Chapter 4 | His Power as Orator and Preacher | Acres of Diamonds

EVEN as a young man Conwell won local fame as an orator. At the outbreak of the Civil War he began making patriotic speeches that gained enlistments. After going to the front he was sent back home for a time, on furlough, to make more speeches to draw more recruits, for his speeches were so persuasive, so powerful, so full of homely and patriotic feeling, that the men who heard them thronged into the ranks. And as a preacher he uses persuasion, power, simple and homely eloquence, to draw men to the ranks of Christianity.

He is an orator born, and has developed this inborn power by the hardest of study and thought and practice. He is one of those rare men who always seize and hold the attention. When he speaks, men listen. It is quality, temperament, control--the word is immaterial, but the fact is very material indeed.

Some quarter of a century ago Conwell published a little book for students on the study and practice of oratory. That "clear-cut articulation is the charm of eloquence" is one of his insisted-upon statements, and it well illustrates the lifelong practice of the man himself, for every word as he talks can be heard in every part of a large building, yet always he speaks without apparent effort. He avoids "elocution." His voice is soft-pitched and never breaks, even now when he is over seventy, because, so he explains it, he always speaks in his natural voice. There is never a straining after effect.

"A speaker must possess a large-hearted regard for the welfare of his audience," he writes, and here again we see Conwell explaining Conwellism. "Enthusiasm invites enthusiasm," is another of his points of importance; and one understands that it is by deliberate purpose, and not by chance, that he tries with such tremendous effort to put enthusiasm into his hearers with every sermon and every lecture that he delivers.

"It is easy to raise a laugh, but dangerous, for it is the greatest test of an orator's control of his audience to be able to land them again on the solid earth of sober thinking." I have known him at the very end of a sermon have a ripple of laughter sweep freely over the entire congregation, and then in a moment he has every individual under his control, listening soberly to his words.

He never fears to use humor, and it is always very simple and obvious and effective. With him even a very simple pun may be used, not only without taking away from the strength of what he is saying, but with a vivid increase of impressiveness. And when he says something funny it is in such a delightful and confidential way, with such a genial, quiet, infectious humorousness, that his audience is captivated. And they never think that he is telling something funny of his own; it seems, such is the skill of the man, that he is just letting them know of something humorous that they are to enjoy with him.

"Be absolutely truthful and scrupulously clear," he writes; and with delightfully terse common sense, he says, "Use illustrations that illustrate"-- and never did an orator live up to this injunction more than does Conwell himself. Nothing is more surprising, nothing is more interesting, than the way in which he makes use as illustrations of the impressions and incidents of his long and varied life, and, whatever it is, it has direct and instant bearing on the progress of his discourse. He will refer to something that he heard a child say in a train yesterday; in a few minutes he will speak of something that he saw or some one whom he met last month, or last year, or ten years ago-- in Ohio, in California, in London, in Paris, in New York, in Bombay; and each memory, each illustration, is a hammer with which he drives home a truth.

The vast number of places he has visited and people he has met, the infinite variety of things his observant eyes have seen, give him his ceaseless flow of illustrations, and his memory and his skill make admirable use of them. It is seldom that he uses an illustration from what he has read; everything is, characteristically, his own. Henry M. Stanley, who knew him well, referred to him as "that double-sighted Yankee," who could "see at a glance all there is and all there ever was."

And never was there a man who so supplements with personal reminiscence the place or the person that has figured in the illustration. When he illustrates with the story of the discovery of California gold at Sutter's he almost parenthetically remarks, "I delivered this lecture on that very spot a few years ago; that is, in the town that arose on that very spot." And when he illustrates by the story of the invention of the sewing-machine, he adds: "I suppose that if any of you were asked who was the inventor of the sewing-machine, you would say that it was Elias Howe. But that would be a mistake. I was with Elias Howe in the Civil War, and he often used to tell me how he had tried for fourteen years to invent the sewing-machine and that then his wife, feeling that something really had to be done, invented it in a couple of hours." Listening to him, you begin to feel in touch with everybody and everything, and in a friendly and intimate way.

Always, whether in the pulpit or on the platform, as in private conversation, there is an absolute simplicity about the man and his words; a simplicity, an earnestness, a complete honesty. And when he sets down, in his book on oratory, "A man has no right to use words carelessly," he stands for that respect for word-craftsmanship that every successful speaker or writer must feel.

"Be intensely in earnest," he writes; and in writing this he sets down a prime principle not only of his oratory, but of his life.

A young minister told me that Dr. Conwell once said to him, with deep feeling, "Always remember, as you preach, that you are striving to save at least one soul with every sermon." And to one of his close friends Dr. Conwell said, in one of his self-revealing conversations:

"I feel, whenever I preach, that there is always one person in the congregation to whom, in all probability, I shall never preach again, and therefore I feel that I must exert my utmost power in that last chance." And in this, even if this were all, one sees why each of his sermons is so impressive, and why his energy never lags. Always, with him, is the feeling that he is in the world to do all the good he can possibly do; not a moment, not an opportunity, must be lost.

The moment he rises and steps to the front of his pulpit he has the attention of every one in the building, and this attention he closely holds till he is through. Yet it is never by a striking effort that attention is gained, except in so far that his utter simplicity is striking. "I want to preach so simply that you will not think it preaching, but just that you are listening to a friend," I remember his saying, one Sunday morning, as he began his sermon; and then he went on just as simply as such homely, kindly, friendly words promised. And how effectively!

He believes that everything should be so put as to be understood by all, and this belief he applies not only to his preaching, but to the reading of the Bible, whose descriptions he not only visualizes to himself, but makes vividly clear to his hearers; and this often makes for fascination in result.

For example, he is reading the tenth chapter of I Samuel, and begins, " 'Thou shalt meet a company of prophets.' "

" 'Singers,' it should be translated," he puts in, lifting his eyes from the page and looking out over his people. Then he goes on, taking this change as a matter of course, " 'Thou shalt meet a company of singers coming down from the high place--' "

Whereupon he again interrupts himself, and in an irresistible explanatory aside, which instantly raises the desired picture in the mind of every one, he says: "That means, from the little old church on the hill, you know." And how plain and clear and real and interesting--most of all, interesting--it is from this moment! Another man would have left it that prophets were coming down from a high place, which would not have seemed at all alive or natural, and here, suddenly, Conwell has flashed his picture of the singers coming down from the little old church on the hill! There is magic in doing that sort of thing.

And he goes on, now reading: " 'Thou shalt meet a company of singers coming down from the little old church on the hill, with a psaltery, and a tabret, and a pipe, and a harp, and they shall sing.' "

Music is one of Conwell's strongest aids. He sings himself; sings as if he likes to sing, and often finds himself leading the singing--usually so, indeed, at the prayer-meetings, and often, in effect, at the church services.

I remember at one church service that the choir-leader was standing in front of the massed choir ostensibly leading the singing, but that Conwell himself, standing at the rear of the pulpit platform, with his eyes on his hymn-book, silently swaying a little with the music and unconsciously beating time as he swayed, was just as unconsciously the real leader, for it was he whom the congregation were watching and with him that they were keeping time! He never suspected it; he was merely thinking along with the music; and there was such a look of contagious happiness on his face as made every one in the building similarly happy. For he possesses a mysterious faculty of imbuing others with his own happiness.

Not only singers, but the modern equivalent of psaltery and tabret and cymbals, all have their place in Dr. Conwell's scheme of church service; for there may be a piano, and there may even be a trombone, and there is a great organ to help the voices, and at times there are chiming bells. His musical taste seems to tend toward the thunderous--or perhaps it is only that he knows there are times when people like to hear the thunderous and are moved by it.

And how the choir themselves like it! They occupy a great curving space behind the pulpit, and put their hearts into song. And as the congregation disperse and the choir filter down, sometimes they are still singing and some of them continue to sing as they go slowly out toward the doors. They are happy--Conwell himself is happy--all the congregation are happy. He makes everybody feel happy in coming to church; he makes the church attractive just as Howells was so long ago told that he did in Lexington.

And there is something more than happiness; there is a sense of ease, of comfort, of general joy, that is quite unmistakable. There is nothing of stiffness or constraint. And with it all there is full reverence. It is no wonder that he is accustomed to fill every seat of the great building.

His gestures are usually very simple. Now and then, when he works up to emphasis, he strikes one fist in the palm of the other hand. When he is through you do not remember that he has made any gestures at all, but the sound of his voice remains with you, and the look of his wonderful eyes. And though he is past the threescore years and ten, he looks out over his people with eyes that still have the veritable look of youth.

Like all great men, he not only does big things, but keeps in touch with myriad details. When his assistant, announcing the funeral of an old member, hesitates about the street and number and says that they can be found in the telephone directory, Dr. Conwell's deep voice breaks quietly in with, "Such a number [giving it], Dauphin Street"--quietly, and in a low tone, yet every one in the church hears distinctly every syllable of that low voice.

His fund of personal anecdote, or personal reminiscence, is constant and illustrative in his preaching, just as it is when he lectures, and the reminiscences sweep through many years, and at times are really startling in the vivid and homelike pictures they present of the famous folk of the past that he knew.

One Sunday evening he made an almost casual reference to the time when he first met Garfield, then a candidate for the Presidency. "I asked Major McKinley, whom I had met in Washington, and whose home was in northern Ohio, as was that of Mr. Garfield, to go with me to Mr. Garfield's home and introduce me. When we got there, a neighbor had to find him. 'Jim! Jim!' he called. You see, Garfield was just plain Jim to his old neighbors. It's hard to recognize a hero over your back fence!" He paused a moment for the appreciative ripple to subside, and went on:

"We three talked there together"--what a rare talking that must have been-McKinley, Garfield, and Conwell--"we talked together, and after a while we got to the subject of hymns, and those two great men both told me how deeply they loved the old hymn, 'The Old-Time Religion.' Garfield especially loved it, so he told us, because the good old man who brought him up as a boy and to whom he owed such gratitude, used to sing it at the pasture bars outside of the boy's window every morning, and young Jim knew, whenever he heard that old tune, that it meant it was time for him to get up. He said that he had heard the best concerts and the finest operas in the world, but had never heard anything he loved as he still loved 'The Old-Time Religion.' I forget what reason there was for McKinley's especially liking it, but he, as did Garfield, liked it immensely."

What followed was a striking example of Conwell's intentness on losing no chance to fix an impression on his hearers' minds, and at the same time it was a really astonishing proof of his power to move and sway. For a new expression came over his face, and he said, as if the idea had only at that moment occurred to him--as it most probably had--"I think it's in our hymnal!" And in a moment he announced the number, and the great organ struck up, and every person in the great church every man, woman, and child --joined in the swinging rhythm of verse after verse, as if they could never tire, of "The Old-Time Religion." It is a simple melody--barely more than a single line of almost monotone music:

It was good enough for mother and it's good enough for me! It was good on the fiery furnace and it's good enough for me!

Thus it went on, with never-wearying iteration, and each time with the refrain, more and more rhythmic and swaying:

The old-time religion,
The old-time religion,
The old-time religion--
It's good enough for me!

That it was good for the Hebrew children, that it was good for Paul and Silas, that it will help you when you're dying, that it will show the way to heaven--all these and still other lines were sung, with a sort of wailing softness, a curious monotone, a depth of earnestness. And the man who had worked this miracle of control by evoking out of the past his memory of a meeting with two of the vanished great ones of the earth, stood before his people, leading them, singing with them, his eyes aglow with an inward light. His magic had suddenly set them into the spirit of the old camp-meeting days, the days of pioneering and hardship, when religion meant so much to everybody, and even those who knew nothing of such things felt them, even if but vaguely. Every heart was moved and touched, and that old tune will sing in the memory of all who thus heard it and sung it as long as they live.