As we prepare with anticipation for Westminster’s 2017 Green Foundation lecture by Sen. Bernie Sanders, we take a look back at some of the top leaders who have delivered the lecture over the years. The most famous of our John Findley Green Foundation lecturers, Sir Winston Churchill is often the first name that enters most people’s minds. Three years later, the Green Foundation lecturer who followed Churchill’s footsteps holds his own claim to fame and is one of the most famous sons that Missouri has ever produced — J. C. Penney.
Born on a farm outside the rural community of Hamilton, MO, Penney took the small cash-and-carry store in a wooden shack he first opened in the coal mining town of Kemmerer, WY in 1902 and built it into a department store empire of 1600 stores. Penney attributed his tremendous success to following the Golden Rule in the way he treated employee and customer alike.
“As you wish to be done by, so you must do,” he said.
While he put a great deal of the responsibility for success in the hands of his individual store managers (hiring, training, advertising, price markdowns, and sales), he shared the profits with them as well.
His visit to Westminster was actually three lectures over two days, October 25-26, 1949, under the theme of “The Spiritual Basis for Improving Human Relations.” His first lecture, given on Tuesday evening, was on the autobiographical theme of “The Well-Springs of Spiritual Life and Power.”
The second lecture, “The Golden Rule of Business and Industry,” was given at a special convocation on Wednesday morning in Swope Chapel where he was given an honorary L.L.D. degree. When conferring the degree, Board of Trustee Chair Paul B. Jamison from St. Louis introduced Penney by saying: “He has demonstrated that business and Christian ethics need not be incompatible…By his sound counsel to young men and women, by his wise philanthropies, and by his support of Christ’s work, he has bought honor upon himself in his humility he did not seek.”
Then on Wednesday evening, he concluded with his Green Foundation lecture, “The Spiritual Factor in American Development and Destiny.”
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said his “ringing voice and sturdy frame belie his white hair,” as Penney proclaimed, “In a democracy such as ours, where human values are set above everything else, men cannot be mere pawns to be shifted about upon the chess board of expediency and the will of whoever plays the game. Since the very essence of that democracy is cooperation between free men, one of the surest means of losing all is maintaining the hostility of class toward class.”
As this brief quote from Penney illustrates, the thoughts expressed in Green Foundation lectures are both timely for the real world of their age and timeless in their wisdom for future generations.