2332) “The Sunday School is My Business”

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John Wanamaker  (1838-1922)


By Robert J. Morgan in One Hundred Bible Verses That Made America, 2020, pages 246-248.


Matthew 6:33  —  (Jesus said), “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”


     As an adolescent, John Wanamaker took a large sheet of brown paper and wrote down all the things he wanted to be—a minister of the gospel, an architect, a merchant, a journalist, and a doctor.  It finally came down to merchant or minister; in a sense, Wanamaker became both.  For many years, Wanamaker ran the largest department store in the world and the biggest Sunday School in America.

     Born in 1838 in Philadelphia, Wanamaker grew up working in his father’s brickyard and was converted solidly to Christ at age eighteen.  At twenty, he took a job with the Young Men’s Christian Association for $1,000 a year, and within twelve months had increased the membership from fifty-seven to two thousand.  He also started a Sunday School in a downtrodden part of Philadelphia.  On the first Sunday he was run out of the building by a local gang.  The next week Wanamaker tried again, with volunteer firefighters standing guard.  On April 8, 1861, Wanamaker, twenty-two, resigned from the YMCA and opened his own store.  Four days later the Civil War began, but Wanamaker persevered and managed to keep his business going during the conflict

     In 1865, Wanamaker reorganized his Sunday School into a Presbyterian church, which, within five years, would accommodate three thousand people, making it one of the largest churches in the nation.  Its wide range of ministries included a soup kitchen, an employment service, a savings bank, a library, and a clothing dispensary for the needy.

     In 1875, Wanamaker purchased Philadelphia’s freight depot and turned it into an arena for evangelist D. L. Moody ‘s campaign, which lasted from November 21, 1875, to January 21, 1876.  The platform alone held a thousand people, with nearly nine thousand in the audience.  Over a million people attended during the campaign, with thousands coming to Christ as Savior.

     After the revival Wanamaker converted the freight depot into the largest store in the world:  the Grand Depot.  No one had ever seen anything like it—eleven acres of retail space, three thousand employees, electric lights, a ventilating system, elevators, the largest bookstore and piano dealership in America—and prayer services every day at noon.  He was very outspoken for Christ and sought to share the gospel at every opportunity.  As if he weren’t busy enough, he was appointed postmaster general of the United States in 1889.

     In 1901, Wanamaker opened a stunning new department store in Philadelphia, which was considered the most remarkable store on earth.  It featured a marble atrium with the largest pipe organ in the world and a crystal tea room seating fourteen hundred diners.  The store, dedicated by President William Howard Taft on December 3, 1911, boasted forty-six acres of retail space.

     Ever indefatigable, Wanamaker worked from seven in the morning until past midnight without showing signs of flagging, even into his seventies.  He was an advertising genius, and he had a knack for reaching the masses.  He exuded cheer.  During the bleak Christmas season of 1917, when America was engaged in the First World War, Wanamaker told his employees, “Try to keep the sunshine all around you, that the people may catch some of it and carry it home, and that the children there and the old people may have a better Christmas, because they have drawn some of the spirit of it from yourself.”

     When he passed away in 1922, at age eighty-four, he left $40 million to his heirs.  Over fifteen thousand people showed up for his funeral, with most of them standing in the snow—a testament to his lifelong impact.

     Someone once asked Wanamaker, “How do you get time to run a Sunday School with your four thousand scholars, in addition to the business of your stores, your work as Postmaster-General, and other obligations?”

     Instantly Wanamaker replied, “Why, the Sunday School is my business!  All other things are just things.  Forty-five years ago I decided that God’s promise was sure: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.'”‘


Luke 4:8  —  Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

Matthew 6:24  —  (Jesus said), “No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and money.”

Luke 12:48b  —  (Jesus said), “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”


Almighty God, judge of us all, you have placed in our hands the wealth we call our own.  Give us such wisdom by your Spirit that our possessions may not be a curse in our lives, but an instrument for blessing, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.    

Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Augsburg Publishing House.


Click on the picture below for a song based on Matthew 6:33: