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The Rise and Fall of ‘WWJD’ Merch

There have been numerous ill-fated attempts to make Christianity “cool.” If you’re having a hard time thinking of examples, that’s because so many of these attempts barely make it off the ground before bursting into flame like an Elon Musk rocket. Christian parodies of popular brands. “Jesus is my Homeboy” T-shirts. These and other half-baked schemes are the Pokémon Go to the Polls of the Christian world, and the world is better off for their failure. But there was, briefly, one Christian trend that wasn’t just cool, it was a genuine craze. It was inescapable. And it will probably never be recreated. We are talking, of course, about WWJD bracelets.

What can anyone say about “What Would Jesus Do?” It was a meme before “memes” existed — a snow cone that was so universal that anyone could easily riff on it or parody it, and everyone would instantly get the reference. But nothing ever competed with the real deal for ubiquity. In the ’90s, WWJD merch appeared on everyone from Christian teens to their non-Christian friends to athletes to pop stars to politicians. Here is the story of how it happened.

The Apostle Paul was really the first person to plant the WWJD seed, with his “imitate me as I imitate Christ” in 1 Corinthians 11:1. The theologian Thomas à Kempis borrowed that idea for his Imitatio Christi, written sometime in the early 1400s. Then in 1891, famed preacher Charles Spurgeon delivered a sermon in which he asked “What would Jesus do?” several times, crediting Imitatio Christi for the phrase.

Just a few years later in 1896, a writer named Charles Sheldon wrote a little novel called In His Steps, in which the residents of a fictional town see their community transformed when they “pledge themselves, earnestly and honestly for an entire year, not to do anything without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?'”

Now this is the first of several instances in which copyright law comes into play, and helps explain the rise of WWJD. At some point between Sheldon’s writing of the book and its publication, a ball was dropped and the book was never covered by copyright. That meant the book was published widely and cheaply, becoming a huge seller (it’s one of the 50 bestselling books of all time) while making very little scratch for its author. Sheldon, an avowed Christian Socialist, never complained.

Nearly a century later, the book fell into the hands of Janie Tinklenberg, a youth pastor at Calvary Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. In 1989, she was thinking of getting “What Would Jesus Do?” T-shirts for the whole youth group, but opted to have friendship bracelets made instead, since they were big at the time. She shortened the phrase to WWJD, had 300 printed up, and asked her youth group to commit to wearing them for a month straight as a reminder. The bracelets caught on across Holland.

And here’s where, yet again, copyright comes into play. The demand in Michigan caught the eye of larger manufacturers who saw dollar signs where Tinklenberg had only seen a devotional. Copies of bracelets started being sold in Christian bookstores and, then, larger chains. Tinklenberg made a play for the trademark but it was too late. “WWJD?” belonged to everyone now. What this means is, by accident or (grand) design, nobody directly responsible for making “WWJD?” a trend has ever profited from it. That, at least, seems fitting because if there’s one thing Jesus wouldn’t do, it’s get rich off his own teaching.

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Experts point to a few reasons for the WWJD? success. The phrase really does slide off the tongue. It’s quick, memorable and pretty good advice. That said, some theologians have observed that the phrase has its limitations. Just last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote that the danger of WWJD? is that it emphasizes Jesus as a moral teacher at the expense of his identity as a savior. “Christians don’t believe that Jesus is there just to give us a good example in every possible human situation,” the Archbishop wrote.

As London School of Theology’s Conrad Gempf told the BBC: “When we look at what the early Church did in the Bible, they didn’t copy Jesus. They did what Jesus told them to do. Jesus spoke in parables, his disciples didn’t — they preached about him and they told it straight. They didn’t walk on water. Jesus didn’t tell us to do what he did, he told us to do even greater things.”

Maybe that’s why the trend’s legs were so short. “WWJD?” blazed brilliantly but blew out quick, as most trends do. Attempts to capitalize on WWJD?’s success with several movies went nowhere and the bracelet ultimately went the way of bell bottoms and disco which, hey, come to think of it, might mean it’s due for a comeback.

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