Once Famous, Now Forgotten
NOTE:This article is reprinted with permission from As I See It, a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at email@example.com.
by Doug Kutilek
Russell H. Conwell was a man of great notoriety and fame in the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century in America. Today, except for the preservation of his name in Gordon-Conwell Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, he is virtually unknown. Who was he? What did he accomplish in life? Does he merit the obscurity into which he has fallen?
Born in western Massachusetts in 1843 into a devout and abjectly poor Methodist/abolitionist home (John Brown was a frequent visitor and close family friend), Conwell ultimately attended Yale College for a year preceding the Civil War (and there became a proud agnostic/“free thinker”) before serving in the Union army, first as a captain of infantry, but ultimately promoted to lieutenant-colonel. His personal servant during the war, an undersized friend named John Ring, who volunteered to accompany him in the service, was a regular Bible-reading, fully committed Christian, a thing which greatly aggravated Conwell. Ring, at the risk and price of his own life, rescued in the heat of battle a decorative sword given to Conwell by his community at the time of his departure for the war. Ring’s death deeply affected Conwell, who was himself converted, and apparently genuinely so, after being severely wounded some six months later in Northern Georgia.
After the war, Conwell was by turns a lawyer, professional lecturer, newspaper editor and correspondent, and professional writer, both in Minnesota and around Boston (he wrote campaign biographies of many Republican presidential candidates including James A. Garfield and James G. Blaine), and had traveled extensively world-wide before entering the ministry in his late 30s in 1879. He had sensed a call to the ministry some years earlier (even from childhood), but had tried to ignore it and seek other occupations. While still a practicing attorney, he became a member of Tremont Temple Baptist Church (though there is no mention in any of the four biographies I consulted of his submitting to believer’s baptism, though surely he must have), and began a Bible class that grew to 800 members and 3,000 attendees. He enrolled for a year at nearby Newton Seminary, and was ordained by a council led by the seminary president, noted Baptist theologian Alvah Hovey. He practically “fell” into leading a very small congregation in Massachusetts where he remained, with remarkable growth in the congregation, for eighteen months. He was then invited to lead a struggling church in Philadelphia where the great bulk of his ministry occurred.
The Philadelphia church grew quickly, and in a matter of a few years became and remained the largest Protestant congregation in America, with regular attendance over 3,000, and some 10,000 baptisms during his ministry. Almost by spontaneous generation, a college—named Temple College (later University)—was begun to provide formal education for the working-class masses that attended the church and lived in its general vicinity. Ultimately, the school covered everything from ninth grade to graduate school, and in Conwell’s lifetime had had more than 100,000 students pass through its doors. The school began accepting state funds in the 1910s, and is a large and famous (now entirely secularized) university still. From sources consulted, it seems that the focus of the school was almost entirely on the academic side, as a means to “success” (a lifelong theme of Conwell’s lecturing and preaching), but the spiritual side was given short shrift. (In bold contrast to this, Spurgeon, to whom Conwell has been favorably compared by some, began a college that was entirely spiritually focused, with academics an adjunct to that end). The seminary portion of Temple University, the Conwell School of Theology, was merged with Gordon Divinity School in South Hamilton, Massachusetts in 1969, creating the present neo-evangelical Gordon-Conwell Seminary.
Also to meet the humanitarian needs of the masses in the area surrounding the Temple, Conwell and church began one hospital and took over management of another (at that time, hospitals for the ill or injured were rare, with most of the afflicted suffering—and often dying—at home), which grew dramatically and physically aided many thousands.
Conwell’s ministry corresponded with the period in which the so-called “social gospel” was in its heyday. That “gospel” focused on meeting the temporal, earthly perceived needs of the masses of mankind, to the neglect, even ignoring, of the eternal spiritual needs of man (indeed, many at the forefront of the social gospel movement rejected the fundamental teachings of the Biblical Gospel, and sought to substitute something more “practical” and “useful” to mankind). Much of Conwell’s ministry in Philadelphia seemed to major on the social gospel, at times to the apparent exclusion of the Biblical Gospel. Of course, the matter at issue is not over whether we believers in Jesus have an obligation to meet the genuine physical needs of our fellow man, but in letting that temporal focus become the tail that wags the dog, to the neglect of the most socially-transforming message there is—the message of the conversion of sinners to Christ through repentance and faith.
The lecture (one of dozens he was noted for) through which Conwell became nationally famous, viz. “Acres of Diamonds,” was reportedly delivered over 5,000 times (some say over 6,000), and was heard collectively by hundreds of thousands. Counting all his lectures (he traveled the summer lecture circuit regularly before and while pastoring) and sermons, it is claimed that he addressed in all more than 8,000,000 hearers. He was paid for his lectures, though he devoted all the proceeds of “Acres” and his other lectures to the education of young men, by paying part of their college expenses (he reportedly helped thousands this way).
“Acres of Diamonds,” is Conwell’s version of “the Gospel of self-achievement” which is based on the premise “God helps those who help themselves” (almost these exact words are said of Temple University on p. 141 of Acres of Diamonds; see bibliography). Frankly, the lecture as published is totally devoid of the Biblical Gospel of Christ. No mention of sin, repentance, the cross, faith in Christ, obedience to God, worship, prayer. Of course, man’s chief need is not to “succeed” or reach his earthly potential or seize and make the most of the opportunities that life puts in his way, but to be reconciled to God through repentance of his sins and personal faith and commitment to Jesus Christ as his only hope of salvation. That Conwell could speak to multiplied thousands and urge a life of achievement but leave out this most important matter is nothing short of dereliction of duty (contrast Spurgeon, whose “lectures” always came out more or less as Gospel sermons, as he himself freely admitted). J. R. Wimmer, in the article on Conwell in Dictionary of Baptists in America, edited by Bill J. Leonard (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, p. 93) states, and with apparent full justification, that Conwell’s approach and emphasis on success and wealth prepared the way for such 20th century preachers of self-actualization and success as Bruce Barton, Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller. No more discrediting comment can be imagined. Conwell’s famous lecture will not repay the reader who takes the time to examine it.
Conwell’s sermons, which he never wrote out, were taken down by a secretary and published weekly, after Conwell’s editing of them, in the church’s newspaper. I have read one volume of these, Unused Powers (Revell, 1922). I had additional access to some of his sermonic (or “theological”) material in a series of brief outlines of some of his sermons in Burr’s biography of Conwell along with a written baby-dedication service (pp. 391-402). Judged on the basis of these sermons and outlines, there was very little of the Bible or Gospel truth in Conwell’s preaching. In the entire 160-page book of sermons (ten in all), the Biblical Gospel is not once plainly present, and at best hinted at at most a time or two. Indeed there is more “gospel” in the average Catholic Mass than in all the hundreds of pages of Conwell’s sermonic, lecture and devotional literature I have read. He seems to have taught a salvation by imitating the character of Christ, and ignores, in a sermon on Acts 16:31 (“What must I do to be saved?”), the whole issue of self-abandonment and personal commitment to Christ, and does similarly in one on John 6:68 (“To whom shall we go?”). In preaching on John 10:18 (“I have power to take it again”), he scarcely touches at all on Christ’s physical resurrection, using the text instead to encourage picking oneself up and dusting oneself off when faced with life’s failures, thereby completely missing the substance of the text. Most of the outlines can only be described as absolutely horrid and non-Biblical. The baby dedication is a virtual “dry christening” differing from the typical “infant baptism” only in the absence of a few drops of water on the forehead. Such preaching as this would never build a God-honoring, true Gospel ministry, and whatever outward (numerical) “success” attended Conwell’s Philadelphia ministry, it must have had other causes than his preaching or the power of God.
Conwell’s “expositional” technique was usually to take a single phrase or line from a Biblical text, lift it out of its context, ignore what it plainly declared, read into it what it did not say, and use this isolated text as a pretext for some commonplace “uplifting” observations. No first year Bible college student in homiletics or practice preaching would gain a passing grade for such a performance, and yet this Conwell did week by week, month by month, year by year.
The cause of the theological threadbare-ness of Conwell’s sermons became evident upon reading Albert Hatcher Smith’s 1899 biography of Conwell. Smith in this admiring biography wrote: “When in Philadelphia he is busy every minute of his time at church, college, or hospital, but seldom in his study.” (p. 238). He further remarked, “A vivid and inspiring [word] picture has been the salvation of many of Conwell’s hastily prepared sermons” (p. 245; emphasis added). In fact, Smith, in a most candid passage says, “Mr. Conwell is a sermonic lecturer rather than a preacher, as that term is ordinarily used. He is not a theologian. He is not an expository preacher. He is not homiletical in his sermonizing. Nevertheless, he holds and blesses people by his pulpit utterances as do few men of to-day. His sermons are often of such a fragmentary and story-telling fashion as scarcely to deserve the name of sermon. They are plain, practical talks upon some one idea, and three-fourths of the time is consumed in illustrating that idea by every-day incidents and historical references. It is a wonder how he can hold such a vast concourse of people year after year and feed them on such a scanty diet.” (pp. 155-6). And this from a friendly and admiring biographer!
While pastoring, at least until around 1900, Conwell was on the road lecturing 200 nights per year, and usually on secular subjects. His sermons could only have materially improved had he followed the advice of Spurgeon, whose biography he churned out in a scant two weeks and whom he claimed to greatly admire, in making his pulpit preparations ‘the chiefest focus of his ministerial labors’ (a Spurgeon quote the exact location of which I cannot put my finger on just now). Spurgeon also declared “Your people need discourses which have been prayed over and laboriously prepared” (Lectures to My Students, series I, p. 142, Baker reprint edition). This Conwell seems decidedly not to have done, but rather relied on his famous “eloquence” and wide experience to see him through.
Repeatedly, it is affirmed by his biographers that Conwell believed in the great foundational truths of Christianity. It is reported of his first pastorate in Lexington, Massachusetts that “He kept close to the fundamentals of Scripture, affirming that the Savior’s death upon the cross was the vicarious sacrifice for human sin, without an interest in which no man can enter the kingdom of God” (Smith, p. 153). Of his Philadelphia ministry, we read: “Conwell is ‘orthodox’ in his theology. In his church where the results have been so wonderful, and where great emphasis is laid upon works, justification by faith is recognized as the fundamental article of Christian life” (Smith, 168). Toward the close of Conwell’s life, a pre-Northern Baptist convention conference in Buffalo, New York in June, 1920 (at the height of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy), issued a call to restate and reaffirm the great fundamental doctrines of the faith. This call carried over 100 signatures, including those of such well-known vocal Fundamentalist Baptists as Curtis Lee Laws, John Roach Straton, J. C. Massee and W. B. Riley. Conwell’s name is also among those there affirming belief in the great fundamental doctrines (see Baptist Fundamentals. Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1920). The book Acres of Diamonds does affirm Conwell’s belief that the Bible is all true (p. 24). However, in spite of these various affirmations, such foundational doctrines remarkably have virtually no emphasis or mention elsewhere in Conwell’s published sermons and lectures known to me. They are most notable by their conspicuous absence.
In 1924, the year before his death, Conwell published Six Nights in the Garden of Gethsemane (Revell; 76 pp.). It consists of stories reportedly told to him by an aged Greek Orthodox monk in 1869 and 1870, during a six month-stay in the Holy Land. Conwell apparently kept notes of what this monk told him (in German, the one common language between them), and used them to compose this brief volume. Conwell says that the difference between his beliefs and the monk’s were chiefly matters of custom and formalities. The monk, possessed of a vivid imagination, regularly and deliberately worked himself up into a frenzied state, and then had visions, “revelations” or whatever they might be, supposedly of events and people of Bible times. His accounts are mainly contrived, hokey, absurd, and not infrequently contrary to Scripture or are factually inaccurate. Yet Conwell thought them worthy of publication, though they be entirely devoid of Gospel and sound doctrine. Apparently this fiction was deemed better than genuine Holy Land meditations about real, Biblical persons and events. The remarkable but consistent biblical nothingness renders Conwell’s published sermons and lectures totally worthless today.
A comparison and contrast between Spurgeon (whose biography Conwell wrote—reviewed AISI 9:5) and Conwell may be instructive. Spurgeon built and pastored the largest Protestant/ Baptist church in England (seating over 5,000) and did so by decidedly Biblical preaching and for eternal ends. Conwell built and pastored the largest Protestant/ Baptist church in America (seating over 3,100) and did so with what—a Gospel of success? Certainly it was not with a clear and clarion preaching of Biblical theology. Spurgeon began a college to train men to proclaim the everlasting Gospel. Conwell began a college (later a university) to facilitate the education of the common man so that he might achieve greater things in this life. Spurgeon founded orphanages to meet not just the temporal needs of children, but to train them for eternity. Conwell began or assumed control over hospitals to treat the temporal physical needs of the neglected masses. Spurgeon’s writings prepared men for time and eternity. Conwell focused on preparing men for time. Spurgeon is very much remembered, praised, studied, admired and emulated. Conwell is almost entirely forgotten.
It is claimed that Conwell learned Greek and Hebrew as well as five modern foreign languages, chiefly while commuting on trains. Judging from his treatment of Greek and Hebrew as evidenced in his lecture “Let there be light,” I must conclude that his knowledge of these languages was very highly defective and deficient. Of his supposed knowledge of modern languages, I can give no opinion.
Conwell was twice married—his first wife died in 1872 after 7 years of marriage, leaving two small children; he remarried in 1874, and outlived the second wife as well as the one child of this second marriage, a daughter, who died at age 26.
That Conwell was truly converted, I have little doubt. But equally, I have little doubt that he failed to strongly and forcefully proclaim that Gospel message of repentance and faith that saved his soul. It certainly was not the focus or emphasis of his lectures and preaching. To that degree, he must be deemed a failure, and a man whose life need not detain the reader’s attention, except as a negative example.
Notes on sources—
Acres of Diamonds. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1915. 181 pp.) is one of several published versions of Conwell’s famous lecture of the same name about self-achievement. In actuality, the lecture occupies only pp. 2-59 of this book. There follows His [viz., Russell H. Conwell’s] Life and Achievements by Robert Shackleton, pp. 61-170, a vague puff-piece very much short on specifics, and barren of any spiritual matter—it even lacks an account of Conwell’s conversion; and Fifty Years on the Lecture Platform by Russell H. Conwell, pp. 171-181, the briefest attempt at autobiography.
Six Nights in the Garden of Gethsemane. (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1924. 76 pp.). The accounts, 50+ years after the fact, of self-induced visions (delusions?) of a Greek Orthodox monk in Jerusalem, told to Conwell during his Holy Land visit in his mid-20s. Often fictional and contrived, and completely barren of any sound Bible teaching.
Russell H. Conwell by Albert Hatcher Smith. (Boston: Silver, Burdett & Co, 1899. 335 pp.). Written in a very florid and thereby often tedious style. Not the first book-length Conwell biography (Smith mentions several earlier works, including one by someone named Burdette), written by a member of his Philadelphia church when Conwell was in his early 60s. Also contains a condensed form of the “Acres” speech, and a lecture, “Let There Be Light,” a text badly misapplied by Conwell.
Russell H. Conwell and His Work by Agnes Rush Burr. (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co, 1926. 438 pp.). With a version of Conwell’s Acres of Diamonds appended. An “authorized” biography with Conwell’s assistance. Nearly completed before his death in 1925, with supplemental material added. A well done “popular” biography, with numerous photos. Good on details and specifics in Conwell’s life, and with much more of the spiritual side than Shackelton’s account.
“Conwell, Russell Herman, “The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, edited by Samuel M. Jackson. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963 reprint. Vol. III, pp. 263-4. Erroneously gives his year of birth as 1842, and implies that Conwell pastored two different churches in Philadelphia (the truth—one church known by two different names).
“Conwell, Russell Herman,” by Raymond W. Albright, in Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, edited by Lefferts A. Loetscher. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1955. Vol. I, p. 298.
“Conwell, Russell Herman, “ The New 20th Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, edited by J. D. Douglas. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991. 2nd ed. p. 236. Gives some bibliography of Conwell’s published writings. Like the SHERK article, erroneously gives his year of birth as 1842, and implies that Conwell pastored two different churches in Philadelphia.
“Conwell, Russell Herman, “ in The Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church, by Elgin Moyer, revised and enlarged by Earle E. Cairns. Chicago: Moody Press, 1982. Pp. 100-1.
“Conwell, Russell Herman,” by J. R. Wimmer, in Dictionary of Baptists in American, edited by Bill J. Leonard. Downer’s Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, p. 93. In its bibliography a 1979 book on Conwell is reported, viz., D. W. Bjork’s Victorian Flight: Russell Conwell and the Crisis of American Individualism, which I have not seen.