In His Steps is a rare work of fiction, which achieves a perfect balance of theology and social comment. The important characters in the novel each add their own perspectives to the town of Raymond. We find areas of convergence as well as divergence between their views on the town. But in synthesis, a composite picture of Raymond emerges.
Reverend Henry Maxwell, around whom the whole plot revolves, is an influential figure in the town, which is populated mostly by Christians. He was a sincere and honest clergyman, albeit with a degree of prejudice, as demonstrated in his initial attitude toward the shabby stranger. With Raymond hinted to be located in interior Illinois, this kind of class prejudice is not uncommon at the time of the novel’s setting. In this vein, Raymond’s distrust and distance toward the stranger is a statement about semi-rural America at the turn of the twentieth century. Moved by the shabby stranger’s passionate appeal to the members of the congregation, pastor Maxwell ordains the community to ask themselves “What Would Jesus Do?” in a situation similar to theirs. He reasoned that this profound question would serve as the moral compass for the confounded individual and guide them in the path of divinity.
Ed Norman, the senior editor of the Raymond Daily Newspaper is an influential figure in his own right. By setting the editorial agenda for the dominant media of the town, Norman shaped the cultural and political currents of the town. Even though he is a person with social clout Norman too is mandated to follow Rev. Maxwell’s command. In his role as editor, Norman faces numerous dilemmas and choices. The words “What Would Jesus Do?” would be the guiding principle behind all his professional decisions. With the Raymond Daily Newspaper being a central socio-cultural item in the town, the editorial decisions are quite significant. We learn from Norman’s deliberations and considerations that Raymond is a fairly conservative town, not easily malleable toward liberal thought.
The shabby stranger plays a key role in the novel. He jolts the easy complacency of the residents of Raymond and asks them troubling questions. He brings attention to the plight of vagabonds like him who are shunned by capitalists as well as the state. So as a last resort he comes to the Church to seek their compassion. In a tragic turn of events, he eventually succumbs to exhaustion and dies a few days after his stirring address to the congregation. But by then he had succeeded in shaking the conscience of the Christian faithful. He had shown them how they have deviated from the original spirit of Christian compassion. He makes them see their own selfishness and their lack of social consciousness.
In conclusion, it emerges that the people of Raymond are fairly conservative in their mindset. They live with tired old patterns of distrust toward strangers and lack of compassion. This is evident from the stories of pastor Maxwell, Ed Norman and the shabby stranger. Yet, as the novel ulfolds over the command of “What Would Jesus Do?” the people show exemplary sense of responsibility and spiritual awakening. Having heeded the will of God through their pastor, the citizens of Raymond go about living their lives in a morally satisfying manner. They thus show that they can raise their standards and act with greater humanity when the situation so demands.
Charles Monroe Sheldon, In His Steps, Published by Chicago Advance: United States, 1896.