How Christian Retailer John Wanamaker Built a Fortune by Blending Faith With Business

John Wanamaker, left, and the Grand Court interior of his original Philadelphia store, which is now a Macy’s. Photos courtesy of Creative Commons

During his lifetime, John Wanamaker built two megachurches.

One tried to save souls.

Another sold clothes, jewelry and perfume.

And the two worked hand in hand, said Nicole C. Kirk, an assistant professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago and author of  “Wanamaker’s Temple: The Business of Religion in an Iconic Department Store.”

Wanamaker believed “his business interests and his religious interests were not in conflict,” said Kirk, and he could integrate the two without compromise.

“Over and over, and not defensively, (Wanamaker) speaks about how he doesn’t see a conflict and they are mutually supportive,”  said Kirk, a Unitarian Universalist minister and historian of religion.

Image courtesy of NYU Press

Wanamaker put it this way, said Kirk: “The store will be my pulpit and they are part and parcel of each other.”

In their heyday, the two Wanamaker enterprises — department store and church — influenced the community, raised the living standards of thousands of employees and church members, and melded commerce and Christianity in a way not previously seen in America, Kirk said.

His eponymous department store – now a Macy’s — in Center City Philadelphia contained a 10,000-pipe organ and presented religious-themed Christmas and Easter programs. His church, Bethany Presbyterian Church, drew thousands for worship.

Wanamaker, who also served four years as postmaster general of the United States, was foremost an evangelical Christian who melded faith and works, specifically the working of his retail empire. While building the first department store in Philadelphia, he also funded the growth of the city’s first megachurch, which featured a range of social services undergirded by a strong evangelistic outreach. He offered young male employees of his store guidance through a YMCA-like program aimed at promoting spiritual discipline. All employees could spend a summer vacation at a church-run resort, albeit with strict behavioral codes.

The merchant was so famous for his public expressions of faith he was satirized as “Pious John” in newspaper cartoons. But the ridicule did not deter him from his mission to blend faith and commerce, using his wealth to fund the YMCA, where he had worked before going into retail, as well as the Salvation Army, whose U.S. leader, Commander Evangeline Booth, became a close friend.

Washington University professor Leigh Eric Schmidt said Wanamaker’s philosophy was a “wider” version of the “gospel of wealth” popular during that era.

“It was good to make money and spend it on the right causes, education or the Sunday schools, or moral uplift, or missions,” said Schmidt. “It was good to attain that kind of wealth if you stewarded your wealth in the right ways.”

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Source: Religion News Service