Success In Spite Of Adversity
Nothing in the early life of James Cash Penney indicated that his name
would one day become a household word in homes across the United States.
Born in 1875, he grew up on a small farm in Kentucky. His father was a
minister in the Primitive Baptist Church. Both parents were committed
Christians who instilled a deep and abiding faith in their children.
While Penney was a teenager his minister father became the victim of
church politics and was removed from his position. The ensuing financial
hardship for the family meant that Penney had to leave school, taking a
job to help support the family. He began to work as a clerk in a local
store. Although he didn't realize it at the time, this modest start was
providential and would propel him into an illustrious career as a
After working in various stores, Penney was able to purchase a one-third
interest in a dry goods store in Kemmerer, Wyoming. The date was April
14, 1902. Kemmerer was a small mining town of less than 1,000 people.
Penney and his wife lived in a tiny attic apartment above the store.
Their furniture consisted of a large empty dry goods box for a table and
smaller boxes for chairs. When their first child was born, Penney's
young wife wrapped their infant in a blanket, allowing it to sleep under
a counter while she stood beside it, working alongside her husband,
serving their customers.
From that humble beginning J. C. Penney would eventually preside over
1,700 stores. He would lead the country's largest chain of department
stores, each one bearing his name. The influence of Penney's godly
parents became evident with the growth of his business, as he began to
describe his chain as the Golden Rule Stores, based on the words of
Jesus in Matthew 7:12: "Do for others what you would like them to do for
Although his enterprise made him incredibly wealthy, Penney's life was
not devoid of setbacks and troubles. In fact, beginning in 1929, events
took place that nearly cost Penney his life.
When the Great Depression struck the country, it came at a time of great
financial vulnerability for Penney. While his stores continued to do
well, Penney had been adding outside interests, and these were proving
to be extremely costly. In order to finance these interests, Penney
borrowed heavily. In addition, Penney was becoming a major
philanthropist, giving generously to organizations and individuals. The
Depression prompted banks to request repayment of his loans sooner than
anticipated. Suddenly cash flow was tight, and Penney was finding it
difficult to meet payment schedules. Constant and unrelenting worry
began to take a toll. "I was so harassed with worries that I couldn't
sleep, and developed an extremely painful ailment," he said.
Concerned about his deteriorating health, Penney checked himself into
the Kellogg sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan, the Mayo Clinic of its
era. There, Dr. Elmer Eggleston, a staff physician, examined Penney,
declaring that he was extremely ill. "A rigid treatment was prescribed,
but nothing helped," Penney recalled. He was attacked by the twin demons
of hopelessness and despair. His very will to live was rapidly eroding.
"I got weaker day by day. I was broken nervously and physically, filled
with despair, unable to see even a ray of hope. I had nothing to live
for, I felt that I hadn't a friend left in the world, that even my
family had turned against me."
Alarmed by his rapidly deteriorating condition, Dr. Eggleston gave
Penney a sedative. However, the effect quickly wore off, and Penney
awakened with the conviction that he was living the last night of his
life. "Getting out of bed, I wrote farewell letters to my wife and to my
son, saying that I did not expect to live to see the dawn."
Penney awakened the next morning, surprised to find himself alive.
Making his way down the hallway of the hospital, he could hear singing
coming from the little chapel where devotional exercises were held each
morning. The words of the hymn he heard being sung spoke deeply to his
condition. Going into the chapel, he listened with a weary heart to the
singing, the reading of the Scripture lesson, and the prayer. "Suddenly
something happened," he recalled. "I can't explain it. I can only call
it a miracle. I felt as if I had been instantly lifted out of the
darkness of a dungeon into a warm, brilliant sunlight. I felt as if I
had been transported from hell to Paradise. I felt the power of God as I
had never felt it before."
In a life-transforming instant Penney knew that God, with His love, was
there to help. "From that day to this, my life has been free from
worry," he declared. "The most dramatic and glorious 20 minutes of my
life were those I spent in that chapel that morning." The words from the
hymn that spoke so eloquently and miraculously to J. C. Penney were "God
will take care of you."
The hymn God used to save J. C. Penney's life was written by Civilla
Durfee Martin. Not much is known about the hymn writer. She lived
between 1866 and 1948, writing the hymn in 1904. The inspiration for the
words may have come from 1 Peter 5:7: "Give all your worries and cares
to God, for he cares about what happens to you" (NLT). The opening lines
Be not dismayed whate'er betide,
God will take care of you;
Beneath His wings of love abide,
God will take care of you.
God will take care of you,
Through every day, o'er all the way;
He will take care of you,
God will take care of you.
[ by Victor M. Parachin (minister), © 2002 -- from Nancy Simpson, via 'WIT and WISDOM' ]
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