Asa Candler: A generous philanthropist

by Graham McDonald 

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Description automatically generatedThis flowing white writing on a red background is recognisable around the world. Its success is due to Asa G. Candler (1851–1929), whose main motivation in all he attempted was to be faithful to God through using his wealth for good purposes. 

Asa Candler was a very rich man who was successful in real estate development and banking. He faithfully embraced the principle of Christian stewardship. Candler believed that God gives wealth to individuals in order to promote his kingdom on earth. His inspiration was from Jesus’ teaching about not storing up treasures on earth that can be stolen or lost, but storing up treasures in heaven where they will never be stolen or lost. This inspiration led him to support many Christian activities, including the training of young men and women in the teachings of Jesus. 

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The history of Coca-Cola began in 1886 when the curiosity of an Atlanta pharmacist, Dr John S. Pemberton, led him to create a distinctive-tasting soft drink that could be sold at soda fountains (shops that sold soft drinks or ‘soda’). He created a flavoured syrup and took it to his neighbourhood pharmacy, where it was mixed with carbonated (fizzy) water. People who tried it said it was “excellent”. Dr Pemberton’s partner and bookkeeper, Frank M. Robinson, is credited with naming the beverage “Coca-Cola” as well as designing the trademarked, distinctive writing in the logo, which is still used today. 

Prior to his death in 1888, just two years after creating what was to become the world’s best-selling sparkling beverage, Dr Pemberton sold portions of his business to various people, and the largest portion went to Atlanta businessman, Asa Candler. Under Candler’s leadership, distribution of Coca-Cola expanded to soda fountains beyond Atlanta.  

Initially, Coca-Cola was only available at stores with soda fountains; but in 1894, impressed by the growing demand for Coca-Cola and the desire to make the drink portable, Joseph Biedenharn installed bottling machinery in the rear of his Mississippi soda fountain, becoming the first to put Coca-Cola in bottles. 

Large-scale bottling was made possible just five years later, when in 1899, three enterprising businessmen in Chattanooga, Tennessee secured exclusive rights to bottle and sell Coca- Cola. The three entrepreneurs purchased the bottling rights from Asa Candler for just $1. Benjamin Thomas, Joseph Whitehead and John Lupton developed what became the Coca-Cola worldwide bottling system. 

One of Asa Candler’s marketing strategies was to create an intriguing mystery about the ingredients of Coca-Cola. Originally it was marketed as a “brain and nerve tonic”, containing a tiny amount of cocaine from coca leaves, and caffeine from kola nuts, together with sugar, cinnamon and other flavourings, and caramel for colour. 

While the formula remains secret to this day, we do know that the cocaine was removed by Asa Candler in 1903 because cocaine use was rapidly and dangerously increasing among disadvantaged members of society, and the Coca-Cola company didn’t want to contribute to this problem. The bottling of Coca-Cola had enabled a larger proportion of the population to have access to this drink because the product was inexpensive and easily accessible. (This was eleven years before the American administration made cocaine an illicit drug.) 

When the cocaine was removed, more caffeine and sugar were added for a ‘healthier’ drink. A Supreme Court decision in 1916 instructed Coca-Cola to reduce the caffeine content. 

After a while, companies competing with Coca-Cola started making drinks that imitated it. As real Coca-Cola was put into differently shaped bottles depending on where it was made, it became hard to tell what was the genuine product. The bottlers agreed that a distinctive drink needed a standardised and distinctive bottle, and in 1916, the bottlers approved the unique “contour bottle”. The shape of the new Coca-Cola bottle was so distinctive it could be recognised in the dark and it effectively set the brand apart from the competition. The contoured Coca-Cola bottle was trademarked in 1977. 

So Asa Candler was a clever and successful businessman; but he did not keep his success to himself. As someone who took Christian stewardship seriously, he knew he wanted to use his money in positive ways, and to benefit others. 

One way he gave back to the community around him was to help the Methodist Church to establish a Christian university, where students could study at a place where they would learn about the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, both for the wellbeing of the students and to benefit society. 

Asa Candler offer ‘seed money’ to help get this project started and donated some land in Atlanta where the new university campus could be built. Asa’s brother Warren Candler was a Methodist Bishop, and he became the first chancellor of the new campus. 

As the students at the new Emory University were heavily involved in Christian activities on Sundays, classes were held from Tuesday to Saturday. 

While this worked well for the Christian students, it did create an issue for the Jewish students who wanted to study at Emory. It is important to Orthodox Jews that they embrace  Shabbat (their sabbath) as a time of rest and celebration. Shabbat begins before sunset on Friday and ends after sunset on Saturday. The chancellor had discussions with a local Rabbi (Jewish leader and teacher), and it was agreed that Jewish students would not be required to attend Saturday classes.  

In 1922, a Methodist Church-founded teaching hospital became part of this endeavour, becoming Emory University Hospital. This teaching hospital adjacent to the university’s medical school was made possible by a gift of nearly $2 million from Asa Candler.  

Emory University played an important role in integrating African American and Jewish students into the university during the late 1950s and the early 1960s, a time when many racist attitudes and racial barriers made this kind of integration difficult. The Church viewed Emory as a place for people from different backgrounds, and a place where future leaders of society would mature. 

Candler had sold the Coca-Cola business in 1919 for $25 million (which in today’s market would be an even more enormous sum of money!) and used his wealth to devote his energy to philanthropy (giving to good causes and helping people in need). This legacy was carried on by his son, Charles Howard Candler, who shared his father’s love for Emory University. Charles’s gifts to Emory added up to around $13 million, showing that Asa’s Christian generosity had well and truly been passed down to the next generation. 

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