The Third Great Awakening was very different from the previous two. With the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, massive immigration by Europeans, and cities bulging at the seams, the emphasis shifted from personal to social sins. The ills of modern society—crime and other sins—were erupting rapidly.
On the one hand, there were the sins that had been targeted by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union—drinking, gambling, and prostitution. On the other, there were the sins of human neglect. Given the disease, squalor, and hunger of the day, male babies born in 1900 could expect to live an average of 49 years!
Out of this setting one very simple question for the spiritually reform-minded to ask themselves was “What would Jesus do?” A Congregationalist minister, the Reverend Charles Sheldon from Topeka, Kansas, wrote a best-selling book in 1896 entitled In His Steps. During his lifetime the book had the second largest circulation of any book outside of the Bible. It became one of the most published books of all time, translated into more than two dozen languages. In it he wrote:
What do you Christians mean by following the steps of Jesus? Where are the words of sympathy for the downtrodden? What do you mean when you sing, “I’ll go with Him all the way?” It seems to me there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all people who sing such songs went and live them out.