetown Experience

The experience moved him, and he preached eight sermons on its basis. But the effects of the poor economy and unfair labor practices stretched beyond the unemployed, so Sheldon set out on a new experience. This time he targeted social groups he felt could show him both the problems and the solutions facing Americans of all walks of life during that volatile time. In a new version of his “boarding around” practice, he ate, talked, worked and slept for one week each with people from eight different Topeka social groups: streetcar operators, college students, blacks, railroad workers, lawyers, physicians, businessmen and newspaper men.

The most radical of these experiments, and the one with the strongest impact on his ministry in Topeka, was his time in the black community at Tennesseetown, right up the street from the church. The families of Tennesseetown had come from the South as part of the “exoduster” migration—the thousands of formerly enslaved black Americans who fled the South during 1879 and 1880 and headed for Kansas, which they had heard was more tolerant than many other states. Some 40,000 of these freed slaves had passed through Topeka alone, and about 3,000 had made their homes there, comprising, by 1880, nearly one-third of Topeka’s population.

The Tennesseetowners’ houses were dilapidated, their poverty abject. When this idealistic young white minister arrived in their midst, they were no doubt wary, but they took him in. Sheldon stayed several weeks here—the first week trying to understand the roots of the town’s poverty and to help find them work; the second visiting their schools; and a third week traveling with a black man to experience how residents and business owners in the surrounding communities treated him. Sheldon concluded from this experience that the people of Tennesseetown were not suffering because of their “incompetence,” as local newspapers insisted. Rather, in a time when white repression against blacks was rising into outright disenfranchisement and segregation, racist whites who refused to employ or help blacks were effectively burying these newest citizens of Topeka in a deepening cycle of poverty. Sheldon was the first local white to point the finger back at the white establishment for the problems of these black residents.

Being who he was, Sheldon did not content himself with rhetoric. After a survey of some eight hundred residents revealed the need for basic social services, he took action on several fronts. First, he discovered an educational opportunity in the community’s young children, ripe for the recent German innovation of kindergarten. Sheldon talked the owner of a local speakeasy into leasing him his building, and in April, 1893, with the help of some (but owing to racism and apathy, not nearly all) of his congregation, he opened the first black kindergarten west of the Mississippi. Within four years, the school had attracted 287 pupils, and Central Church had built a training school for kindergarten teachers whose graduates fanned out across the country. Then Sheldon moved on to catalyze a PTA, a library, an integrated Sunday school, crafts programs for children and other initiatives. Other churches soon joined in his efforts, many of which included a significant self-help component. Tennesseetown crime rates fell; prosperity increased. One Tennesseetown resident, a man named Minus Gentry, who had been a “Sheldon kindergartener,” was interviewed in adulthood. He remembered Sheldon with these words: “Everybody loved him, everybody. I’m sure nobody ever resented him.” Nor was Sheldon content sticking with local efforts.  Seeking to address the racist roots of the community’s problems, he became an early civil rights advocate. He stood up against anti-black activities and spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan when it reared its hateful head.

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