What Is the Origin of the Phrase ‘What Would Jesus Do’?

Influenced by many different people, sources, and movements, there is not one direct origin of the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” Scripture includes numerous verses, which encourage believers to imitate and follow their Savior.

WWJD bracelet

Many people are familiar with the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” The abbreviation, WWJD, is often easily recognizable on colored bracelets, shirts, and bumper stickers. While this phrase found great popularity among youth groups in both Catholic and Protestant circles in the 1990s and early 2000s, the expression’s origin extends back to the 19th century.

Popularized by Rev. Charles Sheldon, the phrase also has multiple influences from a variety of backgrounds. In examining the origin of WWJD, this article will provide a brief history of the phrase, along with its major influences, and the expression’s connection to Scripture.

A Brief History of WWJD

In 1896, Rev. Charles Sheldon published a bestselling book, In His Steps, which popularized the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” His book was based on the narrative sermons he had delivered to the Congregationalist church he pastored in Topeka, Kansas.

As a proponent of the Social Gospel movement, Sheldon wanted to emphasize the need for Christian action in society. Based on the Social Gospel’s focus on acting like Jesus, Sheldon naturally created the characters in his book to be more concerned with imitating Christ than finding redemption in Him.

About a hundred years later, Sheldon’s book inspired Janie Tinklenberg to use the phrase to encourage modern Christian youth to live as Jesus did.

To adapt the phrase to contemporary audiences, Tinklenberg created the acronym WWJD for “What would Jesus do?” She wanted the young people in her Michigan youth group to easily recollect the phrase and think about what Jesus would do in everyday situations.

Soon, Tinklenberg had created cloth bracelets bearing “WWJD” for teens to wear as a visible reminder to follow Christ. Clothing and accessories with the acronym also increasingly grew in popularity.

While the bracelets and other accessories became fashionable items in the 1990s and 2000s, many of the teens and young people who wore these items did so intentionally to consider what Jesus would do in their own life situations.

The acronym easily and visibly reminded Christians in youth groups to pause and think about their everyday choices in light of how Jesus would respond.

Because of Sheldon’s book, In His Steps, and Tinklenberg’s influence in creating a grassroots movement among both Catholic and Protestant Christians, a series of films were created in the 2010s based on the concept of WWJD.

Like the narrative sermons used by Charles Sheldon, the movies dramatically depict individuals struggling with the question, “What would Jesus do?” These movies invite the audience to consider how they are living and if they are following Christ in their daily choices.

The Phrase’s Major Influences

Long before Sheldon began preaching and writing using the phrase, there were earlier areas from which the expression can trace its origin. The concept of imitating Christ has a long tradition in church history. Like St. Augustine of Hippo, Thomas a Kempis believed that following Jesus was essential for growth in the Christian life.

Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, written in the 1400s, is a classic devotional book that essentially encourages believers to follow Jesus’ example, similar to WWJD. Both John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon, well-known preachers, were influenced by Kempis’ devotional work.

In fact, Charles Spurgeon quoted Imitation of Christ in a sermon and emphatically asked, “What would Jesus do?” Spurgeon preached this sermon in 1891, years before Charles Sheldon popularized the phrase.

Another major, yet indirect influence of the expression was the Social Gospel Movement. As a movement that occurred in the latter half of the 1800s and the early 1900s, adherents to the Social Gospel sought to improve society through vigorous social reforms.

Although people within the movement did bring about good and needed changes in society, the Social Gospel downplayed individual sinfulness and the need for salvation.

For people like Charles Sheldon, who popularized the WWJD phrase, their focus was not on changing lives through the gospel, but on trying to change sinful people through social reform.

Thus, modern Christians do need to remember that many people who followed Sheldon’s popularized form of “What would Jesus do?” considered Jesus as a moral example instead of God the Son and Savior.

For clarity, however, not everyone who adopted the phrase as their motto was guilty of following the Social Gospel. Nor should people feel wary of wearing WWJD bracelets or other such items, since many believers find the expression helpful in growing as a disciple of Christ.

As this article mentioned earlier, there is a long tradition of Christians who sought to imitate Christ in church history who also had correct doctrinal beliefs about Jesus and the need for personal salvation.

The phrase “What Would Jesus Do” is not specifically part of the Social Gospel but was influenced by this movement because of Charles Sheldon’s involvement in the popularization of the phrase.

Does the Phrase Have a Biblical Origin?

While multiple factors in history have influenced the expression, there are Bible verses that mention imitating Christ and following His example. Paul encouraged the Corinthian Christians to imitate him just as he tried to imitate Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1).

In another epistle, the apostle also encouraged believers to “imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children” (Ephesians 5:1, NLT).

Believers are to cultivate a servant attitude that reflects the mindset of Christ, who came as a Servant to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45; Philippians 2:5-8).

In terms of discipleship, Jesus repeatedly emphasized the need to follow Him (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; John 8:12). As He told the 12 disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

Following Christ is much more than trying to be a “good person.” A disciple regularly dies to himself and lays aside his desires and plans in favor of following Jesus. This means a disciple is willing to suffer for Jesus’ sake, even at a great cost to themselves (1 Peter 2:21).

Also, following Christ involves obeying His commands, which include telling the gospel and making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). Following Christ involves becoming more like Him and obeying what He says to do.

Asking what Jesus would do in a situation does seem to be reflected in the verses that mention imitating and following Christ. The Bible encourages believers to model Christlike behavior in their everyday life.

However, no Bible verse specifically commands believers to ask the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” Therefore, Scripture has inspired the phrase WWJD, just not in a direct way.

A Diverse and Enduring Heritage

Influenced by many different people, sources, and movements, there is not one direct origin of the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” Scripture includes numerous verses, which encourage believers to imitate and follow their Savior.

In addition, many Christians in history recognized the importance of emulating Christ, such as Augustine and Thomas a Kempis. Both John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon also saw the importance of following Jesus and developing Christlike attitudes and actions.

However, Charles Sheldon was the one who made the phrase more widely known through his sermons and famous book. The expression received even greater notoriety because of Janie Tinklenberg, who coined the acronym WWJD.

All the influences of WWJD create a diverse and enduring Christian heritage that will surely continue to affect the disciples of Christ in years to come.

For further reading:

How Is Representing Christ a Great Responsibility?

Living the Bold Life for Christ

Why Does Jesus Ask ‘Who Do You Say that I Am?’

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/hannahgleg


Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. Holding a Bachelor of Arts in Ministry and currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Ministry, she is passionate about the Bible and her faith in Jesus. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.