In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s John Wanamaker became foremost in the history of merchandising, with the development of his innovative department store in the city of Philadelphia. To this day, one may still do personal shopping in the national historic landmark.
The Unique 33,000 – Pipe Organ
in Wanamaker’s Department Store
Upon entering the Wanamaker Department Store opposite City Hall, one is greeted by a spectacular sight – that of a 33,000-pipe organ encircling the upper gallery of the main floor. And, if one should be there during a concert, it is like being in a magnificent worship service or a classical organ recital. In addition, a 10-foot bronze eagle stands proudly in the center of the court, symbolizing America’s national emblem. If one visited the department store prior to 1988 at Easter time, this store rivaled any art gallery with its two irreplaceable oil paintings: “Christ before Pilate” and “Christ on Calvary” – annually displayed with the story of Jesus Christ’s mock trial, humiliating death, and glorious resurrection three days later, a 60-year-old Philadelphia tradition. Who, and what is behind this unique enterprise? Simply, a godly man.
Young John Wanamaker – An Errand Boy at Age 14
John Wanamaker was the man who built this impressive store. Born in Philadelphia on July 11, 1838, he attended public schools, and at age 14, began his career in business as an errand boy in a store.1
“The Finest Organ in the World”
Plays on Every Business Day
It was John’s brother, Rodman, who had the idea of utilizing the grand court of the new edifice as a music center, and he set out to obtain the finest organ in the world and acquired the Louisiana Purchase exposition organ, in Festival Hall, St. Louis. The instrument had been played by Alexander Guilmont and nearly every other noted organist of that day. It took thirteen freight cars to ship it to Philadelphia, where it was rebuilt and heard publicly for the first time on June 22, 1911. Unlike most organs, the Wanamaker organ has been played every business day since its installation.
Marcel Dupré, organist at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and one of many world-renowned organists who played this instrument, made his American debut at Wanamaker’s in November 1921.
The Organ – “An Orchestra in Itself”
The great French Classicist, Honoré de Balzac, said of the organ:
The organ is in truth the grandest, the most daring, the most magnificent of all instruments invented by human genius. It is a whole orchestra in itself. It can express anything in response to a skilled touch. Surely it is, in some sort, a pedestal on which the soul poises for a flight forth into space, essaying on her course to draw picture after picture in an endless series to paint human life, to cross the infinite that separates Heaven from earth!2
Wanamaker’s Remarkable Business Accomplishments
Wanamaker brought merchandising into the 20th century with his modern concept of the department store, expanded use of advertising truth and honesty in retailing, and profit-sharing for his employees. He took a prominent part in the movement to secure pure water in the city of Philadelphia. In 1889, Wanamaker entered President Harrison’s cabinet as Postmaster-General.3
The Source of Wanamaker’s Success – God’s Word
Behind Wanamaker’s outward success as a financier and a business tycoon, was a man who was firmly established upon the truth of God’s Word. He was president of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Philadelphia for a number of years.4 In 1858, he organized a small Sunday school, beginning with twenty-seven pupils, which he expanded to an enrollment of five thousand, one of the largest in the country, and which became Bethany Presbyterian Sunday School of Philadelphia. He was active superintendent of the Sunday school for over sixty years.
Pastor MacLennan Reveals
“Wanamaker’s Great Childlike Faith”
The most poignant insight into John Wanamaker come from his pastor, A. Gordon MacLennan of Bethany Presbyterian Church. The following is excerpted from the introduction to Prayers of John Wanamaker, published a year after his death in 1922:
In the prayers contained in this volume, there is revealed the loftiness of soul, the unity of the Spirit, the perfect standing of human need, and the great childlike faith of John Wanamaker. He was truly a man of prayer and the place of prayer was precious to him. He always approached the Throne of Grace with great reverence and deep humility, as though he, too, had heard the command, “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”
His regular church prayer meeting always found him in his place, and many times he has said: “I like to be present at the meeting, in the middle of the week, feeling, a I sit among the people gathered, some of them deaf, hearing hardly a spoken word and others with failing sight, that as the Lord passed around amongst them He might give me a blessing too.” He was present always, as leader of a little meeting of men at nine o’clock in the morning, for prayer and meditation, known as the John Wesley Class Meeting. At 9:30 he attended the Brotherhood Meeting, leading and inspiring the men with his unique personality and deep spiritual insight and constant interest in the lives of the three hundred or more men who met there. From the Brotherhood Meeting he went to regular morning church service, taking a full part in all the worship. At 2:30 in the afternoon, he was present to superintend the great Sunday School which he, with the same uniqueness which built the greatest merchandising establishment in America, developed from a class of twenty-seven pupils to an enrollment of five thousand!
But his activity in connection with the church and school did not cease with the services on Sunday, for wherever there was trouble, or sickness, or death he always found time to be present giving words of counsel and help and always to lead the distressed ones to the Throne of Grace where he had found One able to help in all times of need.
The Prayers of John Wanamaker
Following are prayers excerpted from Prayers of John Wanamaker:
Everliving God, our Father, we have come into Thy house again through Thy mercy which has kept us alive. We would worship Thee with reverence. We hallow Thy name, O God, our Father, the name which is above every other name. We worship Thee, O Christ, God manifest in the flesh. We hear Thee speak, O Christ, who walked the pathways of this very earth and talked and did things like a man, and left the earth richer for the charity of thy words and work of Thy dear, kindly hands. Thou hast written Thy name on so much of daily life that we cannot walk or talk or open the doors of our homes without thinking of Thee and Thy ways in Galilee.
Everliving God, Oh Lord, Thou hast told us how to pray. Help us to shut the door, shutting out the world, and the enemy and any fear or doubt which spoils prayer. May there be no distance between our souls and Thee.
Everliving God, Our Father, we have come to sit down together to rest, after a busy week, and to think. We are not satisfied with ourselves for we all, like sheep, have gone astray. What we have done is what we ought not to have done. We are stung to the quick with disappointment, sorrow and desolation. It seems as though there were a canker worm eating at the core of our hearts, and there is no rest for our souls day or night. Have pity upon us, Lord, and cut us not down in Thy displeasure. We confess our sin and bring it to Thee. Let our prayers prevail in Heaven, and do Thou heal and help us to a new life in Christ Jesus. Amen.5
Wanamaker’s Prayers at Bethany Chapel
Due to the magnificence of the first volume of Wanamaker’s heartfelt prayers to Almighty God, a second volume was printed, Prayers at Bethany Chapel by John Wanamaker. Following are some of Wanamaker’s communications with God at Bethany Chapel:
Father Almighty, at Thy command we come to Thee. If we were shut off from prayer, we would not know where to turn for true wisdom. We thank Thee for the Sabbath Day in which we are free to become acquainted with Thee. Thou hast placed us in this world. We are young and weak, unskilled, and ask Thee to keep us from mistakes, and the blindness of folly. Help us to rest our souls in Thy keeping, O Wondrous Father, Loving God, Redeeming Christ. May this earth be a step to Heaven, and each day find us more obedient to Thy Will. Make us truly Thy children, and may others see Christ in us. Amen.6
Our Father and Our God, Thou dost ordain a day of worship and call us to the sanctuary to speak to us. Speak in Thine own way by a mighty wind or a still small voice out of Thy Great Book. Speak with angelic interpreters or through a light like that which Saul saw on the road to Damascus. Give us seeing eyes, and hearing ears; appoint us our work and inspire us not to challenge it but to go in Thy strength. “We can do all things through Him which strengtheneth us.” May we learn that it is “not by might, nor by power, but by Thy Spirit.” Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, we pray, Amen.7
Wanamaker’s Secret of Success – His Faith in God
From the above moving prayers, we see that Wanamaker’s secret of success stems from his faith in Almighty God and his love and adherence to Jesus Christ, His unfailing words being ever before him. What a testimony to the Christian character and wisdom which have made the name “John Wanamaker” a household word in business and finance in America.
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1 The Encyclopedia Americana. (Vol. 28). New York: Americana Corporation, 1940, p. 253.
2 The Great Organ and the Grand Court. John Wanamaker. Philadelphia, n.d.
3 The Encyclopedia Americana. (Vol. 28). New York: Americana Corporation, 1940, p. 253.
5 Wanamaker, John. The Prayers of John Wanamaker. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1923.
6 Wanamaker, John. Prayers at Bethany Chapel. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1925, p. 15.
7 Ibid., p. 14.