More Than Conquerors
Living By the Golden Rule: J.C. Penney

“A merchant who approaches business with the idea of serving the public well has nothing to fear from the competition.”
– J.C. Penney

The J.C. Penney department store chain is an American institution. Some fourteen hundred stores spread across every state of the union and Puerto Rico, and in 1990 sales totaled $18 billion. The company employs nearly a fifth of a million people. Penney employees are sometimes called “associates,” because for more than eighty years all have shared in the company profits (More Than Conquerors, Woodbridge).

James Cash Penney believed in the Christian ethics and built his business upon its principles. His first outlet in Kemmerer, Wyoming was even called, “The Golden Rule Store”. He learned about his faith from his father, who served as the pastor of a small Primitive Baptist church in Hamilton, Missouri, and struggled to make a living off the family farm. At age 8, young Jim was told he would have to start buying his own clothes and invested his meager saving in a pig. Life was tough, his father said, and success only came through hard work and long hours. “We can’t take advantage of our neighbors,” his father reminded young Penney. This became a lifelong part of his business philosophy. Things would turn out all right, he was told, if he just followed the Golden Rule, treating others with fairness and respect.

The business incorporated in 1913 as J. C. Penney and Company, Inc. adopting seven business principles of fair pricing and good service. The seventh principle was “To test our every policy, method, and act in this wise: ‘Does it square with what is right and just?'” More than a thousand stores were launched in the Roaring Twenties, and the growth even continued during the Depression. But Penney’s business was not without its personal trails as his second wife died as well as economic disaster that had also struck. While the company prospered, he lost a bundle that he had invested in banks and real estate. That’s what put him in the Michigan sanitarium in 1932.

Devastated in spirit from his loss and health failings, one morning he heard the distant singing of employees who had gathered to start the day with God:

Be not dismayed whate’er betide,
God will take care of you
All you need he will provide
God will take care of you

After listening to these words, he became a changed man. No longer depending on success alone rather trusting the God who gives success. His financial fortunes began to be restored in the mid-1930s. He lived and served until he was 95, frequently sharing a Bible verse he had memorized as a child and claimed as his favorite:

“I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. Prove me, O Lord, and try me. Test my heart and my mind. For your steadfast love is before my eyes, and I will walk in faithfulness to you” (Psalms 26:1-2).

From an ad for the Golden Rule Store, 1908
We are at home here. We are here to stay; we like the country–its people; we believe in selling you good dependable goods on a Small Margin of Profit Only. We will supply you with durable and comfortable wearing apparel cheaper than ever before. You will get BIG VALUES for your money at this store. Let competition say what she will. A comparison of values is all we ask. We have grown–are growing, like no other store in the country. For your own sake we should have your business. . . . Our aim is to sell you Reliable, Staple, Dependable Merchandise at a less price than any other house in the country.

“The assumption was that business is secular, and service is religious. I have never been able to accept that line of arbitrary demarcation. . . . Is not service part and parcel of business? It seems to me so; business is therefore as much religious as it is secular. If we follow the admonition to love God, and our neighbors as ourselves, it will lead us to understand that, first of all, success is a matter of the spirit.” –J. C. Penney

Though his faith was individualistic, Penney had a strong commitment to Christian principles, and he tried to incorporate these principles in his business. Too many Christians, rich and poor and in between, have separated their spiritual lives from their business lives. In a way, Penney was conducting a grand experiment, testing his hypothesis that the Christian commitment to love others could be played out in one’s entire life, including one’s daily work.

More Than Conquerors: Portrait of Believers from All Walks of Life by John Woodbridge


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