Russell Conwell

Russell Conwell
Russell Herman Conwell
Born February 15, 1843(1843-02-15)
South Worthington, Massachusetts
Died December 6, 1925(1925-12-06) (aged 82)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Occupation Baptist minister, orator, philanthropist, lawyer, and writer
Known for Founder and first president of Temple University

Russell Herman Conwell (February 15, 1843 – December 6, 1925) was an American Baptist minister, orator, philanthropist, lawyer, and writer. He is best remembered as the founder and first president of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as the Pastor of The Baptist Temple, and for his inspirational lecture Acres of Diamonds. He was born in South Worthington, Massachusetts and was buried in the Founder's Garden at Temple University.[1]


Early life

The son of Massachusetts farmers, Conwell left home to attend the Wilbraham Wesleyan Academy and later Yale University. In 1862, before graduating from Yale, he enlisted in the Union Army during the American Civil War. From 1862-1864 Conwell served as a captain of a volunteer regiment. He was dismissed from the military after being charged with deserting his post at Newport Barracks, North Carolina. (While Conwell claimed that he was later reinstated by General James B. McPherson, no military records confirm his statement.)[2]

After the Civil War, Conwell studied law at the Albany Law School. Over the next several years, he worked as an attorney, journalist, and lecturer first in Minneapolis and then in Boston. Additionally, during this period, he published about ten books—including campaign biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James A. Garfield. In 1880, he was ordained as a Baptist minister and took over a congregation in Lexington, Massachusetts.[3]

Role as a Baptist minister

Russell H. Conwell joined the pastorate of the Grace Baptist Church of Philadelphia before the church had heard him preach. Brother Alexander Reed had heard Conwell preach when he visited him at Lexington, Massachusetts. Brother Reed was an outstanding leader of the church and recommended that Conwell become the new pastor. The official "call" was made on October 16, 1882. Conwell arrived at Philadelphia on a Friday evening and was met by a group of men from the Church. The group consisted of Deacons Stoddard and Singley, also Enos Spare and Spencer VanHorn. They escorted him to the church at Mervine and Berks Streets in Philadelphia. Deacon Reed was leading a prayer meeting at that time. Here pastor and members met for the first time.

Conwell preached on the following Sunday in the lower room of the basement—later to be called the Lecture Room, as the Upper Main Audience Room was yet unfinished. Workmen were still finishing the frescoing, placing the pews, stained glass windows and carpeting, etc. This church building was later dedicated by Conwell on December 3, 1882.

The Public Ledger reported the following about the new minister and the new church. The December 4, 1882 issue read:

Dedication of a New Baptist Church services conducted by the Rev. Russell H. Conwell, late of Massachusetts. The church proper on the upper story is in the form of an amphitheater, and has seating capacity for between six and seven hundred persons. It is finished with great taste and completeness. The ceiling is frescoed, the windows are of stained glass and the pews of hard wood and handsomely upholstered. The edifice cost about $70,000.

Conwell ended evening services with an hour of prayer, leading the song service, and giving remarks along the lines of his sermon. The musical pastor often contributed a solo during the evening service.

The story of Hattie May Wiatt is one of importance to the Baptist Temple as it describes the role of a child in encouraging the congregation to grow and build a new church building. Hattie was found crying because there was not enough room in the Sunday School for her to attend. Conwell placed her on his shoulders and carried her through the waiting crowds into the church. She began saving her pennies to build a larger Sunday School. She had saved only fifty-seven cents when she contracted diphtheria and died. Her parents gave the money to Conwell with an explanation of her reason for saving the money. The 57 pennies were later used as the first down payment for the Broad and Berks building. Hattie May Wiatt's picture can still be found on the wall of the Children's Sunday School room.

This story so touched Conwell that he repeated it many times. The Wiatt Mite Society was formed to carry on Hattie’s dream. The society continued for many years.

In September 1887 at the Centennial celebration of the United States Constitution, money received from the Wiatt Mite Society was given "for the success of the new Temple". This was the first time the name "Temple" was used in place of the church name.

The membership of the church continued to grow under the leadership of Conwell. In 1885, a letter to the Philadelphia Association stated:

The year that has passed since we met with you has been a year of uninterrupted growth and prosperity, spiritual, social and financial. Our church is much too small for those who desire to worship with us and our vestry rooms far too small for our Sabbath School. We are setting our faces as a united people toward a new and much larger house of worship, awaiting the Lord’s time and direction in the matter. The following are the statistics for the year: United by baptism 149, of whom 34 came from the Sabbath School; total membership 700, with 975 scholars in Sabbath School. Home church expenses, $9,465.

On June 28, 1886, a committee was appointed to consider a new building. They investigated a lot at the corner of Broad and Berks Streets. A few days later the congregation agreed to purchase the lot. The first down payment for the lot was the fifty-seven cents. The property was conveyed to the church on January 31, 1887.

In 1888, the youth group considered becoming a world-wide youth organization. The pastor was a speaker at a Christian Endeavor convention. Conwell was very impressed by the purpose and enthusiasm of the group. He later recommended the Christian Endeavor to the youth group of the church. On September 10, 1888, the Society of Christian Endeavor was finally organized. Frank Bauder became acting Chairman, The members were led in prayer by Deacon Moss. Then, the members elected Frank Bauder. The Christian Endeavor youth groups continued to meet at the Church until the 1960s.

Charles M. Davis, a young deacon, approached the pastor with his desire to preach. However, Davis had little education and was without the necessary funds to continue his studies. Conwell agreed to tutor him. Over the next few days, seven prospective students met with Conwell, and Temple College was conceived. Ultimately, Conwell became Dr. Conwell, president of the college, now known as Temple University.

As the membership continued to grow to over one thousand and the Sunday School to even greater members, a larger facility was desperately needed. Consequently, on Monday, March 29, 1889, a contract was negotiated to build the new church for $109,000. This figure included only the building itself.

William Bucknell agreed to give $10,000. The ground was broken for the new building on Wednesday, March 27, 1889. The cornerstone was laid on Saturday, July 13, 1889. As the new church building was nearing completion, the pastor wanted to test the acoustics. A group of five members met in the sanctuary as Conwell read Habakkuk 2:20: "The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him." The acoustics proved to be excellent.

On February 15, 1891, Conwell preached his last sermon in the old church at Mervine and Berks Streets. He preached the first sermon at the new building on March 1. Sixty persons were baptized in the afternoon and several addresses were given. The Rev. L. B. Hartman, the first minister, was present. The celebration continued throughout the week and the church was filled to capacity at all of the services. The new church later became known as The Baptist Temple.

The congregation of the church continues today as The Grace Baptist Church.

Acres of Diamonds

Russell H. Conwell: Acres of Diamonds

"Acres of Diamonds" originated as a speech which Conwell delivered over 6,000 times around the world. It was first published in 1890 by the John Y. Huber Company of Philadelphia.[4]

The central idea of the work is that one need not look elsewhere for opportunity, achievement, or fortune—the resources to achieve all good things are present in one's own community. This theme is developed by an introductory anecdote, told to Conwell by an Arab guide, about a man who wanted to find diamonds so badly that he sold his property and went off in futile search for them; the new owner of his home discovered that a rich diamond mine was located right there on the property. Conwell elaborates on the theme through examples of success, genius, service, or other virtues involving ordinary Americans contemporary to his audience: "dig in your own back-yard!".

In A People's History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn comments that the message was that anyone could get rich if he tried hard enough while implying that Conwell held elitist attitudes by quoting the following from his speech:

"I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich.... The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community. Let me say here clearly .. . ninety-eight out of one hundred of the rich men of America are honest. That is why they are rich. That is why they are trusted with money. That is why they carry on great enterprises and find plenty of people to work with them. It is because they are honest men. ... ... I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathised with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins ... is to do wrong.... let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings. ..."

Conwell's capacity to establish Temple University and his other civic projects largely derived from the income that he earned from this speech. The book has been regarded as a classic of New Thought literature since the 1870s.[5]


His name lives on, as well, in the present-day Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (with campuses in South Hamilton and Boston, Massachusetts and Charlotte, North Carolina). This interdenominational evangelical theological seminary was formed in 1969 by the merger of two former divinity schools (Conwell School of Theology of Temple University in Philadelphia and Gordon Divinity School in Wenham, Massachusetts).

The author Russell Conwell Hoban was named for him.[6] A middle magnet school in Philadelphia bears his name as well. The school yearbook is entitled "Acres of Diamonds," and has also been commonly known to reference its students by that title [Acres of Diamonds}. Temple University's football team also wear diamond decals on their helmets and diamond trim on their collars to reference Conwell's Acre of Diamonds speech.[7]


  1. ^ Find-A-Grave profile for Russell Herman Conwell
  2. ^ John Wimmers, "Conwell, Russell Herman," American National Biography Online, Accessed September 2008
  3. ^ John Wimmers, "Conwell, Russell Herman," American National Biography Online, Accessed September 2008
  4. ^
  5. ^ Ellwood, R.S. (1997) The fifties spiritual marketplace: American religion in a decade of conflict. Rutgers University Press, . p 225.
  6. ^ A brief biography of Russell Hoban
  7. ^

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
New Position
President of Temple University
1887 –1925
Succeeded by
Charles Ezra Beury

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