IT is not because he is a minister that Russell Conwell is such a force in the world. He went into the ministry because he was sincerely and profoundly a Christian, and because he felt that as a minister he could do more good in the world than in any other capacity. But being a minister is but an incident, so to speak. The important thing is not that he is a minister, but that he is himself!
Recently I heard a New-Yorker, the head of a great corporation, say: "I believe that Russell Conwell is doing more good in the world than any man who has lived since Jesus Christ." And he said this in serious and unexaggerated earnest.
Yet Conwell did not get readily into his life-work. He might have seemed almost a failure until he was well on toward forty, for although he kept making successes they were not permanent successes, and he did not settle himself into a definite line. He restlessly went westward to make his home, and then restlessly returned to the East. After the war was over he was a lawyer, he was a lecturer, he was an editor, he went around the world as a correspondent, he wrote books. He kept making money, and kept losing it; he lost it through fire, through investments, through aiding his friends. It is probable that the unsettledness of the years following the war was due to the unsettling effect of the war itself, which thus, in its influence, broke into his mature life after breaking into his years at Yale. But however that may be, those seething, changing, stirring years were years of vital importance to him, for in the myriad experiences of that time he was building the foundation of the Conwell that was to come. Abroad he met the notables of the earth. At home he made hosts of friends and loyal admirers.
It is worth while noting that as a lawyer he would never take a case, either civil or criminal, that he considered wrong. It was basic with him that he could not and would not fight on what he thought was the wrong side. Only when his client was right would he go ahead!
Yet he laughs, his quiet, infectious, characteristic laugh, as he tells of how once he was deceived, for he defended a man, charged with stealing a watch, who was so obviously innocent that he took the case in a blaze of indignation and had the young fellow proudly exonerated. The next day the wrongly accused one came to his office and shamefacedly took out the watch that he had been charged with stealing. "I want you to send it to the man I took it from," he said. And he told with a sort of shamefaced pride of how he had got a good old deacon to give, in all sincerity, the evidence that exculpated him. "And, say, Mr. Conwell—I want to thank you for getting me off—and I hope you'll excuse my deceiving you—and—I won't be any worse for not going to jail." And Conwell likes to remember that thereafter the young man lived up to the pride of exoneration; and, though Conwell does not say it or think it, one knows that it was the Conwell influence that inspired to honesty—for always he is an inspirer.
Conwell even kept certain hours for consultation with those too poor to pay any fee; and at one time, while still an active lawyer, he was guardian for over sixty children! The man has always been a marvel, and always one is coming upon such romantic facts as these.
That is a curious thing about him—how much there is of romance in his life! Worshiped to the end by John Ring; left for dead all night at Kenesaw Mountain; calmly singing "Nearer, my God, to Thee," to quiet the passengers on a supposedly sinking ship; saving lives even when a boy; never disappointing a single audience of the thousands of audiences he has arranged to address during all his years of lecturing! He himself takes a little pride in this last point, and it is characteristic of him that he has actually forgotten that just once he did fail to appear: he has quite forgotten that one evening, on his way to a lecture, he stopped a runaway horse to save two women's lives, and went in consequence to a hospital instead of to the platform! And it is typical of him to forget that sort of thing.
The emotional temperament of Conwell has always made him responsive to the great, the striking, the patriotic. He was deeply influenced by knowing John Brown, and his brief memories of Lincoln are intense, though he saw him but three times in all.
The first time he saw Lincoln was on the night when the future President delivered the address, which afterward became so famous, in Cooper Union, New York. The name of Lincoln was then scarcely known, and it was by mere chance that young Conwell happened to be in New York on that day. But being there, and learning that Abraham Lincoln from the West was going to make an address, he went to hear him.
He tells how uncouthly Lincoln was dressed, even with one trousers-leg higher than the other, and of how awkward he was, and of how poorly, at first, he spoke and with what apparent embarrassment. The chairman of the meeting got Lincoln a glass of water, and Conwell thought that it was from a personal desire to help him and keep him from breaking down. But he loves to tell how Lincoln became a changed man as he spoke; how he seemed to feel ashamed of his brief embarrassment and, pulling himself together and putting aside the written speech which he had prepared, spoke freely and powerfully, with splendid conviction, as only a born orator speaks. To Conwell it was a tremendous experience.
The second time he saw Lincoln was when he went to Washington to plead for the life of one of his men who had been condemned to death for sleeping on post. He was still but a captain (his promotion to a colonelcy was still to come), a youth, and was awed by going into the presence of the man he worshiped. And his voice trembles a little, even now, as he tells of how pleasantly Lincoln looked up from his desk, and how cheerfully he asked his business with him, and of how absorbedly Lincoln then listened to his tale, although, so it appeared, he already knew of the main outline.
"It will be all right," said Lincoln, when Conwell finished. But Conwell was still frightened. He feared that in the multiplicity of public matters this mere matter of the life of a mountain boy, a private soldier, might be forgotten till too late. "It is almost the time set—" he faltered. And Conwell's voice almost breaks, man of emotion that he is, as he tells of how Lincoln said, with stern gravity: "Go and telegraph that soldier's mother that Abraham Lincoln never signed a warrant to shoot a boy under twenty, and never will." That was the one and only time that he spoke with Lincoln, and it remains an indelible impression.
The third time he saw Lincoln was when, as officer of the day, he stood for hours beside the dead body of the President as it lay in state in Washington. In those hours, as he stood rigidly as the throng went shuffling sorrowfully through, an immense impression came to Colonel Conwell of the work and worth of the man who there lay dead, and that impression has never departed.
John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, old Revolutionary Lexington—how Conwell's life is associated with famous men and places!—and it was actually at Lexington that he made the crucial decision as to the course of his life! And it seems to me that it was, although quite unconsciously, because of the very fact that it was Lexington that Conwell was influenced to decide and to act as he did. Had it been in some other kind of place, some merely ordinary place, some quite usual place, he might not have taken the important step. But it was Lexington, it was brave old Lexington, inspiring Lexington; and he was inspired by it, for the man who himself inspires nobly is always the one who is himself open to noble inspiration. Lexington inspired him.
"When I was a lawyer in Boston and almost thirty-seven years old," he told me, thinking slowly back into the years, "I was consulted by a woman who asked my advice in regard to disposing of a little church in Lexington whose congregation had become unable to support it. I went out and looked at the place, and I told her how the property could be sold. But it seemed a pity to me that the little church should be given up. However, I advised a meeting of the church members, and I attended the meeting. I put the case to them—it was only a handful of men and women—and there was silence for a little. Then an old man rose and, in a quavering voice, said the matter was quite clear; that there evidently was nothing to do but to sell, and that he would agree with the others in the necessity; but as the church had been his church home from boyhood, so he quavered and quivered on, he begged that they would excuse him from actually taking part in disposing of it; and in a deep silence he went haltingly from the room.
"The men and the women looked at one another, still silent, sadly impressed, but not knowing what to do. And I said to them: 'Why not start over again, and go on with the church, after all!'"
Typical Conwellism, that! First, the impulse to help those who need helping, then the inspiration and leadership.
"'But the building is entirely too tumble-down to use,' said one of the men, sadly; and I knew he was right, for I had examined it; but I said:
"'Let us meet there to-morrow morning and get to work on that building ourselves and put it in shape for a service next Sunday.'
"It made them seem so pleased and encouraged, and so confident that a new possibility was opening that I never doubted that each one of those present, and many friends besides, would be at the building in the morning. I was there early with a hammer and ax and crowbar that I had secured, ready to go to work—but no one else showed up!"
He has a rueful appreciation of the humor of it, as he pictured the scene; and one knows also that, in that little town of Lexington, where Americans had so bravely faced the impossible, Russell Conwell also braced himself to face the impossible. A pettier man would instantly have given up the entire matter when those who were most interested failed to respond, but one of the strongest features in Conwell's character is his ability to draw even doubters and weaklings into line, his ability to stir even those who have given up.
"I looked over that building," he goes on, whimsically, "and I saw that repair really seemed out of the question. Nothing but a new church would do! So I took the ax that I had brought with me and began chopping the place down. In a little while a man, not one of the church members, came along, and he watched me for a time and said, 'What are you going to do there?'
"And I instantly replied, 'Tear down this old building and build a new church here!'
"He looked at me. 'But the people won't do that,' he said.
"'Yes, they will,' I said, cheerfully, keeping at my work. Whereupon he watched me a few minutes longer and said:
"'Well, you can put me down for one hundred dollars for the new building. Come up to my livery-stable and get it this evening.'
"'All right; I'll surely be there,' I replied.
"In a little while another man came along and stopped and looked, and he rather gibed at the idea of a new church, and when I told him of the livery-stable man contributing one hundred dollars, he said, 'But you haven't got the money yet!'
"'No,' I said; 'but I am going to get it to-night.'
"'You'll never get it,' he said. 'He's not that sort of a man. He's not even a church man!'
"But I just went quietly on with the work, without answering, and after quite a while he left; but he called back, as he went off, 'Well, if he does give you that hundred dollars, come to me and I'll give you another hundred.'"
Conwell smiles in genial reminiscence and without any apparent sense that he is telling of a great personal triumph, and goes on:
"Those two men both paid the money, and of course the church people themselves, who at first had not quite understood that I could be in earnest, joined in and helped, with work and money, and as, while the new church was building, it was peculiarly important to get and keep the congregation together, and as they had ceased to have a minister of their own, I used to run out from Boston and preach for them, in a room we hired.
"And it was there in Lexington, in 1879, that I determined to become a minister. I had a good law practice, but I determined to give it up. For many years I had felt more or less of a call to the ministry, and here at length was the definite time to begin.
"Week by week I preached there"—how strange, now, to think of William Dean Howells and the colonel-preacher!—"and after a while the church was completed, and in that very church, there in Lexington, I was ordained a minister."
A marvelous thing, all this, even without considering the marvelous heights that Conwell has since attained—a marvelous thing, an achievement of positive romance! That little church stood for American bravery and initiative and self-sacrifice and romanticism in a way that well befitted good old Lexington.
To leave a large and overflowing law practice and take up the ministry at a salary of six hundred dollars a year seemed to the relatives of Conwell's wife the extreme of foolishness, and they did not hesitate so to express themselves. Naturally enough, they did not have Conwell's vision. Yet he himself was fair enough to realize and to admit that there was a good deal of fairness in their objections; and so he said to the congregation that, although he was quite ready to come for the six hundred dollars a year, he expected them to double his salary as soon as he doubled the church membership. This seemed to them a good deal like a joke, but they answered in perfect earnestness that they would be quite willing to do the doubling as soon as he did the doubling, and in less than a year the salary was doubled accordingly.
I asked him if he had found it hard to give up the lucrative law for a poor ministry, and his reply gave a delightful impression of his capacity for humorous insight into human nature, for he said, with a genial twinkle:
"Oh yes, it was a wrench; but there is a sort of romance of self-sacrifice, you know. I rather suppose the old-time martyrs rather enjoyed themselves in being martyrs!"
Conwell did not stay very long in Lexington. A struggling little church in Philadelphia heard of what he was doing, and so an old deacon went up to see and hear him, and an invitation was given; and as the Lexington church seemed to be prosperously on its feet, and the needs of the Philadelphia body keenly appealed to Conwell's imagination, a change was made, and at a salary of eight hundred dollars a year he went, in 1882, to the little struggling Philadelphia congregation, and of that congregation he is still pastor—only, it ceased to be a struggling congregation a great many years ago! And long ago it began paying him more thousands every year than at first it gave him hundreds.
Dreamer as Conwell always is in connection with his immense practicality, and moved as he is by the spiritual influences of life, it is more than likely that not only did Philadelphia's need appeal, but also the fact that Philadelphia, as a city, meant much to him, for, coming North, wounded from a battle-field of the Civil War, it was in Philadelphia that he was cared for until his health and strength were recovered. Thus it came that Philadelphia had early become dear to him.
And here is an excellent example of how dreaming great dreams may go hand-in-hand with winning superb results. For that little struggling congregation now owns and occupies a great new church building that seats more people than any other Protestant church in America—and Dr. Conwell fills it!
AT every point in Conwell's life one sees that he wins through his wonderful personal influence on old and young. Every step forward, every triumph achieved, comes not alone from his own enthusiasm, but because of his putting that enthusiasm into others. And when I learned how it came about that the present church buildings were begun, it was another of those marvelous tales of fact that are stranger than any imagination could make them. And yet the tale was so simple and sweet and sad and unpretending.
When Dr. Conwell first assumed charge of the little congregation that led him to Philadelphia it was really a little church both in its numbers and in the size of the building that it occupied, but it quickly became so popular under his leadership that the church services and Sunday-school services were alike so crowded that there was no room for all who came, and always there were people turned from the doors.
One afternoon a little girl, who had eagerly wished to go, turned back from the Sunday-school door, crying bitterly because they had told her that there was no more room. But a tall, black-haired man met her and noticed her tears and, stopping, asked why it was that she was crying, and she sobbingly replied that it was because they could not let her into the Sunday-school.
"I lifted her to my shoulder," says Dr. Conwell, in telling of this; for after hearing the story elsewhere I asked him to tell it to me himself, for it seemed almost too strange to be true. "I lifted her to my shoulder"—and one realizes the pretty scene it must have made for the little girl to go through the crowd of people, drying her tears and riding proudly on the shoulders of the kindly, tall, dark man! "I said to her that I would take her in, and I did so, and I said to her that we should some day have a room big enough for all who should come. And when she went home she told her parents—I only learned this afterward—that she was going to save money to help build the larger church and Sunday-school that Dr. Conwell wanted! Her parents pleasantly humored her in the idea and let her run errands and do little tasks to earn pennies, and she began dropping the pennies into her bank."
"She was a lovable little thing—but in only a few weeks after that she was taken suddenly ill and died; and at the funeral her father told me, quietly, of how his little girl had been saving money for a building-fund. And there, at the funeral, he handed me what she had saved—just fifty-seven cents in pennies."
Dr. Conwell does not say how deeply he was moved; he is, after all, a man of very few words as to his own emotions. But a deep tenderness had crept into his voice.
"At a meeting of the church trustees I told of this gift of fifty-seven cents—the first gift toward the proposed building-fund of the new church that was some time to exist. For until then the matter had barely been spoken of, as a new church building had been simply a possibility for the future.
"The trustees seemed much impressed, and it turned out that they were far more impressed than I could possibly have hoped, for in a few days one of them came to me and said that he thought it would be an excellent idea to buy a lot on Broad Street—the very lot on which the building now stands." It was characteristic of Dr. Conwell that he did not point out, what every one who knows him would understand, that it was his own inspiration put into the trustees which resulted in this quick and definite move on the part of one of them. "I talked the matter over with the owner of the property, and told him of the beginning of the fund, the story of the little girl. The man was not one of our church, nor in fact, was he a church-goer at all, but he listened attentively to the tale of the fifty-seven cents and simply said he was quite ready to go ahead and sell us that piece of land for ten thousand dollars, taking—and the unexpectedness of this deeply touched me taking a first payment of just fifty-seven cents and letting the entire balance stand on a five-per-cent. mortgage!
"And it seemed to me that it would be the right thing to accept this unexpectedly liberal proposition, and I went over the entire matter on that basis with the trustees and some of the other members, and all the people were soon talking of having a new church. But it was not done in that way, after all, for, fine though that way would have been, there was to be one still finer.
"Not long after my talk with the man who owned the land, and his surprisingly good-hearted proposition, an exchange was arranged for me one evening with a Mount Holly church, and my wife went with me. We came back late, and it was cold and wet and miserable, but as we approached our home we saw that it was all lighted from top to bottom, and it was clear that it was full of people. I said to my wife that they seemed to be having a better time than we had had, and we went in, curious to know what it was all about. And it turned out that our absence had been intentionally arranged, and that the church people had gathered at our home to meet us on our return. And I was utterly amazed, for the spokesman told me that the entire ten thousand dollars had been raised and that the land for the church that I wanted was free of debt. And all had come so quickly and directly from that dear little girl's fifty-seven cents."
Doesn't it seem like a fairy tale! But then this man has all his life been making fairy tales into realities. He inspired the child. He inspired the trustees. He inspired the owner of the land. He inspired the people.
The building of the great church—the Temple Baptist Church, as it is termed—was a great undertaking for the congregation; even though it had been swiftly growing from the day of Dr. Conwell's taking charge of it, it was something far ahead of what, except in the eyes of an enthusiast, they could possibly complete and pay for and support. Nor was it an easy task.
Ground was broken for the building in 1889, in 1891 it was opened for worship, and then came years of raising money to clear it. But it was long ago placed completely out of debt, and with only a single large subscription—one of ten thousand dollars—for the church is not in a wealthy neighborhood, nor is the congregation made up of the great and rich.
The church is built of stone, and its interior is a great amphitheater. Special attention has been given to fresh air and light; there is nothing of the dim, religious light that goes with medieval churchliness. Behind the pulpit are tiers of seats for the great chorus choir. There is a large organ. The building is peculiarly adapted for hearing and seeing, and if it is not, strictly speaking, beautiful in itself, it is beautiful when it is filled with encircling rows of men and women.
Man of feeling that he is, and one who appreciates the importance of symbols, Dr. Conwell had a heart of olive-wood built into the front of the pulpit, for the wood was from an olive-tree in the Garden of Gethsemane. And the amber-colored tiles in the inner walls of the church bear, under the glaze, the names of thousands of his people; for every one, young or old, who helped in the building, even to the giving of a single dollar, has his name inscribed there. For Dr. Conwell wished to show that it is not only the house of the Lord, but also, in a keenly personal sense, the house of those who built it.
The church has a possible seating capacity of 4,200, although only 3,135 chairs have been put in it, for it has been the desire not to crowd the space needlessly. There is also a great room for the Sunday-school, and extensive rooms for the young men's association, the young women's association, and for a kitchen, for executive offices, for meeting-places for church officers and boards and committees. It is a spacious and practical and complete church home, and the people feel at home there.
"You see again," said Dr. Conwell, musingly, "the advantage of aiming at big things. That building represents $109,000 above ground. It is free from debt. Had we built a small church, it would now be heavily mortgaged."