James Cash Penney was not a Bible Scholar, but he loved the Lord and tried to honor Him as his life developed.
He was born in Hamilton, Missouri on September 16, 1875. His father was a Primitive Baptist pastor who came from Kentucky to farm and teach God's Word. There were 12 children. Only half of them lived to become adults.3
It is amazing how some of the great businessmen of the past were Christians who gave to God and gave to God generously …. I'm talking about the founders of these companies, not about the present generations. The J.C. Penney stores were started by a preacher's son whose father died when he was a boy. There were no arrangements made to care for his mother, except for people to say, "The Lord bless you." As a little boy, he had to go out and collect the clothes which his mother washed for a living, and he said, "When I grow up, I'm going to make money and see to it that no preacher's widow has to work like this." He made good, and he established villages where retired preachers and their wives can live. God has blessed these men in the past who have recognized Him.4
He learned business principles from his father and his godly parents.
When he was a teenager, Jim worked for a grocer in Hamilton, Missouri. He liked the work and had plans to make a career of it. One night he came home and proudly told his family about his "foxy" employer. The grocer had a practice of mixing low quality coffee with the expensive brand and thus increasing his profit. Jim laughed as he told the story at the supper table.
His father didn't see anything funny about the practice. "Tell me," he said, "if the grocer found someone palming off an inferior article on him for the price of the best, do you think he would think they were just being foxy, and laugh about it?"
Jim could see his father was disappointed in him. "I guess not," he replied. "I guess I just didn't think about it that way."
Jim's father instructed him to go to the grocer the next day and collect whatever money due him and tell the grocer he wouldn't be working for him any longer. Jobs were not plentiful in Hamilton, but Mr. Penney would rather his son be unemployed than be associated with a crooked businessman.5
On April 14, 1902, J.C. Penney opened his first store in Wyoming.
In the 1920's after experiencing an exponential success in the development of his chain of stores growing to 175 stores in just 15 years from coast to coast, he felt he had the "Midas touch" and was invincible because of his wealth. His stores were founded on "cash and carry" but he believed it was fine for him to secure huge loans. Although his stores continued to expand during the depression, his other endeavors went bankrupt and left him destitute and publicly shamed. His health broke and he wound up in a sanitarium.6 It was there he learned that "God wanted to possess me, not merely my possessions."7
He worried to the extreme and contracted the shingles, which is the severest pain known to man…. One night, he felt that he would die before morning, and so he started writing farewells to his wife, son, and friends. But by the next morning, as he was lying on bed, he heard singing from the hospital chapel next door: "No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you …."8
He was very conscientious about the impression he left on others and would rather forgo pleasures than mislead others.
At a social function, J.C. Penney, the merchant prince, took ginger ale, and someone mistakenly reported that he drank a cocktail. So he said, "I am sure that a reputation which I value has been endangered by my drinking ginger ale. Hereafter it will be plain water or tomato juice for me."9
He was patriotic, and understood that doing what is right is not the easiest way, but the best way to do things.
As to our country, my faith in our America, in its people and in the "American way of life" is unwavering. Its founding I believe to have been divinely ordained, and God has a mighty mission for it among the nations of the world. It was founded in prayer, in faith, and in the heroic spirit of sacrifice. Lives of comparative ease might have been the lot of our forefathers in their own country had they been willing to surrender their convictions. They chose the "hard right," rather than the "easy wrong."
Penney's unwavering faith in the copybook maxims of his youth roused skepticism in a mercenary age, but his credo underlay his success. At his death on February 12, 1971, Penney, 95, left a 1,660-store empire that he built without compromising the stiff principles he had absorbed from three generations of Baptist-preacher ancestors. He neither smoked nor drank, and for years demanded the same abstemious conduct from his employees. "I believe in adherence to the Golden Rule, faith in God and the country," he often said. "I would rather be known as a Christian than a merchant."10
Photos from J.C. Penney's Company website: www.jcpenney.net.
George Grant, Gregory Wilbur. The Christian Almanac (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2000) pages 226-227.
William J. Federer, Great Quotations (St. Louis, MO: AmeriSearch, 2001). “Penney, James Cash.”
3 American Heritage Center, (Laramie: University of Wyoming, 1998) "Wyoming Citizen of the Century" http://uwadmnweb.uwyo.edu/AHC/citizen/penney.htm
4 J.V. McGee, Thru the Bible Commentary, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1981). Mal 3:9.
5 P.L. Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations (Garland TX: Bible Communications, 1996, c1979).
6 "Wise Counsel" The J.C. Penney Story "The Journey is Priceless" (Jacksonville, Florida, 2000) www.wisecounselonline.com
7 P.L. Tan
8 P.L. Tan
9 P.L. Tan
10 P.L. Tan