Sex Religion Sells! The Preacher, the Journalist and the Novel

Helena Goodwyn*

*Corresponding author for this work

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The American minister Charles Monroe Sheldon published the “runaway bestseller” In His Steps “What Would Jesus Do?” in 1896. The initial, and stupendous, popularity of Sheldon’s social gospel novel has not yet been scrutinised in relation to its historical antecedents. By 1899 the weekly Outlook remarked on the transatlantic cross-over of the book, stating: “wherever one went in London, whether on trains or buses, in bookstores or shops, [one] found people talking about In His Steps.” In that same year W. T. Stead reissued his non-fiction book If Christ Came to Chicago, which had first been published in Chicago in 1894, two years before Sheldon’s sermon-story. The 1899 title page declared: “The Precursor of ‘In His Steps’/ If Christ came to Chicago!… /What Would Jesus Do?” Stead’s non-fiction book sold well on both sides of the Atlantic, before and after Sheldon’s novel was published. So, was this simply a marketing stunt designed to attract more readers? Or did Stead’s new title register deeper concerns about the relationship between fiction, journalism, and the social gospel movement? Investigating the somewhat vexed relationship between these two texts, this article traces the transatlantic roots of In His Steps. Comparing the afterlife of the novel with its immediate non-fiction ancestor, I explore the synergetic, if at times uncomfortable, relationship that developed between the social gospel movement and the periodical press at the end of the nineteenth century.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6-23
Number of pages18
JournalVictorian Popular Fictions
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 20 Dec 2023

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