These pages refer to my research on the life of John Wanamaker, famous merchant of Philadelphia and New York.
John Wanamaker the Evangelist
Address given by William Allen Zulker
November 18, 2002
Presbyterian Sunday School Superintendent’s Association
Leverington Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, PA
My wife and I were enjoying a delightful visit with Jim and Grace Barnes at their Cape May Point summer home in New Jersey.. We were sitting at the dinner table in their 300-year-old cottage, built by Jim when he was just a boy (No that’s not right). It was probably built by an old sea captain sometime in the 1700s. And there we were enjoying what I thought was a free meal, when Jim said, "Pastor”,(not Bill).
When he said “Pastor”, I knew that a request was coming that I couldn’t escape! “Pastor, would you come and speak at the Presbyterian Sunday School Superintendent’s meeting on John Wanamaker:The Evangelist?
So here I am, on November 18, paying for a meal I had on July 14, four months ago.
My assigned topic is: John Wanamaker, the Evangelist.
Now, let’s be sure to understand that John Wanamaker wasn’t the typical evangelist; not in the sense of that word. When we think of evangelists Billy Graham, Billy Sunday, Dwight L. Moody, and others, this man Wanamaker was different. He was an evangelist while at the same time he pursued other careers, all of them successfully. And in order to fully appreciate his evangelistic life and ministry, let’s look first at those other areas.
Seeing the whole scope of Wanamaker’s life makes us appreciate it more and even marvel at his work or life as an evangelist. But first, who was this man; John Wanamaker?
At the time of his death in 1922, the London Daily Times called John Wanamaker the most remarkable man in America.
The Philadelphia Press, Philadelphia’s most popular newspaper at the time, called Wanamaker, “Pennsylvania’s Most Eminent” citizen. Eminence, not popularity. They were not talking about a popular sports figure like Donavan McNabb or Alan Iverson or even a city councilman like Fumo, or the Mayor.
Eminence refers to one who ”towers above others in character and noble achievements.” John Wanamaker was listed first, and then Dr. Russell Conwell, the founder of Temple University.
NOW, WHO WAS JOHN WANAMAKER?
(1). First of all, he was a Merchant -
He opened his first store in 1861 when he was twenty-two years old. Forty years later, at the beginning of the 20th century in 1900, he had two great stores, in New York City. and Philadelphia. Here are some interesting facts about him and his business:
HIs basic principles were - One-Price, Guaranteed Goods, Guaranteed Satisfaction, and Money Back if not satisfied.
One story I read was about a woman customer who returned to the store one day and went to the "foundations" department. Now, the men here may not understand that this haa nothing to do with the building industry; but the women here know what I'm tallking about. Asking to see the manager of the department, the woman customer opened her shopping bag and held up a corset. She said, "Look at this!" the manager replied, "I'm looking, but what is wrong with it?" the woman answered, "What is wrong with it, why look at the label, it says, 'Made Expressly for John Wanamaker.'"
There were many things that were made "expressly for John Wanamaker." He had his own mattress shop, his own shirt factory, his own carpet factory, and made his own candy.
But more of that some other time. I state these things today to indicate that he was a MERCHANT.
(2). Secondly, he was an Educator
He was the founder of Bethany College which was initially for the people of Bethany Church, to help them find employment. It later became the John Wanamaker Institute of Industries which has now become a part of the Community College of Philadelphia. As such, it continues to provide free post-high school education and training for more than fifty students a year.
He founded the John Wanamaker Commercial Institute for the boys and girls who worked in his stores but who had not attended school. We must remember that schooling was not required in those early days. But there were as many as 750 students each year in his school, attending classes either before the work-day began or at the end. More of that subject at another time.
He also started the American University of Trade of Trade and Applied Commence in the store for the young employees who wanted to learn more about business. As such, his employees advanced their careers and many stayed in his employment for twenty, thirty, and even forty years.
John Wanamaker was a member of the Philadelphia Board of Education, the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Pennsylvania Military College in Chester, PA (now Weidner Unversity), and a trustee of the Williamson Free Trade School in Media, PA, still a dynamic institution.
(3). Thirdly, John Wanamaker was the Postmaster General of the United States
He served in that capacity as a member of the Cabinet of President Benjamin Harrison from 1889 to 1893.
While there he introduced Rural Fee Delivery (which many of us remember as RFD addresses) so that people living out of town could get their mail delivered to them the same as those in town.
He initiated Post Offices at sea so that people traveling on ships could receive their mail.
He began the Comemorative Postage Stamp series honoring great individuals or significant events in our history such as Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Elvis Presley and even Marilyn Monroe!. And why not Mickey Mouse, too?
(4). Fourthly, Wanamaker was Writer, Publisher, and a well-sought-after Speaker.
He published two hymn books which included the newly popular songs of Fanny Crosby, Eliza Hewitt, John Sweeney, William Kirkpatrick, B. D. and Albert H. Ackley, and C. Austin Miles, among others.
It seems that every organization including schools, colleges, churches and political bodies, all wanted him to be present for special events giving his gems of wisdom in short and long speeches.
His stores sold a million books every year.
Now, it would not be difficult to continue telling you a lot more about the different ways he became so popular, but you have invited me to speak about John Wanamaker as an evanelist. So here goes.
(5). He was an Evangelist in his Christian Faith.
It started in his personal commitment to Christ. He said, “Your old superintendent gave his heart to God at fifteen.” At Bethany Sunday School, he told this story once again when he was seventy-nine years old, but he had told it many many times before.
The Reverend John Chamber’s First Independent Church in Philadelphia was located at Broad and Sansom Steets, just a short distance from the present location of the Chamber’s/Wylie-Presbyterian Church. (In 2011 it is the Broad Street Ministry of the Philadelphia Presbytery).
At that time, Wanamaker was working in a clothing store in the center of Philadelphia, first as a stock boy, then as a salesman. He said that one night after work as he was walking home, he passed the John Chambers Church and heard singing. He went in and listened not only to the music but also to the testimonies of those who were telling of their Christian walk with Christ. He said that at the end of the service, he went to the minister and said, "Tonight I have given my heart to God."
Before long he was elected as assistant librarian in Sunday School, then as a teacher. Shortly thereafter, at the age of eighteen, his health broke and he developed a tendency toward tuberculosis. His Doctor advised him to leave the area, seek a change and to rest. He left his employment, traveled to Indiana to be with his grandparents, then to Chicago and ultimately to Minnesota. While away from home, he wrote to his parents, "I hope with renewed energy to engage in the service of the Lord. I ask for your prayers that I may be a humble and faithful child of God. My health has been in a great measure restored and shall, the Lord willing, soon return. I hope with renewed energy to engage in the service of the Lord. In conclusion I ask an interest in your prayers that I may be a humble and faithful child of God."
When he returned home he accepted employment by the Philadelphia YMCA - (Young Men's Christian Association) - as the secretary (actually Director) with the annual salary of $1000). He was 20 years old. His work as an evangelist began. In just one year he had enlisted almost 2,000 new members
He supervised the distribution of hundreds of New Testaments
He enlisted and trained more than 40 young men as Sunday School teachers
He sponsored over three-hundred tent meetings - religious services - in many places throughout the city during the Summer months. He employed the superintendent of the YMCA tent, giving detailed instructions regarding the number of meetings to be held, the hours of each service, the care of the tent, the selection of the preachers, record keeping procedures, and money distribution. This was actually the unofficial beginning of the "Summer Evangelistic Committee" ministry continued by the Philadelphia Presbytery for many, many years.
At that time, the YMCA wasn’t the social, athletic or community organization as it is today. It wasn’t simply known as “the Y”. Rather it was the “Young Men's Christian Association” with the emphasis upon Christian. Without apology to anyone, it centered upon Biblical teachings and reaching out with the message of the Gospel of Jesus Chirst. Wanamaker wrote that its purpose was: “To bring the youth to faith in Jesus Christ”
The Philadelphia organization became a model for other cities. Wanamaker personally gave large amounts of money for the establishment of the YMCA in India, Korea, Japan, and China. In the year before he died, he promised money for a YMCA in Russia.
So strongly did he believe in the work of the YMCA as a Christian evangelistic ministry that when he gave money for a building for the Salvation Army at Broad and Fairmount Streets in Philadelphia the legal papers stated that if the Salvation Army failed to remain "True to the Gospel" then title was to be relinquished to the YMCA. Quite an interesting twist as one views the two organizations today.
As part of his evangelistic conern, Wanamaker suggested that Sunday Schools be started; very few existed in 1858, The Sunday School movement begun in England was just reaching America. To set the example, he started a class of twenty-seven students, having rented a room over a cobbler's shop, and called it Bethany. By the early 1900's it had grown to a three--branch school with over 5,000 pupils in attendance each week..
It is also important to know what was going on in his heart and mind at that time. At age twenty, while still not having embarked upon his commercial career as a merchant, he wrote in his diary, "I long to be like Jesus." Forty years later he reiterated his faith with another entry in his diary, "Lord, God, Faher, Son, and Holy Ghost, I on my knees, once more, write and sign this surrender of my body and soul, inside and out, to thee forever. Sunday, 12:30 noon, December 10, 1899."
At the close of the second year of the Sunday School, JW reported that "many precious souls have been brought into the Church...." Out of this came the formal organization of the Bethany Presbyterian Church in 1865. This story is told in my book and deserves a lot more attention than we can give it now.
Several very significant ministries began within Bethany:
There was the Bethany Dispensary providing medical and surgical services In 1913, reports show that 8,337 patients were treated;
The Bethany Home and Day Nursery involved 3500 children in the first year of the free kindergarten;
The Sick-Diet Kitchen of the Bethany Deaconess Society provided kettles of beef broth, tea, and glasses of jelly as needed;
And there was the Bethany Briotherhood organized while Wanamaker was serving as the Postmaster General of the United States in 1890. It was far more than just a social gathering of men - which Wanamaker felt was important for Christian men - it had a very distinct purpose. It was open to any man "promising to abide by two rules: 1. Rule of Prayer - pray daily for the spread of Christ's kingdom among men, 2. Rule of Service - to make an earnest effort to bring at least one man or boy within the hearing of the Gospel of Jesus christ as set forth in the service of the church."
The Brotherhood House was also opened in 1900 on South Street at 21st Street. It had a 700-seat auditorium, a reading room, dining room, kitchen, game rooms, shuffleboard, and a roof garden with lounge chairs, Some years late, a swimming pool, showers and lockers with added. During WW II, it was opened to military personnel.
The Friendly Inn located on South 9th Street was what we would call today a Rescue Mission for men down and out. Some very strict rules applied in order to make it a safe and pleasant facility for those needing a special lift.
The evangelistic conern of John Wanamaker became very evident during the Moody and Sankey revival meetings in Philadelphia in 1875-1876. D.L.Moody, the great evangelist had conducted very successful meetings in England and then New York city when Wanamaker heard about them. He became a significant part of the sponsoring group convincing Moody to come to Philadelphia. Wanamaker had just purchased the old Pennsylvania Railroad Freight Station at Thirteenth and Market Streets in order to move his ever growing clothing business from its then location at 818-820-822 Chestnut Street. But he decided to wait, and offered the site for the Moody meetings without charge. They were held at the same time of the Centennial Celebration of the United States, and drew very large crowds. Wanamaker personally accomodated Moody in his very large city home, paid all of his personal expenses, and each night of the meetings, sat on the platform as one of the sponsors.
Some may ask why it is that John Wanamaker did not enter the ministry as his mother had hoped. It seems that he had more than sufficient qualities that would make him an effective minister. Why then didn't he take up the ministry as a full-time career? He gave the answer in writing the following; "I thught that if I became a man of means through my business, I might be able to accomplish as much or even more for Christ than I would have as a minister."
He then said, "My favorite Bible verse is John 5:24 'He that heareth my word and believeth on Him that sent me hath everlasting life and shall not come into condemnation but is passed from death unto life."
He also said, "No one ever sinks who trust in God."
What more could one expect of anyone who is called an evangelist?