Worthy of restoration: Old Prairie Town continues effort to preserve the Rev. Charles Sheldon’s legacy

John Bell, recreation program supervisor for Old Prairie Town, stands outside the Charles Monroe Sheldon study, which is in the process of being renovated at turned into a museum. (Phil Anderson/The Capital-Journal)

The Rev. Charles Monroe Sheldon ranks up there with the most famous Topekans that people today know little about.


Quite possibly, he tops the list.

That would have seemed like an impossibility a little more than a century ago: At that time, Sheldon was one of the most famous ministers in America — if not the world.

Certainly, he was a household name in Topeka, as the founding pastor of Central Congregational Church at 1248 S.W. Buchanan, and as an ahead-of-his-time social reformer and civil rights advocate.

His influence went far beyond the walls of his church. In 1893 Sheldon established the first kindergarten west of the Mississippi River for black children in Topeka’s Tennessee Town neighborhood, just north of Central Congregational Church.

Sheldon also gained fame in 1900, when he edited The Topeka Daily Capital newspaper for a week “as Jesus would.” During that week, the newspaper’s circulation soared from 10,000 to 360,000, with copies shipped around the world.

Beyond those contributions, Sheldon was known across the nation and around the world for his inspirational writings, which appeared both in nationally distributed Christian periodicals of the day and in book form.

Sheldon’s novel, “In His Steps,” first published in 1896, catapulted him into international prominence. The book, based on a series of serial-like sermons he delivered to large audiences on Sunday nights at Central Congregational, was later published around the world.

To date, some 30 million copies of the book have been published in 23 languages. Some have estimated even more copies of the book — possibly in excess of 50 million — have been printed, though it is hard to track the exact number, as Sheldon didn’t copyright his book and as a result saw little remuneration from it.

Sheldon is credited with coining the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” in the book “In His Steps.” That question got sizable traction about a century after the book was first published, when, in the late 1990s, it was embraced by evangelical Christians, particularly young people, who wore the phrase “W.W.J.D.?” on wrist bracelets and T-shirts.

The “W.W.J.D.?” phenomenon has died down in recent years, but a local interest in Sheldon seems to be on the rebound.

This is owed primarily to efforts of late to refurbish a small study that formerly was located behind Sheldon’s house in Topeka’s College Hill area, and from which he did much of his writing.

The building, thankfully, was never torn down. It was moved from the College Hill neighborhood to Gage Park, and in 1986 to Old Prairie Town at Ward-Meade Historic Site, 124 N.W. Fillmore, where it sits today just inside the west gate.

An online fundraising campaign to refurbish the study and turn it into a Sheldon museum came to a close on Thursday. The goal was $45,000. As of Wednesday morning, only $9,165 had been raised.

Organizers of the project say the fundraising effort is far from over, and that it will continue until the goal is met.

After that $45,000 goal has been reached, look for additional fundraising to take place, as those behind efforts to turn the Sheldon study into a museum will continue.

The timing of refurbishing the study coincides with the closing of Central Congregational Church, which sold its massive building several months ago to another church, then vacated the property in June.

The church — which had seen declining membership in recent years, but will continue to meet in space at Temple Beth Sholom — had a small museum dedicated to Sheldon.

Some items from that museum were donated to Shawnee County Parks and Recreation to be used in the study after its renovation. Other items went to the Kansas State Historical Society and the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library.

Organizers of the $45,000 fundraising goal said they were grateful for the donations that have been received to date, and plan to continue the effort until the goal is achieved.

“We are very pleased with the support we have gotten,” John Bell, recreation program supervisor for Old Prairie Town, told The Topeka Capital-Journal on Thursday. “We always welcome additional donations.

“Our goal for this project was $45,000, so we’re a little short. We’ll have to do some more work once this ends. We will still do some fundraising campaigns and approach some different people and groups.

“We will get this accomplished. It may take a little longer than we wanted, but it will be completed.”

Bell said the project to spruce up the Sheldon Study has three phases.

“The first $45,000 would do a lot of the structural repairs,” he said. “The exterior has been recently renovated and replaced. We have cedar-shake shingles on the outside. That has all been redone, and it looks really good.

“Inside is another story,” Bell said. “The walls, ceiling and floor — they all need work.”

He added that the study isn’t equipped with a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, which he said would be “very important to house the artifacts that we have from Charles Sheldon’s personal collection. We need a temperature-controlled building to house his artifacts.”

Once that work is done, Bell said, materials will be selected for display inside the tiny museum. Bell said he’d like to see “interactive displays” with touchscreens for visitors to enjoy. That’s the second phase.

Next comes the third phase: raising funds necessary to start an endowment that will be used to maintain the building far into the future.

Sheldon’s legacy is an important one in Topeka’s history, and is worth preserving, Bell said, noting many people of his generation have little or no idea about this famous person whose contributions to society originated in the capital city but ranged far beyond Kansas.

“I think this is a way to hopefully educate the public on how important this man was,” Bell said. “I don’t think people realize this man lived here in Topeka, and the impact he had in the world.”

For these reasons and more, it is good to see the interest in restoring the Charles Sheldon study. The lessons left by the minister continue to resonate, perhaps today more than ever.

Contact Phil Anderson at (785) 295-1195 or follow live reports @Philreports on Twitter. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/philreports.tcj/.