Death of Soul-winning Merchant, John Wanamaker

Death of Soul-winning Merchant, John Wanamaker

On March 12, 1888, fifty year old John Wanamaker laboriously hand-copied letters to each member of his large Sunday School class--a Sunday school which he had founded. The central thought of the letter was, "If you are not saved my dear friend--flee to the merciful Savior, as you would fly, into this warm room tonight out of the cold streets & the drifting snow. -- If you are saved -- humbly trusting in what Jesus did when his loved failed not on the Cross -- think of others not saved -- NOT SAVED -- going to the eternal darkness -- your near friend, your relative -- and do something!"

All of his life, John Wanamaker did something--not only toward converting people but in making American business what it became. A Presbyterian, he was a strong advocate of the YMCA in the years when its chief concern was to convert men to Christ. He was so successful in promoting the organization that its backers named him national secretary. But John married and had to find work that would support his family. A go-getter (he took his first job as an errand boy at age thirteen for the salary of $1.25 a week) John and a partner bought a men's clothing business.

With a flair for big projects, John bought an abandoned rail depot and tried to coax other merchants to open shops in the building. When he couldn't persuade others to take the risk, he set up his own shops, creating one of the first successful department stores in the nation. His building even had a wireless telegraph--and consequently was the first station in the United States to learn of the sinking of the Titanic. John was a leader in advertising, in money-back guarantees and in offering his employees benefits such as pensions, life insurance, and vacations. His New York store was the first to display electric Christmas lights.

Through it all, John's concern for souls continued. During the Civil War, he was a strong supporter of the United States Civil Commission, an agency which brought medical and spiritual comfort to soldiers. He gave enormous sums to charities, such as the Children's Wing of Philadelphia's Presbyterian hospital. He devoted Sundays to religious work. "If you once have the joy and sweet pleasure of bringing one soul to Christ, you will be hungry to get another," he said.

Asked in an interview how he managed to carry the load of his many tasks (which, in addition to everything else, included a strong commitment to Masonry), John replied, "When I weary of one detail, I turn to another, and there is rest of mind in that." He advised, "Do the very best you can and leave the rest to Providence."

As a soul-winner, he believed he did not have to work alone. "When you have faith enough & love enough to start out in the effort to bring a soul to the Savior -- God the Holy Ghost joins in your effort, for God wants every one saved & He works with even the poorest instrument that engages in His work."

John died on this day, December 12, 1922.


  1. "Brother John Wanamaker." Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania.
  2. Executive Committee of the International Sunday school Association. Development of the Sunday School. Boston: International Sunday School, 1905.
  3. "John Wanamaker." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribners.
  4. "Heart of John Wanamaker." Bethany Press. wanamaker.html.
  5. "John Wanamaker." Living Leaders of the World. Chicago: Hubbard, 1889.
  6. Lossing, Benson J. Eminent Americans. New York: Mason Bros, 1857.

Last updated June, 2007.

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