Following in His Steps:
Kansas, the Kingdom of God, and
Charles M. Sheldon's Homiletic Novels

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2012, Volume 11, Issue 1


Cara L. Burnidge
Florida State University

As the 2012 presidential election eclipses national media coverage, Kansas is far from a swing state. As with the previous eleven presidential campaigns, the Sunflower State remains poised to be solidly red. In the past year, Governor Sam Brownback has signed into state law a bill allowing pharmacies to refuse to fill prescriptions for contraception based on a pro-life pharmacist’s conscience, a bill banning Shari’ah law within the state's borders, and a new income tax rate approved and promoted by Tea-Party-backed state legislators. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Kansas earned its conservative stripes on both economic and social issues. In the twenty-first century, conservative-minded reform efforts have increased exponentially with the rise of the Tea Party movement, yet, in the same year as these conservative victories, Brownback apologized for a century of segregation in his home state in recognition of the fifty-eighth anniversary of the landmark Oliver Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka Supreme Court decision.

To many, the acknowledgment of racial segregation and its essentially dehumanizing nature by a conservative leader in a conservative state is surprising. Kansas’s complicated history of racial tensions suggests otherwise. In history textbooks, Kansas is built upon two famous Browns - radical abolitionist John Brown and African-American schoolgirl Linda Brown - and their respective paradigms toward race. Each figure represents, for Kansans, the powerful civil and religious values of “freedom” and of “equality” as well as the state’s ostensible commitment to such values. The territorial period known as “Bleeding Kansas” and the segregation that necessitated Brown v. Board propelled the state into the national spotlight, making Kansas crucial to understanding what historians Rusty L. Monhollon and Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel called the “long struggle for freedom and racial equality in the United States” (117). Kansans were not merely thrust into the limelight, but placed themselves at center stage in order to shape the values of the nation. Central to these bookends and to Kansas’s peculiar racial history is the role of religion.

Kansas’s religious climate shaped, and was shaped by, the history of race relations within its borders. Between John Brown and Sam Brownback lies the little known yet quite formidable figure of Charles Monroe Sheldon. As the pastor of Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas from 1889 to 1920, Sheldon stood at the forefront of progressive reforms in the state. He is better known, however, for writing one of the most popular novels of the twentieth century: In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? Through his reform initiatives and bestselling homiletic novels, Sheldon ensured that the state defined itself according to its ability to be what literary giant and fellow Kansan William Allen White explained as the nation’s “spiritual tuning fork” (6). When journalists like Thomas Frank ask “What’s the matter with Kansas?”, the answer lies within an examination of the state’s religious life. In many ways, the actions of Sam Brownback and other things that are the “matter” with Kansas are best understood by examining Sheldon and his unique impact in Topeka specifically and the state more generally. An important exception to Robert Wuthnow’s rule that “religion and politics in Kansas had less to do with contentious moral activism than it did with local communities and relationships among neighbors, friends, and fellow churchgoers,” Sheldon pointed to the way in which communities in Kansas were divided by race and offered a way to bridge those divides through religious activism (8). Just as Kansans in 2012 make moral arguments based in Christianity to sway the political tides of the nation, Kansans in 1912 found the motivation for sweeping progressive-minded reform from their religious life. In this way, the twenty-first century red state has more in common with progressive politics than many would admit, yet the purpose of those reforms has changed dramatically even while maintaining their foundations in Christianity and the Republican Party.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Kansas experienced the turmoil of a young state coming of age amid modern political and social dilemmas. Hosting both cow towns and burgeoning industrial cities, Kansas confronted the major political and social reform movements of the Progressive Era as it also endured the growing pains brought on by industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. To this environment, Sheldon, a recently ordained New England educated Calvinist minister, moved in 1889. Sheldon was called to serve the newly opened Central Congregational Church, named for its location between Topeka’s twin urban foci: downtown and Washburn College.

In the “unusually severe” winter following his arrival, Sheldon felt “a monstrous burden” for the plight of laborers (His Life Story 23). From this intense feeling, Sheldon determined the “whole industrial system” to be a “horrible blunder” and resolved to do something “to ease [his] own mental unrest” (23). As an educated, white, middle-class minister somewhat isolated in the Midwest, Sheldon weighed his own place in a stratified society. Sheldon’s distress over the conditions of the working class and his conviction to improve their station typified the experiences of many Protestant reformers of his time. Progressive Era Protestants as well as anxiety over rampant free-market capitalism converged with a poignant exposure to poverty, resulting in an increasingly urgent drive to find new ways to apply the gospel message to modern life. From New England to Kansas and even further West, Protestant ministers’ personal experiences with poverty encouraged a sense that they needed to preach a more socially aware Christianity that could be “applied” to the most pressing issues in modern life. Sheldon stood at the forefront of what would commonly be referred to as “applied” or “social” Christianity and, by World War I, the “Social Gospel.”
Sheldon’s appointment to Central Congregational Church and his subsequent turn toward social justice proved unique not least of all because it followed the Exoduster migration and, therefore, was shaped by both economic and racial injustices. Ten years before Sheldon’s arrival, Benjamin “Old Pap” Singleton first proclaimed “Ho For Kansas!” to freed men and women throughout the South. After scouting northeast and southeast Kansas, Singleton decided that the state was suitable for a mass migration. Fueled by rumors of a free train ride, free land, or both, many Southern blacks rode the Santa Fe Railroad to Kansas between 1879 and 1900. Others were not so fortunate to travel by train. Thousands travelled between nine to twelve days on foot carrying what they could. Driven out of the South by Jim Crow and pulled toward Kansas as a “Canaan Land,” over 15,000 Exodusters migrated to the state throughout the 1880s. Many rejoiced upon crossing into what had been heralded as a Promised Land. John Solomon Lewis recalled, “When I landed on the soil [of Kansas] I looked on the ground and I says this is free ground. Then I looked on the heavens and I says them is free and beautiful heavens” (qtd. in Painter 4). Indeed, Kansas seemed to be a place where antebellum sins could be redeemed. Consequently, 1880 to 1900 was a time of rapid, diverse population growth; it was also a time when communities across Kansas began to segregate based on race (Leiker 233).

In many ways Topeka, Kansas may seem like an unlikely Promised Land to contemporary readers, but in the late nineteenth century it was both an ideological and practical Canaan. Topeka served as a hub for the Santa Fe Railroad in the nation’s heartland, by the 1890s connecting Topeka to San Francisco and, therefore, the East to the West. As a result of this increased access to transportation, Topeka became a logical stop for freed men and women moving from the South to the North. Moreover, Kansas’s antebellum reputation was far from a distant memory. Since Kansans’ statehood was the result of residents choosing “free” rather than “slave” at the ballot box, many freed men and women expected the Sunflower State to be a safe haven from the oppression experienced in former slave states. Likewise, Kansas abolitionists and their children sought to continue their self-made legacy of “freedom” by aiding freed men and women.

As black migrants arrived, many settled in a particular area of the capitol city near downtown. This area came to be known as Tennesseetown for its allegedly large number of migrants from Tennessee. Census records indicate that Topeka’s black population jumped from 724 persons before the exodus to over 4,000 by 1900 (Cox 154). Tennesseetown became the location for some of the most destitute settlers. In his comprehensive examination of the period, Thomas Cox explained, “living conditions in Tennesseetown were substandard by any criteria applied to both the black and white community as a whole” (281). Cox states that Tennesseetown in particular did not even experience progress at the same rate as other blacks in the third ward did. According to an 1880 census of Tennesseetown, the average family consisted of four persons living in each house. Most men worked as laborers earning an average of $1.43 per day (291). Approximately half of Tennesseetown’s adult females worked as domestic laborers earning $1.00 per day (291). Despite these conditions, most Kansans were intent on maintaining their antebellum reputation as a beacon of hope for freed men and women.
One block south of Tennesseetown stood Central Congregational Church. With a firm conviction that “the local church has a definite duty to study its own environment,” Sheldon immersed himself in the Tennesseetown community during the winter of 1890 (“The Responsibility of the Church” 2). In addition to living and working alongside Tennesseetown residents for four weeks, Sheldon tested Topeka’s racial boundaries by inviting a black man with him to various establishments across the city in order to observe the proprietors’ reaction (Miller 26). Much to his surprise, the Young Men’s Christian Association was the first to refuse service to Sheldon’s black companion, causing the unsettling realization that Christians may be the primary offenders in social stratification. This brief ethnographic study only gave Sheldon “a firmer belief in the power of an applied Christianity to reach men everywhere” (26). These sociological experiments in Tennesseetown were so profound that Sheldon spent much of his career serving there, leading historian Paul Gutjahr to conclude that Sheldon "was an early crusader for race relations and class equality” (1153). Indeed, Sheldon was one of the few white Protestant ministers of his time that included racial discrimination as a “social problem” that - along with intemperance, corporate greed, and rising unemployment resulting from lassiez-faire industrialization - demanded immediate attention from socially aware Christians. Influenced by the burst of freedmen and women in Topeka, Sheldon became convinced that Kansas was the place that could - and must - achieve social Christianity’s ultimate goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.

It was clear in Sheldon’s mind that social conditions - and not individual sin - were the cause of poverty. In this way, Sheldon was but one part of a movement that gained credence in the early twentieth century as Frances Willard, Jane Addams, the Salvation Army, and others agitated for and aided efforts to improve living conditions in urban areas. While Sheldon was troubled by the conditions laborers faced generally, he was especially attuned to the multiple forms of injustices African Americans faced. Racial discrimination provided the impetus and urgency for Sheldon’s social Christianity. As the nation discussed various aspects of “the Negro Problem,” Sheldon formulated his answer by inverting the focus of the question: “I do not have much hopes of Christianizing the Negroes until we have Christianized the Anglo-Saxons. It is a present question with me now sometimes which race needs it the most” (Sheldon, “A Local Negro Problem” 828). Racial injustice caused Sheldon to critique not only Anglo-Americans but also contemporary Christianity more generally. Despite Kansans’ consistent commitment to aiding freedmen, Sheldon was well aware of continuous forms of discrimination in the Sunflower State and throughout the nation. He was particularly aware of the unfortunate position young African-American men were in: “The young Negro man does not have a fair chance since he is not allowed to learn a trade. Few schools are open to him as a teacher. Caste prejudice lies at the bottom of the difficulty” ("Gleanings"). According to Sheldon, conditions outside of Tennesseetown residents’ control prevented racial and social uplift. As far as Sheldon was concerned, “a true Christian cannot draw a color line” (“Gleanings” 523). Socially aware Christians, therefore, had a religious duty to look beyond racial distinctions and upset any status quo that discriminates and oppresses others.
Concerned with the state of Christianity in public life, Sheldon emboldened his congregants to “turn the world upside down” (“First Sermon” 10). He wanted Christians to revolutionize their community by investing themselves for the sake of others. Convinced that churches had an obligation to improve society, Sheldon proclaimed: “For myself I do not hesitate to assert my own conviction that not only has the church a definite and positive responsibility for social and civic reform, but that it has no greater responsibility just at this time in history” ("The Responsibility of the Church” 1). At the foundation of Sheldon’s conception of a “brotherhood of man” was a focus on racial equality. In “What did Jesus Really Teach?” Sheldon asserted that race “is one of the sins that has led to about as much trouble and confusion as any other known to men” (17). Further, he charged that if people based their actions on the example of Jesus, the world would see “a new chapter of human progress” (17). Only by giving oneself to others, Sheldon believed, may the world experience a true “brotherhood of man,” regardless of race or class. Sheldon was not the only social-Christian reformer turning to Jesus as the primary example for creating a “brotherhood of man”; yet his attention to racial equality was unique for a white, social Christian leader. Overcoming racial and class distinctions were Sheldon’s measure for advancing social Christianity and actualizing the Kingdom of God on earth.

Rather than wait on humanity to write a new chapter of progress, Sheldon put his pen to paper. In order to address the “brotherhood of man,” he turned to what had become a familiar form of exhortation at Central Congregational Church, the sermon-novel. Sheldon’s sermon-novels belong within what historian Gregory Jackson termed a broad spectrum of “homiletic works.” In his recent book, The Word and Its Witness, Jackson defined this type of literature as “parabiblical materials” that “train the faithful in particular interpretive and reading practices” and “orient diverse groups across a vast landscape, not with the precision of a sextant’s bearing but more broadly in a cardinal direction” (4). As this literary tradition developed, Jackson argued, it created its own form of realism influenced by but distinct from secular realism. According to Jackson, “homiletic realism posited a radical, modern imitatio Christi as a transformative structure of identification with the oppressed” (8). Through the act of reading, homiletic realism “sought to weaken the link between the agent’s capacity to represent social oppression and his or her moral complicity in it” (8). This was precisely why Sheldon preferred this method. In Sheldon’s mind, fiction and the consumption of it had a higher calling. The purpose of fiction was not to escape reality or exaggerate it. The “highest use” of fiction, according to Sheldon, was “for the purpose of rousing public sentiment against injustice, social wrongs, inequalities, [and] inconsistencies” (“Use and Abuse of Fiction” 965). Like Jesus’s use of parables and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sheldon believed, fiction was a method of moving humanity closer to the Kingdom of God ideal.

Over the course of his career, Sheldon wrote over thirty homiletic novels. His most well known, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do, sold over twenty million copies in his lifetime and remains in print today. For Jackson, Sheldon’s serialized sermon-novel “exemplifies” the homiletic style (Jackson 158). While literary critics found - and continue to find - it lacking in style and value, In His Steps has proved to be one of the most significant novels of the Progressive Era. Challenging the assumptions of literary criticism and its conventions, Jackson asserts, “for religiously oriented readers of all classes, the moral authority of the homiletic novel derived not from the text’s conventional literary aesthetic but from its function as a moral script for social and spiritual performance” (162). For Sheldon, sermon-stories were an experimental yet successful shift in modern church life. Through print, Sheldon brought biblical lessons to life. For instance, his most famous novel is based on twelve characters vowing to ask themselves each day for one year “what would Jesus do?” and act accordingly. Besides learning social Christian values of sacrifice, service, and social regeneration, readers develop a community through which they can share their own thoughts and experiences with the title’s question. Even though stories like In His Steps were fictional, readers experienced the moral quandary of applying Christianity to every day situations. In this way, Jackson explained, Sheldon could “soften the lines between representation and reality, between simulated and lived experience, and between the deceptively ‘real’ world and the seemingly intangible spiritual realm” (Jackson 171). Sheldon’s blurring of real and imagined experiences inculcated his readers around the world with proper ethics as well as reorienting their moral compass toward his conception of a “brotherhood of man.”

While In His Steps appealed broadly, it is often criticized for lacking a clear blueprint for readers to follow. Read alone and out of context, In His Steps can make it seem as if Sheldon failed to provide a clear standardized message to readers; read as a part of his homiletic works and within the context of social Christianity, it is evident that Sheldon left room for individual interpretation of scripture and present moral quandaries. Sheldon’s lesser-known novels, however, provided more direction for individuals. Mediated through Sheldon’s interpretation of biblical precepts, readers could learn to act as Jesus did. In particular, Sheldon’s The Redemption of Freetown caused readers to confront the racial and class boundaries in front of them first on the printed page and then in their local community.

During the spring of 1898, six years after first implementing this method, Sheldon began reading The Redemption of Freetown to his church. Intended to convince his young congregants to cross class and racial boundaries in their community, The Redemption of Freetown implored white affluent Christians to take responsibility for those less fortunate and to improve the community. As Sheldon explained in the introduction to the first edition, “what seems to be miraculous or impossible in the redemption of humanity seems so because too often the Christian disciple does not give himself for the solution of the human problem” (5). He exhorted his readers to sacrifice their time and social reputation to help the downtrodden in much the same way he expected Jesus would. Sheldon’s social gospel message of a “brotherhood of man” and the Kingdom of God in America found a ready audience among Topeka’s liberal and evangelical Protestants who prided their city and state for uniquely representing “freedom” and “equality.”

Set in the fictional railroad town of Merton, Redemption begins with a jury convicting a young black man, Burke Williams of Freetown, of murder. Before Judge Vernon sentences Williams, the defendant challenges the fairness of his trial at the hands of an all white jury. That evening, as Judge Vernon contemplates the alarming crime rate in Williams’s slum neighborhood, Williams escapes from prison and Claude Vernon, the judge’s son, is killed in the infamous slum neighborhood. Disturbed by these events, Judge Vernon and other members of Emanuel Church consider what they can do to correct the problems in Freetown. After brainstorming and gauging levels of commitment, they decide to establish a settlement house, form a kindergarten, beautify the area, and, for the deeply committed, move into Freetown. Even though there are a few reluctant congregants, the members of Emanuel eventually devote themselves fully to the cause. The final chapter explains the results fifteen years after such projects were implemented. Each project proves successful as Freetown is considered “redeemed,” though not completely sinless.

In the introduction, Sheldon imbued Redemption of Freetown with textual authority by describing it as a kind of “history” because the events were “partly true” (5). In many ways, the story of Redemption and the story of Exodusters parallel each other as Sheldon used his own work as the basis for Redemption. Sheldon based this novel off of his own experiences of social gospel reform with his local congregation. Unequivocally, the plan that fictional Reverend Douglass developed mirrors Sheldon’s work in Tennesseetown as well as many popular reform measures of the Progressive Era. For instance, Sheldon formed a Village Improvement Association in charge of beautifying Tennesseetown through the cultivation of a community “garden culture.” The “highest use” of fiction, according to Sheldon, was “for the purpose of rousing public sentiment against injustice, social wrongs, inequalities, [and] inconsistencies” (“Use and Abuse of Fiction” 965). Committed to accessible education and racial amelioration, Sheldon also coordinated health services and established a library for Tennesseetown youth.

According to Sheldon, the most active congregants were those for whom the story was written - Washburn College students (Sheldon, The History of “In His Steps” 6). As the keynote speaker at Washburn College’s graduation ceremony in 1899, Sheldon reminded the young Congregationalists of the importance of finding their calling in order to “do something worth while in God’s world” (26). Sheldon considered the success of social Christianity to rest on the shoulders of young people. Convincing college-aged men and women of their active role in reforming society meant, ultimately for Sheldon, the establishment of an ideal state, the Kingdom of God on earth. After being influenced by Sheldon for almost ten years, the students at Washburn College needed little encouragement. These students, active in the local Christian Endeavor Society chapter actualized the methods of Redemption. Like the characters in the novel, members of Topeka’s Christian Endeavor Society formed a literature club for both white and black young adults (Cox 286). With fiction as his medium, Sheldon’s social gospel message uniquely coincided with its practice. Local readers questioned class and racial norms present in the novel and in their own community. Redemption challenged black and white boundaries through the practice of reading and responding. Sheldon’s congregants not only discussed the details of the novel, but they also discussed how they could perform the fictionalized activities in their community. Through their own print culture, Washburn College students conceptually and physically crossed their local racial boundaries.

By Redemption ending fifteen years later, Sheldon illustrated to readers how these goals take time to realize. In the end of the novel, Mr. Brooks, a visitor to Merton and Freetown, wondered out loud, “Why cannot the same thing be done in every city where the need is as great?” A man responds by saying, “If the world will give itself to redeem itself” (62). Referencing Matthew 1:23, Sheldon asserted to his readers that the only obstacle between the present less-than-desirable state and an idyllic one is people who are not devout enough to sacrifice for others. Passages like this one caused historian Gregory Jackson to explain that Sheldon “denied readers a passive role, presenting instead real-life scenarios that demanded narrative participation, insisted on moral volition, and asked readers to apply discursive enactments to their own lives through imaginative exercises for structuring everyday reality” (What Would Jesus Do? 643). In this way, Sheldon not only entertained his congregants but also mediated their experience of his religious message. Indeed, the health of their Christian life depended upon following through on their duty to read proper novels and to sacrifice for those less fortunate.

Although unique for his time, Sheldon’s homiletic novel allowed readers to confront race relations from the comfort of an unadulterated, imagined place. Consequently, Sheldon’s readers faced the realities of class and racial hierarchies from the security of their home, church, or social club. Under Sheldon’s direction, readers considered an inverted racial hierarchy.  Over the course of the novel, the fictional characters and, perhaps, the readers realize that they misjudged the African-American residents of Freetown and, Sheldon hoped, their own community. The characters initially presumed the crime and poverty of Freetown was the result of individual sins while they overlooked the social problems caused by their white middle class peers, like drinking, gambling, and race discrimination. By following the plan outlined by the fictional Reverend Douglass, the fictional reformers successfully transformed their community by overcoming class and racial divisions, reforming middle-class social problems as, Sheldon believed, Jesus would. The act of reading stimulated Sheldon’s congregants so that they searched for religious meaning in fiction and their everyday experiences as if it were scripture. In practice, then, reading Redemption demonstrated what Jackson considered “the heart of the Social Gospel pragmatism,” by answering the question of  “how to live an engaged life of faith in a modern age” (647). Reading was a crucial step for kindling social Christian action because, for Sheldon, his congregants, and his readers, a socially aware Gospel message existed beyond the printed page.

If his novels could not rouse his congregants' social consciousness, then Sheldon sought to lead by example. Most notably, he created a kindergarten that served Tennesseetown residents. Sheldon’s kindergarten opened in 1893 and by 1895 it had over 200 students. By 1906, Sheldon’s kindergarten received national attention in the Secretary of the Interior’s annual report on education. Even though the state did not have public kindergartens, Kansas’s section of the report mentioned Sheldon’s school and the “plainly visible” and “refining results” for its black students (908). At the forefront of education reform in Topeka, Sheldon’s kindergarten continued to serve Tennesseetown until the city incorporated public kindergartens in 1910. The impact of Sheldon’s work with Tennesseetown youth, however, did not end with his school. Sheldon continued to aid his former kindergarteners when, for instance, he helped one of his favorite students, Elisha Scott, enroll in Washburn University’s Law School. After graduating in 1916, Scott opened his own law firm with his two sons, Charles Sheldon and John, after their respective graduations from their father’s alma mater. Together, the Scott family engaged in civil rights litigation, including most famously Brown v. Board. Sheldon’s social Christian applications did not belong exclusively to his printed words. Through his fictional and personal narratives, he placed his local community, his congregation, and his state at the doorstep of the emergent Civil Rights Movement.

Sheldon situated himself at the center of several reform efforts. His fiction convicted Kansans and Christians around the nation of their culpability in current race relations and their potential for correcting the status quo. Sheldon, however, was not the only Topeka minister who incited local change with national implications. Sheldon’s attitude and efforts regarding race, however, stand in stark contrast to Pentecostal leader and fellow Topekan Charles Parham who gained national attention when his student, Agnes Ozman, spoke in tongues during a revival at Bethel Bible School on New Year’s Day in 1901. More notably, however, Parham refused to admit another student, William Seymour, to his school on the basis of his race. Seymour went on to Los Angeles to lead his own revivals in 1906. Seymour’s Azuza Street Revival remains the more well-known beginning of Pentecostalism in America not least of all for its racially integrated worship.

Although they lived in the same city, Sheldon and Parham could have been worlds apart. While Sheldon pursued a racially equal “brotherhood of man,” Parham vehemently upheld racial segregation. Sheldon’s insistence on a racially equal “brotherhood of man” appears more comparable to that of more marginalized social Christians, like Nannie Burroughs and Reverdy Ransom, than white ministers of his own time like Josiah Strong or Walter Rauschenbusch. Ironically, Parham belongs at the forefront of what became a racially diverse religious movement, yet Sheldon remains an outlier hidden within a movement led by white, male,  Protestant ministers largely directed toward white, middle-class congregants. The presence of Parham and Sheldon within the same city, however, provides ample evidence for unique conditions in Progressive Era Kansas. Despite their contradictory approaches, both Parham and Sheldon represent Christian hopes of reforming the world toward what each believed to be God’s will. With both of these ministers calling the state home, Kansas exhibited a peculiar religious and racial climate unlike that in the North or the South. Moreover, Kansas’s cultural landscape allowed religion to infuse the public sphere in ways not allowed in other places.

In Kansas specifically and Protestant reading culture around the world more generally, Sheldon’s fiction found a ready audience who possessed the means and the desire to make the world a better place. Historian William Graham insisted that Sheldon only influenced “simple people and those who elected a simple approach to complex problems” (72). Perhaps these “simple” readers saw something more between the lines of Sheldon’s novels. Homiletic novels depended upon the appropriate response from readers. Reading was not a leisurely, passive activity but rather an experience in which the reader moved across and in between social boundaries that he or she had previously neglected or even upheld. The imagined experience of interceding on behalf of others facilitated racial and social reform by providing readers with the opportunity to test their own performances. In Redemption, for instance, Sheldon pushed readers to confront their assumptions about the moral fiber of their white and black neighbors. Color boundaries divided cities and regions, but homiletic novels like Sheldon’s allowed readers to cross those boundaries and explore the realities of race relations in America, even if temporarily and from the safety of their armchair. Readers did not escape to idyllic locations but rather entered into imagined slums in order to learn that they are more fascinating than frightening, less perilous and more promising than they previously believed. When he succeeded in changing his readers' preconceived notions of race and class divisions, Sheldon did his part in attempting to overturn the social order.

Expecting the Kingdom of God to be realized on Earth, Sheldon considered the Midwest, and specifically Kansas, the most likely place for its actualization: “I prefer to live in Kansas on account of the future that is in the Middle West...I have almost come to conclusion that in the Middle West the future empire of ideas and of human satisfaction will be built. I don't like that word ‘empire.’ Let me say ‘republic,’ or even at the risk of being misunderstood ‘Kingdom of God’” (“Why I Prefer to Live in Kansas” 6-8). Sheldon’s congregants, Midwestern social gospelers, and his worldwide readers would not have misunderstood him. Topeka’s location and Sheldon’s success while living there provided a source of pride for his Midwest readers. As a mid-sized city in the heartland caught between frontier life and urbanization, many considered Topeka primed to be a capital in the Kingdom of God because the general mood in Kansas at the dawn of the twentieth century was one of political, social, and religious progress.

The progressive roots of Kansas’s social justice legislation may appear ironic to a twenty-first century audience. Sheldon and his followers considered it their Christian duty to expand the state government’s responsibilities to including caring for the general welfare of its citizens, especially African Americans. One hundred years later, Governor Brownback seeks to scale back the progress made by Sheldon and his ilk because of his own - and differing - Christian sense of duty. It is unlikely that these two Kansas figures would have agreed on much of anything - especially Christianity and the core values of the Republican party. Sheldon and Brownback are unlikely compatriots, yet what connects them is their shared desire to make Kansas a moral beacon, the fulfillment of God’s will on earth. Brownback is following in Sheldon’s steps to showcase Kansas as an example for the rest of the nation to emulate. What persists in the century between 1912 and 2012 is a moral duty to be a Christian example, what has changed is the direction of the moral compass. Whereas Brownback attempts to steer the nation toward a socially and economically conservative and severely limited state, Sheldon sought to end laissez-faire capitalism and expand government programs to aid those who suffered from industrial and corporate greed. Surprisingly enough, both voted Republican. Despite their differences the “matter” with Kansas is not that it is a red state, but rather the persistent impulse, on moral grounds and through state law, to be an example of God’s will for the nation.


Works Cited

Cox, Thomas. Blacks in Topeka, Kansas, 1865-1915: A Social History. Diss. Princeton University, 1908.

Frank, Thomas. What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.

Graham, William C. Half Finished Heaven: The Social Gospel in American Literature. Lanham, MA: UP of America, 1995.

Jackson, Gregory S. The Word and Its Witness: The Spiritualization of American Realism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2009.

Leiker, James. “Race Relations in the Sunflower State.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 25 (2002): 214-236.

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

Monhollon, Rusty L., and Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel. “From Brown to Brown: A Century of Struggle for Equality in Kansas.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 27 (2004): 117–133.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Sheldon, Charles M. “First Sermon Preached in the Chapel of the Central Congregational Church, Topeka, Kansas, June 23, 1889.” Sermons and Miscellaneous Pamphlets. Charles Monroe Sheldon/Central Congregational Church Collection 222. Kansas Historical Society. Topeka, Kansas.

---. “Gleanings at Home and Abroad.” The Church at Home and Abroad 19 (1896): 523.

---. His Life Story. New York: George H. Doran, 1925.

---. "The History of 'In His Steps.'" 1938. Charles Monroe Sheldon/Central Congregational Church Collection 222. Kansas Historical Society. Topeka, Kansas.

---. In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do. Chicago: Advance Publishing Company, 1897.

---. "A Local Negro Problem." The Kingdom, Vol. III, No. 52 (1896): 28.

---. “The Responsibility of the Church for Social and Civic Reform.” The Church Calendar. 1896. Charles Monroe Sheldon/Central Congregational Church Collection 222. Kansas Historical Society. Topeka, Kansas.

---. "The Use and Abuse of Fiction." The Independent, Vol. 54. Independent Publications Inc., 1902. 965-970.

---. “Why I Prefer to Live in Kansas.” 1931. Charles Monroe Sheldon/Central Congregational Church Collection 222. Kansas Historical Society. Topeka, Kansas.

White, William Allen. “The Dream State.” New York Times 3 February 1921: 6.

Wuthnow, Robert. Red State Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2012.

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