In His Steps, The Grand Inquisitor, and the Problem of Earthly Bread

by Maggie Clark

Circumstances permitting, I prefer to describe myself as a secular humanist. I like the modifier, “secular”, because it allows me to acknowledge the presence of humanism in other paradigms, too–Jewish humanism, Buddhist humanism, Christian humanism, and so on. The values that I think best bridge the theist/atheist divide in this regard are an ethics of consequentialism and a focus on improved human welfare in this lifetime–a marked difference from theistic doctrines that prescribe nothing but an anticipation for and even desire to hasten society’s approach to doctrinal apocalypse.

To that end, Charles M. Sheldon’s 1897 homiletic novel, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, makes a fairly compelling case for Christian humanism–giving me room to concur with parts of his thesis even as I vehemently disagree with others.

The work follows a minister named Henry Maxwell, who with his congregation is remonstrated one Sunday by a well-spoken tramp for following Jesus Christ in principle but not in action, to the detriment of those less fortunate. Stunned both by the words and the plight of this doomed man, Maxwell calls on his parishioners to take a year-long pledge to live “in His steps”, by asking “What would Jesus do?” before taking any future action in their varied lives. The book follows members of the community who take this pledge–first within the fictional city of Raymond, and later in Chicago, as the “Raymond pledge” progressively becomes a call for complete revolution in American Christendom.

As with Eldredge’s Epic, I was impressed by how honest Sheldon was in some of his framing of the work; the immediate question I had about the novel’s primary conceit was, “what sense of Jesus are these characters going to rely upon?”, and Sheldon addresses this question bluntly in chapter three:

“I am a little in doubt as to the source of our knowledge concerning what Jesus would do. Who is to decide for me just what He would do in my case? It is a different age. There are many perplexing questions in our civilization that are not mentioned in the teachings of Jesus. How am I going to tell what He would do?”

“There is no way that I know of,” replied the pastor, “except as we study Jesus through the medium of the Holy Spirit. You remember what Christ said speaking to His disciples about the Holy Spirit: “Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak from himself; but what things soever he shall hear, these shall he speak: and he shall declare unto you the things that are to come. He shall glorify me; for he shall take of mine, and shall declare it unto you. All things whatsoever the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he taketh of mine, and shall declare it unto you.’ There is no other test that I know of. We shall all have to decide what Jesus would do after going to that source of knowledge.”

“What if others say of us, when we do certain things, that Jesus would not do so?” asked the superintendent of railroads.

“We cannot prevent that. But we must be absolutely honest with ourselves. The standard of Christian action cannot vary in most of our acts.”

“And yet what one church member thinks Jesus would do, another refuses to accept as His probable course of action. What is to render our conduct uniformly Christ-like? Will it be possible to reach the same conclusions always in all cases?” asked President Marsh.

Mr. Maxwell was silent some time. Then he answered, “No; I don’t know that we can expect that. But when it comes to a genuine, honest, enlightened following of Jesus’ steps, I cannot believe there will be any confusion either in our own minds or in the judgment of others. We must be free from fanaticism on one hand and too much caution on the other. If Jesus’ example is the example for the world to follow, it certainly must be feasible to follow it.

(Notably, the first question in this exchange comes from Rachel Winslow, a woman with an extraordinary vocal talent she applies not to fame and fortune in the big city, but to winning hearts and minds and elevating the lot of young women in a vulnerable city district called “the Rectangle”. This relates well to Sheldon’s endorsement of gender equality where the responsibilities of citizenship are concerned, but the problematic nuance of his position, as it is manifested in In His Steps, proves sadly tangential to this thesis.)

This speech brought to mind a study published well over a century after Sheldon’s text, titled “Believers’ estimates of God’s beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people’s beliefs“, which observes that a believer does not tend to treat the perceived beliefs of their deity like the beliefs of a distinct person; rather, each believer’s deity tends to share the believer’s own beliefs on social and ethical issues. The alignment is so strong that when a believer’s views on an issue change–say, in the course of a conversation with researchers–that believer’s sense of what his deity thinks about that same subject changes, too. Simply put, god beliefs on social and ethical issues consistently mirror existent beliefs in the minds of individual believers.

Reading In His Steps, which repeatedly stresses that each individual can only interpret “What would Jesus do?” for his or her own set of circumstances, I get the feeling that, even without this research at his disposal, Sheldon understood that there is no greater, absolute social policy prescribed by the Christian faith. He does, however, have a clear and absolute sense of the social outcome that should emerge from individually-motivated action: namely, the creation of a Christian kingdom on earth.

This has powerful consequences for the text–not the least being the fact that a kind of consequentialism reigns in the narrative, as evidenced by Maxwell’s reliance on outcomes to describe to new congregations the use of the Raymond pledge (p. 110). On this ethical accord, I can most certainly agree with the approach of Sheldon’s text–but at the same time, Sheldon’s specific causality–that is, his description of which consequences are good and which are not–often lacks clear justification.

This is obviously seen in the character of the nemesis in this novel–the saloons and the saloon men–who are never humanized, but instead subject to the caricaturization requisite for their evil to be plainly understood by readers without deeper evaluation. (One way of reading this work, forwarded by our professor in today’s class, would be to observe that the text identifies poverty and suffering as institutional problems, but calls for change through personal morality enacted ambiguously upon existent social power structures.) Thus Sheldon writes:

Would the Christian forces act as a unit against the saloon? Or would they be divided on account of their business interests or because they were not in the habit of acting all together as the whiskey power always did? That remained to be seen. Meanwhile the saloon reared itself about the Rectangle like some deadly viper hissing and coiling, ready to strike its poison into any unguarded part. (p. 52)

But where things become especially fascinating is in approaches to following “in His steps” that are clearly acknowledged in the text as Biblically sound, and then just as clearly disregarded by practitioners of the pledge. Three examples leap out, for instance, around the question of material wealth:

1) “And whosoever forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” (p. 27)

2) Live in a simple, plain manner, without needless luxury on the one hand or undue asceticism on the other. (p. 36)

3) One that seemed to arouse more interest than any other was in regard to the extent of the Christian disciple’s sacrifice of personal property. Maxwell tells me that so far no one has interpreted the spirit of Jesus in such a way as to abandon his earthly possessions, give away of his wealth, or in any literal way imitate the Christians of the order, for example, of St. Francis of Assisi. It was the unanimous consent, however, that if any disciple should feel that Jesus in his own particular case would do that, there could be only one answer to the question. Maxwell admitted that he was still to a certain degree uncertain as to Jesus’ probable action when it came to the details of household living, the possession of wealth, the holding of certain luxuries. It is, however, very evident that many of these disciples have repeatedly carried their obedience to Jesus to the extreme limit, regardless of financial loss. (p. 78)

The first of these examples is a direct quote from the Bible (Luke 14:33), which Chicago’s Reverend Bruce acknowledges in the third example, but which Pastor Maxwell tidily smooths over in the second by claiming (without clear basis) that no “undue asceticism” is called for in the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is a very convenient compromise, and from it, a portrait of Sheldon’s personal sense of the teachings of Christ begins to emerge. It handily explains, for instance, the bizarre first account of discipleship in this novel: that of Edward Norman’s fresh management of the Daily News, which involves him converting that existent paper from its focus on detailed crime reports and accounts of prize fights (as endorsed by all manner of advertisers), to a paper devoutly Christian in tone and content, with strict advertising rules and no Sunday edition.

Indeed, much is made throughout In His Steps about the vital importance of this Christian paper’s existence, though the paper’s continued functionality (amid declining subscription rates and advertising revenue) ultimately relies upon the convenient charity of converted millionaire Virginia Page, which is itself excused under the simple term “consecrated money”. This is a curious narrative choice because it essentially lets Norman take the easy way out; instead of quitting his job as the head of this corrupt paper and building a readership from scratch with a much more modest and Christian work ethic, he’s celebrated for utilizing a mass audience and industry connections brought about by un-Christian labour–and so imposing his own choices as a Christian upon everyone else at the Daily News, as well as its current readership.

The text is similarly curious in its approach to President Marsh (an academic) and Henry Maxwell (pastor), who are described in the abstract as having to bear terrible crosses by pulling themselves from the comfort of scholasticism into municipal government to combat the evils of saloon culture… while the actual form of that terrible suffering in public office is never really described. Norman, Marsh, and Maxwell are thus positioned as having adopted positions to be looked upon as hardships by others when, truly, the control of public power that these positions allow for (and with it, direct authority over how other men and women choose to live) seems far from breaking status quo.

Of course, truly breaking status quo is not Sheldon’s aim, which is why the text so blatantly addresses a particular section of the population–the middle-class nouveau riche–and kills, infantalizes, or brushes off prominent poor folk in the narrative.

No, really.

First there’s the tramp who comes to Maxwell’s church. He’s not a “professional” tramp, but a man who, like many in the congregation, had honest work until ten months past, when modern technology lost him his job. This proximity to the congregation’s lifestyle allows him to speak the piece that foments all ensuing action in the work… and then, within the week, he dies.

Later there’s a woman named Loreen caught up in the vices of the Rectangle, and saved into the arms of Virginia Page through the music of Rachel Winslow. After Loreen starts to slip into her old ways through the saloon, Virginia takes her home to be restored to health. Loreen later returns the favour by taking a flung liquor bottle to the head, which leads to her immediate death and so serves to galvanize the prohibition movement.

There’s also a man shot dead for stealing coal to support his starkly impoverished family, which allows a tenement owner to see the light and change his ways. (Strikingly, the primary Chicago group in this homiletic novel learns about the crime and the family’s plight through a “detailed account of the shooting and the visit of the reporter to the tenement where the family lived” [p. 107]; the only other time such detailed reporting is referenced in the novel is when Edward Norman’s NEWS eschews “printed accounts of crime with detailed descriptions” [p. 39] because Norman deems it un-Christian. The contradiction is never addressed by Sheldon in this text.)

But perhaps most significant is the poor man at the end of the novel, who in an open forum poses the following to Henry Maxwell:

“This is my question.” The man leaned forward and stretched out a long arm with a certain dramatic force that grew naturally enough out of his condition as a human being. “I want to know what Jesus would do in my case. I haven’t had a stroke of work for two months. I’ve got a wife and three children, and I love them as much as if I was worth a million dollars. I’ve been living off a little earnings I saved up during the World’s Fair jobs I got. I’m a carpenter by trade, and I’ve tried every way I know to get a job. You say we ought to take for our motto, ‘What would Jesus do?’ What would He do if He was out of work like me? I can’t be somebody else and ask the question. I want to work. I’d give anything to grow tired of working ten hours a day the way I used to. Am I to blame because I can’t manufacture a job for myself? I’ve got to live, and my wife and my children have got to live. But how? What would Jesus do? You say that’s the question we ought to ask.”

There is a vitally classist factor at work in this question, for its delivery is such that the reader is put in Maxwell’s shoes (as the listening party) instead of privy to this carpenter’s innermost thoughts, like the reader was privy to the thoughts of so many others prior in the text. Unsurprisingly, then, Maxwell has no answer; he opens the floor to others who might better speak to this man’s condition, and is answered only by confusion: an old man who was once in similar straits, and remains undecided whether Jesus would rather starve than beg; a Marxist who calls for complete social upheaval and is treated as a careless agitator by the exposition; a man who heaps “a perfect torrent of abuse against the corporations, especially the railroads”; and a man who claims Trades Unionism is “the remedy for the social wrongs”. (p. 113-4)

Sheldon then terms this all a “free for all” and offers up Rachel Winslow’s power of song in hackneyed answer, writing of the carpenter, “The man out of work who had wanted to know what Jesus would do in his place sat with one grimy hand on the back of the bench in front of him, with his mouth partly open, his great tragedy for the moment forgotten. The song, while it lasted, was food and work and warmth and union with his wife and babies once more.” (p. 114) The absurdity of this latter conclusion is par for the course, though, in a narrative that so clearly focuses on the actions of those with real agency in the world, and reduces the rest to their projects; the means, that is, by which the middle class gets to make good in the world.

Certainly, the humanist in me favours the application of people of means to the betterment of all society. But in Sheldon’s text what quickly emerges is a two-tiered system of response to the question of following “in His steps”, which seems a remarkably non-universalist approach. For those with considerable social means, after all, their willingness to suffer and to sacrifice becomes an ennobling act, which they adopt solely according to a personal sense of what Jesus would do as each of them–a sense which is not questioned by others who have also taken the pledge. (Indeed, Sheldon is emphatic every step of the way that the decisions of his main characters are simply emblematic of individual choice, not prescriptive for everyone in the same occupations.)

However, these actions, emergent as they are from existent power structures and related social affluence, profoundly impose upon other people’s ability to make similar decisions for themselves. Everywhere from the newspaper to public office, this is true for the text, and justified by treating people in the Rectangle as “wandering sheep” who cannot make such decisions for themselves. These lower class individuals are therefore not really tasked with asking “What would Jesus do?”, but simply with becoming part of “regenerate humanity” by listening to Rachel Winslow’s voice and participating in the breadlines and advancement opportunities offered by members of Maxwell’s converted flock for their own spiritual elevation.

To anyone who’s ever read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the relevance of this post’s title should now be growing clear.

In one of the best known passages in Dostoevsky’s final novel, published in 1880 as the intended first half of an even more sprawling epic, brothers Ivan and Alyosha, representing lives of the intellect and the soul respectively, are discussing Alyosha’s rejoinder to Ivan’s assertion that there can be no just redemption predicated on the forgiveness of so much as a single heinous act visited upon a child–and therefore no just ruler, and no just heaven. Alyosha predictably holds that there is in fact “a single creature who could forgive” (Dostoevsky, 1981 Bantam Ed., p. 296), but Ivan has anticipated this invocation of Jesus as saviour, and goes on to regale Alyosha in a piece he has worked over in his head titled “The Grand Inquisitor”.

(For those who haven’t encountered this work yet, I invite readers to pause and read the whole of this chapter for themselves.)

In the story of the Grand Inquisitor, Jesus “[i]n His infinite mercy … came among men in human form [in Seville, Spain during the Inquisition], just as He had walked among them fifteen centuries before” (p. 299). After being recognized by some and performing miracles among their number, he is incarcerated by the Grand Inquisitor, who forwards both an implied recognition of Jesus Christ and also a plan to burn him at the stake the next day.

The Grand Inquisitor’s argument for this startlingly brutal declaration focuses on the tension between freedom and happiness, and particularly calls attention to the failure inherent in giving man freedom when the choice is between earthly and heavenly bread.

“[M]en can never be free because they are weak, corrupt, worthless, and restless. You promised them heavenly bread but, I repeat, how can that bread compete against earthly bread in dealing with the weak, ungrateful, permanently corrupt human species? And even if hundreds or thousands of men follow You for the sake of heavenly bread, what will happen to the millions who are too weak to forego their earthly bread? Or is it only the thousands of the strong and mighty who are dear to Your heart, while millions of others, the weak ones, who love You too, weak as they are, and who are as numerous as the grains of sand on the beach, are to serve as material for the strong and mighty? But we are concerned with the weak too! They are corrupt and undisciplined, but in the end they will be the obedient ones! They will marvel at us and worship us like gods, because, by becoming their masters, we have accepted the burden of freedom that they were too frightened to face, just because we have agreed to rule over them–that is how terrifying freedom will have become to them finally! We shall tell them, though, that we are loyal to You and that we rule over them in Your name. We shall be lying, because we do not intend to allow You to come back. And it is in this deception that our suffering will consist, because we will have to lie!” (p. 305)

And the text grows darker still:

“Who was it who broke up the human herd and sent men along innumerable unexplored paths? The herd will be gathered together and tamed again, however, and this time for good. And then we shall give them tranquil, humble happiness, suitable for such weak creatures. Oh, we shall have to convince them, finally, that they must not be proud, for, by overestimating them, You instilled pride in them. We shall prove to them that they are nothing but weak, pathetic children, but that a child’s happiness is the sweetest of all. They will grow timid and cling to us in fear, like chicks to a hen. They will admire us, be terrified of us, and be proud of the strength and wisdom that enabled us to subdue a turbulent herd of many millions. They will tremble abjectly before our wrath; they will become timorous; their eyes will fill with tears as readily as those of women and children; but at the slightest sign from us, they will just as readily change to mirth, laughter, and untarnished joy, and they will burst into a happy children’s song. Yes, we shall force them to work but, in their leisure hours, we shall organize their lives into a children’s game in which they will sing children’s songs together and perform innocent dances. … They will tell us the secrets that most torment their consciences, they will tell us everything, and we shall solve all their problems, and they will trust to our solutions completely, because they will be rid of the terrible worry and the frightening torment they know today when they have to decide for themselves how to act. (p. 312)

Though originally written from the position of the Catholic church, with all its clear, class-driven tendencies towards elevating a certain part of the population that then decides the fate of the rest in their stead, these passages eerily resonate with the treatment of the poor and the downtrodden in Sheldon’s text, by a high society set for whom suffering and sacrifice has likewise become a path to personal salvation. Is there much difference between the above excerpts, after all, and Sheldon’s description of the converted slum girl Loreen, “who still stayed with Virginia, was present near the organ, in her right mind, sober, with a humility and dread of herself that kept her as close to Virginia as a faithful dog” (p. 60)? Or what of the following account of a thief named Burns, brought to a plot of Christian land in Chicago called “Settlement”, tempted by libations opposite the lot, and then restrained by the Bishop at personal (yet ennobling!) cost?

He was down in the middle of the sidewalk now, still sweeping. He cleared the space in front of the Settlement and even went out into the gutter and swept that. He took off his hat and rubbed his sleeve over his face. His lips were pallid and his teeth chattered. He trembled all over like a palsied man and staggered back and forth as if he was already drunk. His soul shook within him.

He had crossed over the little piece of stone flagging that measured the width of the alley, and now he stood in front of the saloon, looking at the sign, and staring into the window at the pile of whiskey and beer bottles arranged in a great pyramid inside. He moistened his lips with his tongue and took a step forward, looking around him stealthily. The door suddenly opened again and someone came out. Again the hot, penetrating smell of liquor swept out into the cold air, and he took another step towards the saloon door which had shut behind the customer. As he laid his fingers on the door handle, a tall figure came around the corner. It was the Bishop.

He seized Burns by the arm and dragged him back upon the sidewalk. The frenzied man, now mad for a drink, shrieked out a curse and struck at his friend savagely. It is doubtful if he really knew at first who was snatching him away from his ruin. The blow fell upon the Bishop’s face and cut a gash in his cheek. He never uttered a word. But over his face a look of majestic sorrow swept. He picked Burns up as if he had been a child and actually carried him up the steps and into the house. He put him down in the hall and then shut the door and put his back against it. (Sheldon, p. 103)

Certainly, in Sheldon’s text many of this high society set pray “like a child”, but when they do so there is a consciousness to it–a willing submission of the self before their “Master” that the reader is meant to note as a clear sign of humility. The poor and the unfortunate in this text, in striking contrast, are all treated as naturalized children–lost, hopelessly given over to knee-jerk impulse, and so in need of externalized control and direction. In this way, the characters readers are most aligned with in In His Steps surprisingly adopt the same attributes of the Grand Inquisitor, for they alone are given any real sense of choice in relation to their life paths, and when they choose to live in the name of Jesus Christ, it is in a manner that also decides the life paths of those less fortunate for them.

Now, all of the above is by no means to suggest that there is anything wrong with helping those in need, but in dividing the world into three groups–the apathetic, the helpful, and the needy– In His Steps necessarily makes its primary appeal, “What would Jesus do?”, not just personal but also narrowly targeted towards those of means; those, that is, for whom the term “free will” actually has meaning.

For those with nothing to sacrifice, however, it is therefore fortunate that the Sermon on the Mount says something about their eventual inheritance of the earth–because in the meantime, while they can certainly “live like Jesus” by suffering, they by and large are not experiencing such earthly torments by anything that can reasonably or compassionately be called “choice”.

So stands, then, the inherent contradiction between any narrative of a compassionate Christ and the profound lack of universal agency in our very real and hurting world. Good on Charles M. Sheldon, though, for attempting to bridge the gap. I wonder very much if he ever read Dostoevsky’s work.