Christmas is not quite the same this year. You cannot go to Wanamaker’s to see the Wanamaker’s Light Show. You can go to Hecht’s to see the Hecht’s Light Show, but the Wanamaker name has vanished.
If you had lived in Philadelphia around the turn of the century, it would have been different, for you could hardly have avoided the Wanamaker name.
Shortly before Christmas in 1850, a twelve-year-old boy named John Wanamaker entered a jewelry store to buy a gift for his mother. Just as the storekeeper was wrapping the gift, he saw something else he liked better. “It’s too late,” the storekeeper said, ”you’ve already bought this.” It was then that the young John Wanamaker made his vow: “Some day I’ll own a store and I’ll treat my customers kindly and fairly.”
And so he did. John Wanamaker was a gifted merchant. He established four cardinal principles of business that became the “platform of modern business”:
First, Return of money if buyer returns goods in ten days uninjured.
Second, The guarantee to each buyer stating terms of sale,
Third, No second price,
Fourth, Any article may be exchanged if desired, within two weeks of purchase.
Although it was opened during the difficult years of the Civil War, his store’s annual sales surpassed $2 million by the end of its first decade. (That was back when $2 million was a lot of money). Seventy thousand customers came to Wanamaker’s when the new store was first opened at 13th and Market, a sign that in time, the store that offered “Everything from Everywhere to Everybody” would become the largest retail store in America. It was the first to send buyers to foreign markets, the first to have electric lights, the first to have air conditioning, the first to use newspaper advertisements, the first to have a profit-sharing plan to employees, the first to offer two-weeks free summer vacation, and, believe it or not, the first to offer daily weather forecasts to the general public.
Much of Wanamaker’s commercial success came from the integrity of his business practices. This advertisement was typical of Wanamaker’s honesty: “Men’s ties. They’re not as good as they look. But they’re good enough. 25 cents.” The store couldn’t buy enough ‘good enough’ ties to keep up with the demand!
John Wanamaker was a churchman. When he was appointed Postmaster General of the United States by President Harrison, he traveled more than 100,000 miles in order to be present at worship every Sunday. In all, he founded and built four different presbyterian churches. For sixty years he was the Superintendent of the Sunday School he established. By 1900 the Bethany Mission School, as it was called, had an average attendance of more than 5000 young people every Sunday, 4000 of whom Wanamaker knew by name.
John Wanamaker was an evangelist. This is what he had to say about helping someone to “receive the Savior”, as he usually called conversion:
If you once have the joy and sweet pleasure of bringing one soul to Christ, you will be hungry to get to another. Do not argue, do not be rebuffed, be patient and gentle and keep on with a prayer in your heart and drop a good word here and there as you go along. Oh, what a pleasure it will be to you to have a newborn soul beside you at the next Supper of the Lord.
Wanamaker organized, hosted, and paid for the Dwight L. Moody evangelistic meetings in Philadelphia in 1875. In order to do so, he delayed the opening of his new store, saying “The new store can wait for a few months for its opening, the Lord’s business comes first.” More than a million people attended the Moody meetings in all.
Wanamaker also established the Bethany Brotherhood, a group of nearly a thousand men who promised to “pray daily for the spread of Christ’s kingdom among men” and to “make an earnest effort to bring at least one man or one boy within the hearing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” The epitaph given to Wanamaker at Bethany Collegiate Presbyterian Church is a suitable one: “By reason of Him many went away and believed on Jesus.”
John Wanamaker was a missionary statesman. At the age of 20, he began to provide leadership to the fledgling Philadelphia Y.M.C.A., back in the days when it really was the Young Men’s Christian Association. He was first introduced to the Philadelphia Y.M.C.A. as “the young man with the funny name that no one has ever heard of.” They became familiar with the name soon enough. Wanamaker organized hundreds of open-air summer evangelistic meetings held all over Philadelphia. Over the years, he also provided by himself the money to build Y.M.C.A. facilities in Madras, Calcutta, Seoul, Kyoto, Peking, and Russia.
John Wanamaker was a peacemaker. His contacts with African-American clergy in Philadelphia led to the foundation of the “Colored Branch” of the Y.M.C.A. Wanamaker himself served on the First Interracial Committee of the organization and provided the funds for them to purchase their own building.
John Wanamaker was a patriot. During his brief tenure as Postmaster General, he initiated the parcel post, rural free delivery, and commemorative postage stamps. He also trained some 1400 of his employees for military service in World War 1.
John Wanamaker was a patron of the arts. He brought the famed Wanamaker Organ to Philadelphia in 1911. He also displayed massive paintings of Christ Before Pilate and Christ on Calvary in his store during Easter. The paintings have since been sold, of course.
John Wanamaker was a man of personal godliness. His testimony was that he “gave his heart and life to God at fifteen”. As far as one is able to tell, he walked with God ever after. When the financial markets faltered in 1907, and it was rumored that his business was about to fail, he wrote in his diary: “I am just going on day after day with a heart strong in the belief that the Heavenly Father has me in his keeping and will guide me to do for me what is best.” This is how he prayed for his Sunday School students:
We will make heart-room for Jesus, Thy Son, the name to sinners most dear. We live in the grace of His redeeming love and our only hope is the finished salvation of Calvary. Empty-handed, full of sin; sad of heart and conscious of aggravated wickedness, we cast ourselves at thy feet, O Christ. God be merciful to me a sinner.
John Wanamaker even had something helpful to say about Christmas: “Christmas is a Man born, not a sentiment.”
From these details of the life of John Wanamaker I want to make three practical observations…
First, we could sure use a few men and women of the caliber of John Wanamaker. In a time of declining godliness, we could use a few men and women who are vigorous in their work, generous with their money, loyal to the church, affectionate towards children, and zealous for the gospel.
Second, names do not last very long on this earth. None of us is very likely to attain anything like the cultural influence or civic renown of John Wanamaker. Among his pall-bearers were the Senators and Governor of Pennsylvania, the Mayors of New York and Philadelphia, Chief Justice William Taft, William Jennings Bryan, and Thomas Alva Edison. The Philadelphia public schools were closed on the day of his funeral. Nevertheless, just 75 years later, the Wanamaker name has all but disappeared. Soon, the only place you will be able to read it is on his statue on the east side of City Hall, unless Hecht’s has taken care of that as well. Be assured that your name, too, will one day vanish from this earth.
Third, the Lord remembers the names of the righteous. Even when the names of godly men and women have disappeared from all earthly remembrance, they are carefully and perfectly marked and remembered by the living God in the Book of Life. Surely this promise from Psalm 112 was true for John Wanamaker, and can be true for you as well: Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely… a righteous man will be remembered forever.
(Most of the details for this talk were found in William Allen Zulker, John Wanamaker: King of Merchants, Wayne, PA: Eaglecrest, 1993.)
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