Since its publication in 1896, “In His Steps” by Charles Sheldon became widely popular in Christian circles. Part of the success of this religious fiction novel lies in its focus on timeless concepts of love and compassion and the responsibility we share to care for those in need. In his book, Sheldon challenges classic capitalist ideas with a moral vision and argues for the necessity of social reform (Mariz 51).
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The first chapter of the novel is important because it describes a major story point that affected the course of the events of the book. The events of this chapter prompted a wave of social reform which changed the quiet town of Raymond. The main character of the book is a Reverend Henry Maxwell, the pastor of the First Church of Raymond. In the first chapter, Maxwell is depicted preparing for an upcoming sermon when he is interrupted by someone knocking on his door. That someone turns out to be a homeless man trying to find a job. Maxwell listens to the homeless men’s request but asks him to leave.
At the end of the Sunday sermon, the congregation is startled by the sound of a man’s voice. The man turns out to be the same homeless man who visited Maxwell two days earlier. The congregation, shocked by the sudden appearance, does not stop the man from delivering a long monolog. In his monolog, the homeless man talks about the hardships of his life: his wife died of starvation, and his little girl is living with a printer’s family while he is looking for a job. He talks about the fact that the minister could not help him find a job.
The homeless man then questions, what do Christians mean when they sing that they follow Jesus, but do none of the things Jesus did. The homeless man ponders, how is that those following Jesus live in nice houses and have expensive clothes, while people die in tenements “and grow up in misery and drunkenness and sin” (Sheldon 7). Once the monolog is over, the homeless man dies.
The main theme of this chapter is the accountability of Christian disciples who turn a blind eye to other people’s problems. The author implies that many Christians who believe they are devoted to God are devoted only to themselves. They mistakenly believe it is enough to sing songs praising Jesus to be a devoted Christian. The point of Christianity, Sheldon claims, is not in accumulating wealth but in helping others. Rather, it is in love and compassion and care which is the foundation of Jesus’ teachings. Following Jesus, Sheldon suggests, is in doing everything to help those in need.
The authors use such literary devices, as contrast, to compare the world of the members of the church and the poor: “shabby-looking” – “nice clothes”; “living in luxury” – “died in a tenement”. Another tool used by the author is speech characteristics. The monolog of the homeless man is very coherent, with proper grammar and a rich choice of words, which suggests that the homeless man is, in fact, intelligent and well-educated. Rhetoric questions are used to express the bitterness: “Do you mean that you are suffering and denying yourselves […] just as I understand Jesus did? What do you mean by it?” (Sheldon 6).
Sheldon succeeded in creating an engaging piece of religious fiction on the timeless topic of what it really means to be a Christian and do what Jesus would do.
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Mariz, George. “Towards a Socio-Historical Understanding of the Clerical-Utopian Novel.” Journal of the Society for Utopian Studies 14.1 (2003): 51-73. Print.
Sheldon, Charles. In His Steps. 1896.