At about the time that W.D. Howells was entertaining his visitor and that Charlotte Perkins Gilman explored an alternative here in What Diantha Did and a lost civilization in Herland, Congregationalist preacher Charles Monroe Sheldon’s 1896 novel In His Steps explored an alternative reality in which various people in a town (and eventually in other places across the United States) accept a minister’s challenge to go a year only reacting to matters in the way that they believe Jesus would react.
Not surprisingly, the various characters, the minister, a newspaper editor, a singer, and so forth, experience a fair amount of push-back when they begin to accept this Christ-following challenge. The editor, begins to refuse advertising that he feels Jesus would exclude from the publication. From his would-be advertisers, his readers, and his writers, he hears the criticism.
Some of them say I will have a weak, namby-pamby Sunday-school sheet. If I get out something as good as a Sunday-school it will be pretty good. Why do men, when they want to characterize something as particularly feeble, always use a Sunday-school as a comparison, when they ought to know that the Sunday-school is one of the strongest, most powerful influences in our civilization in this country today? But the paper will not necessarily be weak because it is good. Good things are more powerful than bad.
The premise of this novel, like that of Diantha is not altogether unbelievable. Despite Sheldon’s remarkable success–he sold some 30 million copies of the book over the years–I would have to argue that In His Steps is a literary failure. Like Diantha, those who take up the challenge in this alternative world suffer no significant set-backs. Even the brief problems that arise either prove to be minimal or are brushed away by some fortunate plot invention. In the town of Raymond, no one loses a job, a spouse, a fortune, or a life by trying to remain true to the challenge of “What would Jesus do?”
Although not his finest work, Howells’ 1886 The Minister’s Charge takes up some of the same ideas as Sheldon’s novel but allows them to unfold in a much more believable manner. In both cases, a rather self-satisfied minister pushes aside an outsider who needs help. In both cases the troubles of this outsiders–the death of the homeless man in In His Steps and the incarceration and robbery of the country boy/poet in The Minister’s Charge–provoke the cleric to action. But the Howells treatment is so much less like a gospel tract, exploring the situation with something approaching a believable level of complexity, that it proves a far more satisfying read.
At the risk of commenting on Sheldon’s work only by reference to other novels, I cannot help thinking that the author intended to create a Social Gospel version of Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which, published some eight years earlier touched off a remarkable social-political movement, much like the one described in In His Steps with chapters of like-minded people springing up all over the country. Those closing years of the nineteenth century seem to have been as ripe for utopian fictions as the nation, particularly the Northeast had been for utopian realities a half century earlier.
Reading most of these works, stories of a land in which women live without men and master all aspects of society (as Gilman suggests), of a long-lost land living out primitive Christianity (as imagined by Howells), of a socialist-utopia future in which all problems have melted when people just saw things Bellamy’s way, or of a beatific city in which everything changes because people as “What would Jesus do?” and answer just as Sheldon would have them, one is struck by the simplistic and contrived vision of these otherwise capable authors.