WWJD? (what would Jesus do?)

WWJD? What would Jesus do? Pound for pound, these four little letters are probably the most famous and most widely known Christianese word of all time. Although the WWJD heyday of the late 1990s is a fading memory, this sobering acronym is far from forgotten in the church.

Do you remember the WWJD fad of the late 1990s? Lots of young people were wearing the bracelets—Christians and non-Christians alike. Though for my money, I’m betting that most of the WWJD bracelets found their way onto Christian wrists. Never underestimate the power of youth groups to transmit the latest Christian trends!

WWJD Also: WWJD? (with question mark). Acronym for *what would Jesus do?, a slogan intended as a personal reminder to make Christian choices all day long. The acronym and slogan are commonly associated with evangelicals.
The term is also used attributively, as in WWJD bracelet (see citations for 1998 and 2006). Some Christians wear these bracelets imprinted with the letters WWJD as a constant personal reminder; others wear them as a means of advertising that they are Christian.
The acronym was most likely in use as early as the 1970s (given the reference in the 1984 citation), and it has been printed on clothing and accessories since at least the early 1980s (see 1984 citation). (There is evidence that bracelets imprinted with the entire phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” were manufactured and worn in the 1970s; under *what would Jesus do?, see 1980 citation.)
The story of the acronym’s present-day popularity begins in 1989 when a minister in Michigan ordered a few hundred bracelets imprinted with WWJD to give away to teens at church. After the initial order, the manufacturer continued selling the bracelets with moderate success. In 1997 Paul Harvey mentioned the bracelets on his radio show, touching off a nationwide fad for the acronym and the bracelets. The fad lasted a few years, but the acronym and the custom of printing it on clothing and accessories continues to be an important and highly visible element of Christian popular culture.
The acronym *FROG, “fully rely on God,” was coined in the 1990s as an answer to the question of what Jesus would do, and that acronym has obtained popularity in its own right.
See also *acronyms.
1984 Schwartz The Persistent Prejudice: Anti-Catholicism in America 114 : A few years ago a popular practice among some Christians was to wear an armband embroidered with the letters WWJD…. The letters stood for a simple slogan: “What would Jesus do?” 1990 Eyre Stewardship of the Heart 168 : The W.W.J.D. habit: Ask yourself, several times a day, in all situations, “What would Jesus do?” 1997 Lezin “WWJD?” The Morning Call (Allentown, PA) (19 Jun.) : Bob Siemon Designs has expanded its line of WWJD? products to include necklaces, key rings and lapel pins. But the company isn’t the only one making the bracelets. The first are believed to have been made by Lesco Co. in Michigan, which last year started selling nylon bands in various colors with the WWJD? motto for as little as \$1.50. 1997 SPIN (Nov.) 40 : Bracelets bearing the somewhat cryptic epigram WWJD are hot sellers at Christian bookstores nationwide. The wrist-bound initials urge kids to think “What would Jesus do?” before acting impulsively. 1997 Bickel WWJD? The Question Everyone Is Asking 7 : You are probably wondering what “WWJD?” stands for. It means, “What Would Jesus Do?” Here’s how it works: When faced with a dilemma, you can compare your initial reaction to the way Jesus would respond. 1998 Ebony (Nov.) 170 : Today, the sisters proclaim their faith with WWJD bracelets, short for “What Would Jesus Do?” 1999 Mother Jones (Mar.–Apr.) 73 : WWJD: The acronym for “What Would Jesus Do?” first showed up on bracelets and pins worn by spiritual Midwestern teens two years ago. 2006 Kilpatrick A Field Guide to Evangelicals 38 : In fact, apart from their accessories—WWJD bracelets, cross necklaces, and that splash of “Left Behind: The Fragrance”—evangelicals can be difficult to spot. 2009 McFarland I Don’t See It That Way 30 : In the late 1980s some youth pastors in Michigan began putting the “WWJD” (“What Would Jesus Do”) inscription on buttons and bracelets…. The WWJD “movement” mushroomed in the 1990s and continues even today, with Internet sites offering WWJD mugs, rings, bumper stickers, bookmarks, key rings, and other “holy hardware” items. 2010 Maeda 101 Sunday School Activities on a Tiny Budget 43 : During the 1990s, a youth group of the Calvary Reformed Church of Holland, Michigan, inspired by this book, began wearing cloth bracelets with the letters “WWJD” for “What Would Jesus Do?” to remind them of their commitment to live by Jesus’ teachings. 2011 Vickers Bodies of Light 120 : If you are Christian, meditate on What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)?

The slogan itself “What would Jesus do?” is a little over 100 years old. Charles Sheldon used it in 1896 as the subtitle of his novel In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? The novel details the lives and challenges of church-members in a small town who commit to spending a year asking themselves this question before they make any decision.

The novel In His Steps was a sensation when it came out, and it has been in print pretty much continuously for the past 100 years. I myself own a recently printed edition, and at a museum in 2012 I saw a copy of a first edition of the book. Its pages were splotchy yellow, and the book’s corners were rounded with years of use. It really brought home how folks have been asking themselves “what would Jesus do?” for the past 100 years. I took the photo below. In small letters, below the word Bethlehem, you can see the famous tagline “What would Jesus do?”

photo of cover of In His Steps by Charles Sheldon
A photo of the cover of In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? by Charles Sheldon. Also shown are a handwritten letter he wrote someone and a nibbed pen he often used for writing.

Finally, even though “WWJD” is the much bigger Christianese term, Christians do continue to use the slogan “what would Jesus do?” both as a serious question for personal consideration and (occasionally) a joking or ironic catchphrase that we Christians use to poke a little fun at ourselves. Christians use clichés as least as often as non-Christians do, so it’s probably not a bad idea to deflate ourselves once in a while by having a laugh at how frequently some of our slogans and figures of speech get repeated until they hardly have meaning anymore. Here’s the Dictionary of Christianese entry for “what would Jesus do?”:

what would Jesus do? Often abbreviated *WWJD or WWJD? A slogan intended as a personal reminder to make Christian choices all day long. It is a popular catchphrase among evangelicals.
Charles M. Sheldon (1857–1946) coined the slogan and used it in the title and body of his novel In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? (see 1896 citation).
The phrase was being worn on bracelets in the 1970s (see 1980 citation), and in 1997 it became a fad along with its acronym WWJD (for more information, see *WWJD).
(The 1971 citation is obviously a reference to What Would Jesus Do.)
1896 Sheldon In His Steps: “What Would Jesus Do?” 20 : “I want volunteers from the First Church who will pledge themselves earnestly and honestly for an entire year not to do anything without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And after asking that question, each one will follow Jesus as exactly as he knows how, no matter what the results may be.” 1900 “What Jesus Would Do” Overland Monthly and Out West Mag. 375 : Every telegraphic dispatch, every communication, every local item, and every advertisement has been subjected to the crucial test—“What would Jesus do with this?” 1951 Jones Revival Sermons 9 : You cannot follow Jesus Christ literally. Sometimes people say, “What would Jesus do?” You remember that very popular book in this country which expressed that sentiment, In His Steps. [1971 The Wittenburg Door (Dec.) 4 : That’s how I made my decisions then. Would Jesus Do It?] 1975 The Ecumenist vols. 14–16 78 : He is critical of past methods for setting up a specific Christian social commitment such as asking “What would Jesus do?” He points out that people answer this question differently according to their personal prejudices. 1979 Murphey Prayerobics 70 : Each time a decision comes up, the person simply asks, “What would Jesus do?” When I first encountered this book, a few months after my conversion, it challenged me. For weeks I tried praying or asking, “What would Jesus do?” 1980 Lam, Harrell Chica Cry 121 : Someone commented that people don’t seem to be wearing those little “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets as much as they used to. 1981 Third Way (Sep.) 22 : The Project would presumably dismiss contemptuously the simplistic question: “What would Jesus do?”

Do you still rock a WWJD bracelet? More seriously, do you think wearing an outward symbol of one’s Christian faith helps someone be more like Jesus? Does it help in talking with other people about Jesus?