Four letters that shook the world

What Would Jesus Do? (or WWJD to those in the know). The slogan was devised to help young Christians handle everyday dilemmas. Then Al Gore used it to signal his moral rectitude. Now it's a fashion movement - and the message has gone mainstream. Vincent Graff reports
Click to follow
The Independent US

The salesman is a little excitable, but forgive him his enthusiasm. His product could change your life, he says. Paul, from Worcestershire - it's first-name terms on eBay, the online auction house - is keen for you to pick up your personal invitation into the smart set. But before that, he has a few questions.

"The craze that has swept America has finally reached the UK," he announces. "Are you a trend setter? Do you like to be the coolest dude in your area? Would you like to be among the first in your area to be seen wearing one of these?"

Paul wants you to get your hands on the fashion accessory of the season. So what is it, this must-have item, this ticket to paradise? It is a brightly coloured braided wristband carrying four letters. Not FCUK, not Nike; not a brand name at all, in fact, but "WWJD". The letters stand for a message that would never get anywhere near either the catwalk or the advertising billboard: "What Would Jesus Do?"

If these bracelets are to become the hottest new fad - and they have a cheerleader in Heat magazine, which rarely misjudges the mood of Britain's youth - it will be the most unlikely craze. Which is why those who know about these things are so fascinated by it. Will the wristband make the transition from passing fancy to fashion icon? From happy-clappy churchgoer to teenage partygoer? From there, will it, like so many other fashion crazes, gain a grip on the rest of us? Or will the excitement dissipate as quickly as the fame of a reality TV show contestant?

It's a reasonable question, since the intrigue stems from a passing comment heard on this summer's Big Brother. Cameron Stout, the devoutly Christian fish-trader from the Orkneys who bagged the £70,000 winner's prize, is a proud Baptist. "If anyone asks me about my Christian beliefs, I will tell them. I am not shy when it comes to talking about God," he says. Given that he was imprisoned in the BB house for nine weeks, cut off from the outside world, it is not surprising that the subject came up. During one visit to the diary room, he happened to mention that young people in his church had taken to wearing WWJD bracelets and wristbands in an effort to make sense of the world.

Cue much excitement on the show's companion programme, Big Brother's Little Brother, when the presenter Dermot O'Leary began wearing one of the wristbands in tribute to Cameron and his church group. Cue a swooning reference in Heat about how O'Leary had been "pioneering a new look". Cue 500 readers' letters and e-mails to the magazine, begging for the chance to win one.

No sooner had Cameron made his comments than reports appeared in the Scottish press of a run on the bracelets at Christian bookshops. Little wonder that Heat's editor Mark Frith predicts that they could become the latest in "kitsch, ironic fashion".

So where did the bracelet appear from? In 1896, the Christian novelist Charles Sheldon wrote a book called In His Steps. It's the tale of a church minister, a businessman, a newspaper editor and a vagrant. One day the Rev Henry Maxwell is preaching at his pulpit when he is confronted by a tramp. He and his parishioners are thrown into confusion. The appearance of the stranger leaves them deeply shaken. How should they deal with him? A great amount of soul-searching goes on, until they alight on a solution. All they have to do when confronted by an ethical dilemma is to ask: "What Would Jesus Do?"

Fast forward almost 100 years and to real life. In the small beach town of Holland, Michigan, a place boasting little other than a factory making wooden shoes, Janie Tinklenberg, a youth worker at the Calvary Reformed Church, is recalling the book, which had been a family favourite since her childhood, with groups of young people. She is intrigued by its central question. One day in 1989, she finds herself in conversation with a congregant who works in the merchandising business. Might she and he be able to come up with a gimmick that could act as a prompt to young Christians to lead the good life?

Today, Tinklenberg is still spreading the word. Speaking from Toledo, Ohio, where she is on a mission trip, she recalls: "We looked at T-shirts and hats. But this was the time when kids were making braid friendship bracelets with coloured thread..." So bracelets it had to be. "And we just used the abbreviation because kids wouldn't have time to read the four words." The conversation was to have an astonishing outcome. Estimates about how many bracelets have been sold in the United States range from 15 million to 52 million.

But the whole thing started on the tiniest scale. Tinklenberg asked her friend to make just a few of the wristbands to see if she could interest her charges in them. They were asked to wear them for 30 days. "The first run, we had to order two or three hundred as a minimum order. Kids were coming back and saying that people wanted them. So we started giving out two at a time - one to give away, and one to keep.

"What would happen is that an aunt or uncle or neighbour would then come along and say, 'That's a really cool idea, where can I get those things?' and they would call me, and I would call the folks who manufacture them and we'd start getting those bracelets out. And it was just word of mouth."

Gavin Calver, an evangelical worker for British Youth for Christ, was what a marketing executive would call an "early adopter" of the product, having spent many of his early years in America. He says the bracelets were enthusiastically received in the church. "For the young person growing up, it was an excellent way of reminding them of the personal commitment to Christ and of their behaviour as a result." They were also "a great conversation opener: not as threatening as carrying a large Bible under your arm. It's a way in. It's there to remind me how to behave and also to share my faith with those around me."

Things bubbled along relatively quietly until, one day, the manufacturer sent samples of the bracelets to a Christian bookshop convention. Soon, word had spread across the US. From a few hundred bracelets a week, the factory was churning out 20,000 a week by 1997.

America was spellbound by this simplest of inventions. It had moved into the very mainstream of secular life - into politics, and sport. Baseball, gridiron football and basketball players made sure they were never without their faithful reminders. On the international scene, Hansie Cronje, the disgraced former cricket captain of South Africa, who died in an air crash last year, wore a wristband.

If it was good enough for the private morality of public figures, it was also good enough for an American politician to appropriate for his public persona, in a country where Christianity is not so much a badge of honour for those seeking high office as the price of entry. In 1999, Al Gore, fighting the presidential election, told a newspaper reporter that there was one question that guided him. You guessed it - "What Would Jesus Do?"

For some, the question was a little restricting. A pressure group got in on the act. Last year, television commercials appeared in four states beseeching people to abandon the gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles that are so popular in the US. The ads asked: "What Would Jesus Drive?"

The Rev Jim Ball of the Washington DC-based Evangelical Environmental Network, which paid for the commercials, said: "We take seriously the question of 'What Would Jesus Do?' 'What Would Jesus Drive' is just a more specific version. What would he want me to do as a Christian? Would he want me to use public transportation?"

This was only a prelude. The slogan and the wristband were moving out of the church and on to the streets. T-shirts appeared featuring a picture of Michael Jordan, the basketball star, and the question: "What would Jordan do?"

Americans without the remotest interest in religion enjoyed the enigmatic charm of those four mysterious letters. The Christian message was becoming muffled by a commercial one.

You could pick up your WWJD trinket at the same time as you were filling up the car. "Probably the thing for me that was the most uneasy was the first time when I went into a gas station and there, next to the can-openers for beer and all this other stuff, was some cheap, dangly something that had WWJD scrawled on it," says Tinklenberg. "It was clearly just getting in on the action while it was hot. For me, WWJD should not be some sort of fashion deal, with people saying, 'I'm going to buy a blue one because it matches my jeans.' It was meant to be a reminder for church people."

WWJD is threatening to become a brand like any other. Look on the internet, and you can pick up WWJD pens, pencils, travel mugs, lunch bags - even teddy bears and cutesy knick-knacks known as "snow buddies". For $20 you can buy What Would Jesus Do? - The Boardgame. ("Challenge yourself as you put yourself in Jesus's shoes and explore 600 thought-provoking questions.") It has shifted more than 100,000 units since its launch at the height of the WWJD boom.

So could it all happen here in Britain? Evangelical Christians have - unnoticed by the rest of us - been enthusiastic supporters of the wristbands ever since they arrived in British churches a couple of years ago. To them, according to Hazel Southam, the editor of the Baptist Times, the bands are already "slightly passé". She says: "It was huge with the under 25s, the kind of people who would go to ordinary rock festivals as well as Christian rock festivals." Now, in church circles, "it's not the new trend, but they are still quite popular".

You know that something is aiming for the mainstream when it becomes the subject of satire. A couple of months ago, a stallholder at the National Christian Resources Exhibition in Surrey was selling WWJD boxer shorts. With the fly sewn up.

Gavin Calver no longer wears his wristband. "You don't replace the Bible with a bracelet," he says. "I wore one as a teenager because I felt I needed one. I would now like to think that I would immediately go to the Bible anyway."

Though he views them as "an excellent way of reminding young people of their personal commitment to Christ," he is concerned that wearers should not lose sight of the meaning of the four letters. "To wear the bracelet is not about a fad, it is about developing a relationship with Jesus. They are not a fashion statement. They are there to remind us how to behave and share our faith with others. If they are used for any other purpose, that is wrong."

And Janie Tinklenberg? She is the registered trademark holder of the WWJD bracelet - in theory the only person allowed to market them. But she has had nothing to do with the product since the early days. In practice, she says, she would never go to law to prevent someone else using the letters for their private gain. "All the money that was made from it was made by other people. I have never made a penny."