Bethany's Presbyterian Church: Bethany Sunday School and Church — Founded By John Wanamaker
In 1865, John Wanamaker moved the Bethany Sunday School to 22nd and Brainbridge Street, expanding it into the Bethany Presbyterian Church. The Sunday School originally was established in 1858 when Wanamaker decided to start his own Sunday school.
It began in a rented room near his Philadelphia home, at 1926 Lombard Street, though not successfully at first. Many of the children from the neighborhood were in gangs and showed up to the school with clubs chasing the school members out. The Sunday school became much more successful when it relocated to a public school building nearby. After just two years, it had 234 students and 17 teachers. The school also had grown large enough that it had its own permanent building.
By 1865, when the school had over 900 students, Wanamaker made his decision to move the school and add a church. He hired Rev. Samuel T. Lowrie to take over. The church grew until it was the largest in the city with over 3,000 seats in the Sunday school and space for 2,300 in the church itself. Bethany was much more than just a church and Sunday school, however. The school gave both fuel and food to the families so that cold and hunger would not stop children from attending school. Outreach programs also included personal and job counseling, as well as health services. For those who were not a part of the church, members ran a soup kitchen and provided clothes to those in need.
Wanamaker was still very involved in the church as it continued to expand. He taught in and supervised the school. Wanamaker was Superintendent for three years. He often gave money himself to those in need, and he ran the Brotherhood, a group of 400 men who met for Bible study. He also lectured to the Bible Union. In 1908, he sent cards to everyone in the congregation while on vacation. He would also make time to visit members who were sick and sometimes went as far as paying for their medical bills.
To him religion was much like a business. Each of the groups in which he participated was a way of attracting people to the church, spiking their interest in religion. Once they were there, he hoped people would stay and become members. In order to attract even more people, Wanamaker brought in popular visiting preachers to make the sermons as interesting as possible.
Wanamaker also opened the Penny Savings Bank in a room in the church on November 1, 1989. It became a very important savings and loan society. The bank expanded to the point where it was doing the “largest business in small accounts out of any savings bank in the world,” according to a newspaper clipping from 1915. Later on, the Penny Savings Bank was taken over by the Western Saving Fund Society.
By 1904, the complexion of the neighborhood surrounding the church had changed, now including many people of Jewish and Italian heritage. Additionally, many Bethany members were now living in West Philadelphia so Wanamaker wanted to build a new church closer to the congregation. St. Paul Presbyterian Church was started in West Philadelphia by members of Bethany who left. The Bethany church, however, continued to expand at its location at Brainbridge, and, in 1947, the church decided to move to Havertown. The ground breaking for the new site was on Sunday May 16, 1948; the latest church officially opened on September 27, 1949. Bethany Church still exists today.
- Ershkowitz, Herbert. John Wanamaker : Philadelphia merchant. Conshohocren, PA : Combined Pub., 1999.
- Wasson, Samuel A. History of the Bethany Presbyterian Church and Sunday school : 1858-1958. Philadelphia, 1958.