Blogs > Cliopatria > WWJD--Now who dreamed that up?

Mar 29, 2006 11:49 am

WWJD--Now who dreamed that up?

During the early decades of the 20th century, a newspaper called The Avery Boomer served the 200 or so citizens of Avery, Iowa. It was irregular in frequency, and in other ways as well. Each issue was written and typeset by one Axel Peterson, a Swedish immigrant who described himself as “lame and crippled up,” and who had to make time for his journalistic labors while growing potatoes. A member of the Socialist Party, he had once gained some notoriety within it for proposing that America’s radicals take over Mexico to show how they would run things. Peterson was well-read. He developed a number of interesting and unusual scientific theories — also, it appears, certain distinctive ideas about punctuation.

Peterson regarded himself, as he put it, as “a Social Scientist ... developing Avery as a Social Experiment Station” through his newspaper. He sought to improve the minds and morals of the townspeople. This was not pure altruism. Several of them owed Petersen money; by reforming the town, he hoped to get it back.

But he also wanted citizens to understand that Darwin’s theory of evolution was a continuation of Christ’s work. He encouraged readers to accelerate the cause of social progress by constantly asking themselves a simple question: “What would Jesus do?”

I discovered the incomparable Peterson recently while doing research among some obscure pamphlets published around 1925. So it was a jolt to find that staple bit of contemporary evangelical Christian pop-culture — sometimes reduced to an acronym and printed on bracelets — in such an unusual context. But no accident, as it turns out: Peterson was a fan of the Rev. Charles M. Sheldon’s novel In His Steps (1896), which is credited as the source of the whole phenomenon, although he cannot have anticipated its mass-marketing a century later.

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andy mahan - 9/18/2006

Great piece of social lore. Assuming the story is accurate, can you point to the all elusive "causal link" that the more recent public relations campaign was due to Peterson's, or are we assuming it solely because X was established in 1925 and 2005? "What would Jesus do" is a pretty generic term.

ccw sparks - 9/17/2006

.....and "WWJD" is no exception.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry a few years ago when I started seeing the expression everywhere in Evangelical Christian circles, especially among kids and teens.

I didn't know about the 1925 appearance, but when I was in Vacation Church School during the summer after fourth grade (1962), that was the theme.

The answers given now vs. 1962 are vastly different, though.

In the progressive church of my youth, we were encouraged to give the question some serious consideration from the standpoints of the "doer" and the "do-ee." Sometimes we came up with a variety of answers, and we talked about those answers in light of the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and the "Love Chapter" (1 Cor. 13).

Nowadays the answers far too often seem to consist of rote, preachy formulas based on a narrow, legalistic reading of the Scriptures. Moralism and "correctness" have replaced Jesus's example of loving kindness toward real people in real life situations.

Sometimes things come around again in forms altered almost beyond recognition. Sad to say, the change isn't necessarily for the better. I consider this a case in point.