July 11: John Wanamaker, Merchant

Sharing  Faith by Word and Deed

John WanamakerEveryone has heard of the name John Wanamaker, especially those in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That is where this retail giant began his department stores at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.  But everyone may not know that John Wanamaker was a devout Presbyterian who shared his wealth and his Christian faith by word and deed.

Born on this day July 11, 1838, he began to work as an errand boy and shopkeeper’s helper.  At age 18, he became a Christian and began to attend Sunday School and church.  His congregation was Bethany Presbyterian church in Philadelphia.  In fact, at twenty-five, he was ordained as a ruling elder in the church.

He had some ideas which were unorthodox in the retail marketing field.  Using four principles, which were honesty, a fixed price for goods, a money back guarantee, and happy contented employees, he thought (and thought rightly) that customers would come. Workers were given free medical care, free education, recreational facilities, pensions, and profit-sharing plans. No wonder that unions could not get a foothold in his stores.

As his businesses grew with more and more stores in more than one city, he began to give large portions of his wealth to religious and moral causes.  The Young Man’s Christian Association and the Sunday School movement were among those receiving large support. He said once “I cannot too greatly emphasize the importance and value of Bible study — more important than ever before in these days of uncertainties, when men and women are apt to decide questions from the standpoint of expediency rather than the eternal principles laid down by God Himself.”

Words to Live By: 
When you consider that last sentence, about Bible study, we might think this was some recent quote, rather than something from the late 1800′s.  But a faith and life lived in the light of God’s Word–the Bible–makes everything relevant to every age.  Bible study still has its place in every believer’s life walk.  Buy a faithful Bible study, like the Reformation Study Bible, and get a good biblical commentary, like Matthew Henry’s, and (oh yes) a notebook to record the things that God impresses upon your heart and mind through His Word, then follow everything up with prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplications (A.C.T.S), and you will be able to decide questions from the standpoint of God’s will for your life.

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  1. James T. O'Brien’s avatar

    I have searched for a biography of Wanamaker, but I don’t think one was ever written. If original sources could be found it could make an extraordinary doctoral thesis for someone.

  2. James T. O'Brien’s avatar

    I once read a story about Wanamaker. I believe it was in Marvin Olasky’s fine book, ‘The Tragedy of American Compassion.” As a ruling elder, Wanamaker would visit the poor in their homes in the slums of Philadelphia. Once admitted to a home, often little more than a hovel, he would talk with the person about their situation, open his Bible and offer them something useful from God’s Word and then pray for them. All this before he gave them some money to help with their needs. To think of one of America’s richest men walking in the slums of Philadelphia to comfort and encourage the poor reminds us what the power of godliness can do in a man’s life and in a nation’s life.


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