“I have found that unselfishness pays because it tends to engender unselfishness.”
— J. C. Penney
The year was 1902 and a 27-year-old man arrived by train in Kemmerer, Wyoming to start a new business. He couldn’t afford the train fare twice, so he made a commitment in dollars before seeing the town. A scattered mining community, Kemmerer had about one thousand residents, a company store that operated on credit and 21 saloons where a good deal of spare cash was spent.
Two revolutionary ideas — “Cash Only”, and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — were the basis for James Cash Penney’s new business venture. (The middle name is a family name, not chosen to express his retail philosophy). He named the store the Golden Rule.
“When the sun rose over Kemmerer, Wyoming, April 14, 1902, it gilded a sign reading ‘GOLDEN RULE STORE’, and I was in business as a full partner. The firm name was Johnson, Callahan and Penney, but it was used only for bookkeeping purposes. In setting up a business under the name and meaning of Golden Rule, I was publicly binding myself, in my business relations, to a principle which had been a real intimate part of my family upbringing. To me the sign on the store was much more than a trade name. We took our slogan ‘Golden Rule Store’ with strict literalness. Our idea was to make money and build business through serving the community with fair dealing and honest value, and did business cash-and-carry.”
“When we locked the store at midnight and went upstairs to our attic room after the first day’s business to figure out how we stood, there wasn’t a great deal of paper money or, for that matter, so many silver dollars; but there was an astonishing — to us — wealth in pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters and half-dollars! Our first day’s sales amounted actually to only $33.41 shy of the $500 savings we had put with the note for $1500 to pay for the partnership.”
So it was Kemmerer, Wyoming, that gave Mr. James Cash Penney his start in business, and in 1913 the decision was made to change the Golden Rule Store to the J.C. Penney Company. But in the midst of the Great Depression, one of America’s leading businessmen sank into a personal depression of his own when the economy caved. Penney lost nearly everything — including family and health. Nevertheless, his parents had instilled in him a basic Christian faith that had given him the principles on which he had based his life and his business.
James Cash Penney learned about faith and business 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 earning his own money. “Life was tough,” his father said, “and success only came through hard work and long hours.” (Paraphrasing) Things would turn out all right, he was told, if he just followed the Golden Rule, “treat others with fairness and respect.”
But things weren’t working out so well for the elder Penney. He strongly urged his church to start a Sunday school, and that was an unpopular position there. As a result, the church dismissed him. That experience soured young Jim and his faith would subsequently remain a personal thing most of his life.
As a teenager, J. C. Penney worked on surrounding farms growing watermelons and feeding pigs. Shortly after Jim graduated from high school, his father, dying of tuberculosis, asked a friend to give his boy a steady job. So J. M. Hale, who owned a dry goods store in Hamilton, agreed to hire Jim at a salary of $2.27 a month. The young man worked hard as a clerk and learned all he could about the business. He seemed to have a knack for merchandising. Within two years, his pay increased twelve-fold.
Then came stunning news from his doctor. The TB that had claimed his father’s life was now threatening him. The best thing for him was to move to a drier climate. So he moved to Colorado, buying a butcher shop in Longmont. That business hit hard times when he refused to give free liquor to his biggest client. Then two significant things happened to J. C. Penney. He met a man who got him back into the dry goods business, and he met a woman who stole his heart. The business, called “The Golden Rule Store,” gave him an exciting new commercial concept. The woman, named Berta, consented to marry him. Guided by the love of his new wife and the Golden Rule principle, the inspired young businessman began a journey that would take him to undreamed-of success.
Out on His Own
After clerking in one store, he helped a partner start a new store, and eventually he bought a Golden Rule store of his own in Kemmerer, Wyoming, in 1902. While he recognized that the Golden Rule was a “slogan of good publicity value,” his also found it “a poignant link with my father’s and my mother’s ideals and injunctions.” In his business practices he believed that with a basic aim of making money he could still serve the larger community with fair values and honest dealings. He was just 26 when he bought that first store, in a mining town with a population of about 1,000. The company store (and the 21 saloons in town) offered credit, but Penney’s store was cash only. He felt he served the community better by keeping them from becoming indebted.
Within five years, Penney opened two more stores, then three more. There were more than 30 within that first decade. Penney followed a training strategy that allowed managers to become part owners and then purchase their own stores. That’s what his bosses had done for him, and now he returned the favor to others. Not only did this contribute to company morale, it allowed for steady expansion of a chain of stores that held to Penney’s original principles.
Ups and Downs
The business incorporated in 1913 as J. C. Penney and Company, Inc. (unscrupulous competitors had begun to use the Golden Rule name), 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 own fortunes were not so bright. While the company prospered, he lost a bundle that he had invested in banks and real estate. It put him in the Michigan sanitarium in 1932.
“I was at the end of my rope,” he said later. “My business had crumbled, my communications with colleagues had faltered, and even my wife and our children were estranged from me. It was all my fault.” He was even contemplating suicide. An old friend convinced him to enter the sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. The medical attention and rest did him good, but there was another event that restored him spiritually.
One morning he awoke a little too early for breakfast and began to wander the corridors when he heard a hymn he remembered from childhood.
Be not dismayed what e’er betide,
God will take care of you;
All you need he will provide
God will take care of you.
Following the sound, he stumbled upon a chapel filled with worshiping doctors and nurses. Someone read a Scripture passage: “Come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” It was a moment of clarity for the hard-working entrepreneur. He had been striving all his life to honor God with his business, but now it was time to rest in the Lord’s grace. “At that time something happened to me which I cannot explain.” Over the next twelve hours, he experienced a kind of conversion. “Suddenly needing to be heard, I cried inwardly, ‘Lord, will you take care of me? I can do nothing for myself!’ I felt I was passing out of darkness into light.” The words “only believe” came to him. It was no longer about his own efforts, but God’s. “In the midst of failure to believe, I was being helped back to believing.” he said later. “It was a life-changing miracle, and I’ve been a different person ever since…”
In the years following, Penney spoke often of the experience. He talked about the mistakes he made in trusting success rather than God. Privately, he mentioned his desire to be baptized and to join a church, but he would put off those commitments until 1942 and 1950.
His financial fortunes began to be restored. As it happened, he renewed his support of various charities, putting millions of dollars into the Penney Retirement Community in Penney Farms, Florida, the Christian Herald magazine, and more than one-hundred other organizations ministering in the United States and around the world. He lived and served until he was 95, frequently sharing his favorite Bible verse he had memorized as a child:
“Judge me, O Lord; for I have walked in mine integrity: I have trusted also in the Lord; therefore I shall not slide. Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my reins and my heart. For thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes: and I have walked in thy truth.” Psalms 26:1-3
Golden Rule Store ad, 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
Character Glimpses generally focus on historical figures who have changed the church or affected the world in some overtly Christian way. Although Penny was not a religious leader — he didn’t even join a church until he was in his 70s — he was a leader; a good business leader.
In recent years, we have witnessed a steady stream of corporate executives defrauding their companies and stockholders. Surveys have found our nation’s business schools at a loss to find an adequate philosophical basis on which to teach business ethics. In such a climate, the Biblical outlook and principles of J. C. Penney are a breath of fresh air.
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, 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 commitments could be accomplished throughout life; every Christian principle especially the love of others. It will not necessarily make you rich, sometimes they may make you poor. But they need to be lived out in every aspect of life.