*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 24th of February 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

One of my favorite and most vexing questions is “what was the best selling book of…”? If we could answer this question, it would tell us a lot.

But it’s probably impossible to know thoroughly. And add to that the knowledge of the purchased books that were ever actually read! Consider how many times one book is read. Was it bought and kept on a shelf, never cracked? Did a library purchase it? A large family of readers?

And before copyright law, people would print whatever they could get their hands on and get away with.

But we still ask the question because the process of answering it, to whatever extent we can, can be enlightening.

So here is my question: what was the best-selling novel in America in the 19th century? I’ve often seen Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Moby Dick, but those are highbrow answers that consider “general popularity and familiarity.”

If I were to put a bet down on this question- I would suggest that the most famous novel in 19th century America was a homiletic novel- a cheap penny press book that could be purchased and read on trains- one without copyright- something easy enough for all levels of readers- something popular with the dominant classes- something inoffensive and likely religious. My answer (shared with scholars who track this stuff): from 1896 Charles Sheldon’s “In His Steps”- this, of course:

  • the book by a Christian Socialist who updated the medieval “Imitatio Christi” (the Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis, which may be the best selling Medieval book of all time)
  • It is a modern “Pilgrims Progress,” especially in that it sacrifices literary quality for heavy-handed allegory (It is hokey in a way that the stories in AA’s Big Book are hokey- if you know those)
  • It consists of various tales of people in moral quandaries who ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” Yes- this is where those bracelets in the ’90s came from.
  • The publishing company erred in not correctly securing copyright such that anyone could- and did- publish them without paying Sheldon a penny.

It’s a confounding book. Written by a self-avowed Christian Socialist in Kansas (Kansas used to be a hub of populism and progressivism), the book influenced the Social Gospel and generations of fundamentalists. The idea is not new. The Imitation of Christ is a central theme in the New Testament. Teaching via stories and parables also seems appropriate in a Christian setting.

And Charles Sheldon didn’t pioneer this kind of Christian literature in the subjunctive mood- “What if Jesus came to Chicago” What if Jesus came to Congress,” etc. are actual popular books that predate Sheldon.

But perhaps that’s what made it so famous- it wasn’t reinventing anything, and it was doing so in what may have seemed cosmopolitan and pragmatic. The book and its reader could very well be saying, “I’m not that kind of old-fashioned and out-of-touch Christian. I am very practical”.

Critics of the book abound from the conservative who sees this as teaching a moral influence theory of atonement (that is, if we are to imitate Jesus, doesn’t this make his death meaningless?) as well as from the progressive Christian who saw the book as little more than an airing of middle-class fears and offering spiritual platitudes.

Nevertheless, it made a star of Charles Sheldon, who would continue to write folksy sermon stories for his Kansas parish and the American public until his death on this day- the 24th of February in 1946. Born in 1857, Charles Sheldon was 88 years old.

The Last Word for today comes from the first chapter of James.

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 24th of February 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who asks WWMLD? He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who asks WWWWED? Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.