Chapter 6 | Millions of Hearers | Acres of Diamonds

THAT Conwell is not primarily a minister-- that he is a minister because he is a sincere Christian, but that he is first of all an Abou Ben Adhem, a man who loves his fellow-men, becomes more and more apparent as the scope of his life-work is recognized. One almost comes to think that his pastorate of a great church is even a minor matter beside the combined importance of his educational work, his lecture work, his hospital work, his work in general as a helper to those who need help.

For my own part, I should say that he is like some of the old-time prophets, the strong ones who found a great deal to attend to in addition to matters of religion. The power, the ruggedness, the physical and mental strength, the positive grandeur of the man--all these are like the general conceptions of the big Old Testament prophets. The suggestion is given only because it has often recurred, and therefore with the feeling that there is something more than fanciful in the comparison; and yet, after all, the comparison fails in one important particular, for none of the prophets seems to have had a sense of humor!

It is perhaps better and more accurate to describe him as the last of the old school of American philosophers, the last of those sturdy-bodied, high-thinking, achieving men who, in the old days, did their best to set American humanity in the right path--such men as Emerson, Alcott, Gough, Wendell Phillips, Garrison, Bayard Taylor, Beecher; men whom Conwell knew and admired in the long ago, and all of whom have long since passed away.

And Conwell, in his going up and down the country, inspiring his thousands and thousands, is the survivor of that old-time group who used to travel about, dispensing wit and wisdom and philosophy and courage to the crowded benches of country lyceums, and the chairs of school-houses and town halls, or the larger and more pretentious gathering-places of the cities.

Conwell himself is amused to remember that he wanted to talk in public from his boyhood, and that very early he began to yield to the inborn impulse. He laughs as he remembers the variety of country fairs and school commencements and anniversaries and even sewing-circles where he tried his youthful powers, and all for experience alone, in the first few years, except possibly for such a thing as a ham or a jack-knife! The first money that he ever received for speaking was, so he remembers with glee, seventy-five cents; and even that was not for his talk, but for horse hire! But at the same time there is more than amusement in recalling these experiences, for he knows that they were invaluable to him as training. And for over half a century he has affectionately remembered John B. Gough, who, in the height of his own power and success, saw resolution and possibilities in the ardent young hill-man, and actually did him the kindness and the honor of introducing him to an audience in one of the Massachusetts towns; and it was really a great kindness and a great honor, from a man who had won his fame to a young man just beginning an oratorical career.

Conwell's lecturing has been, considering everything, the most important work of his life, for by it he has come into close touch with so many millions--literally millions!--of people.

I asked him once if he had any idea how many he had talked to in the course of his career, and he tried to estimate how many thousands of times he had lectured, and the average attendance for each, but desisted when he saw that it ran into millions of hearers. What a marvel is such a fact as that! Millions of hearers!

I asked the same question of his private secretary, and found that no one had ever kept any sort of record; but as careful an estimate as could be made gave a conservative result of fully eight million hearers for his lectures; and adding the number to whom he has preached, who have been over five million, there is a total of well over thirteen million who have listened to Russell Conwell's voice! And this staggering total is, if anything, an underestimate. The figuring was done cautiously and was based upon such facts as that he now addresses an average of over forty-five hundred at his Sunday services (an average that would be higher were it not that his sermons in vacation time are usually delivered in little churches; when at home, at the Temple, he addresses three meetings every Sunday), and that he lectures throughout the entire course of each year, including six nights a week of lecturing during vacation-time. What a power is wielded by a man who has held over thirteen million people under the spell of his voice! Probably no other man who ever lived had such a total of hearers. And the total is steadily mounting, for he is a man who has never known the meaning of rest.

I think it almost certain that Dr. Conwell has never spoken to any one of what, to me, is the finest point of his lecture-work, and that is that he still goes gladly and for small fees to the small towns that are never visited by other men of great reputation. He knows that it is the little places, the out-of-the-way places, the submerged places, that most need a pleasure and a stimulus, and he still goes out, man of well over seventy that he is, to tiny towns in distant states, heedless of the discomforts of traveling, of the poor little hotels that seldom have visitors, of the oftentimes hopeless cooking and the uncleanliness, of the hardships and the discomforts, of the unventilated and overheated or underheated halls. He does not think of claiming the relaxation earned by a lifetime of labor, or, if he ever does, the thought of the sword of John Ring restores instantly his fervid earnestness.

How he does it, how he can possibly keep it up, is the greatest marvel of all. I have before me a list of his engagements for the summer weeks of this year, 1915, and I shall set it down because it will specifically show, far more clearly than general statements, the kind of work he does. The list is the itinerary of his vacation. Vacation! Lecturing every evening but Sunday, and on Sundays preaching in the town where he happens to be!

June 24 Ackley, Ia.
" 25 Waterloo, Ia.
" 26 Decorah, Ia.
" 27 *Waukon, Ia.
" 28 Red Wing, Minn.
" 29 River Falls, Wis.
" 30 Northfield, Minn.
July 1 Faribault, Minn.
" 2 Spring Valley, Minn.
" 3 Blue Earth, Minn.
" 4 *Fairmount, Minn.
" 5 Lake Crystal, Minn.
" 6 Redwood Falls, Minn.
" 7 Willmer, Minn.
" 8 Dawson, Minn.
" 9 Redfield, S. D.
" 10 Huron, S. D.
" 11 *Brookings, S. D.
" 12 Pipestone, Minn.
" 13 Hawarden, Ia.
" 14 Canton, S. D
" 15 Cherokee, Ia
" 16 Pocahontas, Ia
" 17 Glidden, Ia.
" 18 *Boone, Ia.
" 19 Dexter, Ia.
" 20 Indianola, Ia
" 21 Corydon, Ia
" 22 Essex, Ia.
" 23 Sidney, Ia.
" 24 Falls City, Nebr.
" 25 *Hiawatha, Kan.
" 26 Frankfort, Kan.
" 27 Greenleaf, Kan.
" 28 Osborne, Kan.
" 29 Stockton, Kan.
" 30 Phillipsburg, Kan.
" 31 Mankato, Kan.
En route to next date on circuit.
Aug. 3 Westfield, Pa.
" 4 Galston, Pa.
" 5 Port Alleghany, Pa.
" 6 Wellsville, N. Y.
" 7 Bath, N. Y.
" 8 *Bath, N. Y.
" 9 Penn Yan, N. Y.
" 10 Athens, N. Y.
" 11 Owego, N. Y.
" 12 Patchogue, LI.,N.Y.
" 13 Port Jervis, N. Y.
" 14 Honesdale, Pa.
" 15 *Honesdale, Pa.
" 16 Carbondale, Pa.
" 17 Montrose, Pa.
" 18 Tunkhannock, Pa.
" 19 Nanticoke, Pa.
" 20 Stroudsburg, Pa.
" 21 Newton, N. J.
" 22 *Newton, N. J.
" 23 Hackettstown, N. J.
" 24 New Hope, Pa.
" 25 Doylestown, Pa.
" 26 Phnixville, Pa.
" 27 Kennett, Pa.
" 28 Oxford, Pa.
" 29 *Oxford, Pa.

* Preach on Sunday.

And all these hardships, all this traveling and lecturing, which would test the endurance of the youngest and strongest, this man of over seventy assumes without receiving a particle of personal gain, for every dollar that he makes by it is given away in helping those who need helping.

That Dr. Conwell is intensely modest is one of the curious features of his character. He sincerely believes that to write his life would be, in the main, just to tell what people have done for him. He knows and admits that he works unweariedly, but in profound sincerity he ascribes the success of his plans to those who have seconded and assisted him. It is in just this way that he looks upon every phase of his life. When he is reminded of the devotion of his old soldiers, he remembers it only with a sort of pleased wonder that they gave the devotion to him, and he quite forgets that they loved him because he was always ready to sacrifice ease or risk his own life for them.

He deprecates praise; if any one likes him, the liking need not be shown in words, but in helping along a good work. That his church has succeeded has been because of the devotion of the people; that the university has succeeded is because of the splendid work of the teachers and pupils; that the hospitals have done so much has been because of the noble services of physicians and nurses. To him, as he himself expresses it, realizing that success has come to his plans, it seems as if the realities are but dreams. He is astonished by his own success. He thinks mainly of his own shortcomings. "God and man have ever been very patient with me." His depression is at times profound when he compares the actual results with what he would like them to be, for always his hopes have gone soaring far in advance of achievement. It is the "Hitch your chariot to a star" idea.

His modesty goes hand-in-hand with kindliness, and I have seen him let himself be introduced in his own church to his congregation, when he is going to deliver a lecture there, just because a former pupil of the university was present who, Conwell knew, was ambitious to say something inside of the Temple walls, and this seemed to be the only opportunity.

I have noticed, when he travels, that the face of the newsboy brightens as he buys a paper from him, that the porter is all happiness, that conductor and brakeman are devotedly anxious to be of aid. Everywhere the man wins love. He loves humanity and humanity responds to the love.

He has always won the affection of those who knew him, and Bayard Taylor was one of the many; he and Bayard Taylor loved each other for long acquaintance and fellow experiences as worldwide travelers, back in the years when comparatively few Americans visited the Nile and the Orient, or even Europe.

When Taylor died there was a memorial service in Boston at which Conwell was asked to preside, and, as he wished for something more than addresses, he went to Longfellow and asked him to write and read a poem for the occasion. Longfellow had not thought of writing anything, and he was too ill to be present at the services, but, there always being something contagiously inspiring about Russell Conwell when he wishes something to be done, the poet promised to do what he could. And he wrote and sent the beautiful lines beginning:

Dead he lay among his books,
The peace of God was in his looks.

Many men of letters, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, were present at the services, and Dr. Conwell induced Oliver Wendell Holmes to read the lines, and they were listened to amid profound silence, to their fine ending.

Conwell, in spite of his widespread hold on millions of people, has never won fame, recognition, general renown, compared with many men of minor achievements. This seems like an impossibility. Yet it is not an impossibility, but a fact. Great numbers of men of education and culture are entirely ignorant of him and his work in the world--men, these, who deem themselves in touch with world-affairs and with the ones who make and move the world. It is inexplicable, this, except that never was there a man more devoid of the faculty of self-exploitation, self-advertising, than Russell Conwell. Nor, in the mere reading of them, do his words appeal with anything like the force of the same words uttered by himself, for always, with his spoken words, is his personality. Those who have heard Russell Conwell, or have known him personally, recognize the charm of the man and his immense forcefulness; but there are many, and among them those who control publicity through books and newspapers, who, though they ought to be the warmest in their enthusiasm, have never felt drawn to hear him, and, if they know of him at all, think of him as one who pleases in a simple way the commoner folk, forgetting in their pride that every really great man pleases the common ones, and that simplicity and directness are attributes of real greatness.

But Russell Conwell has always won the admiration of the really great, as well as of the humbler millions. It is only a supposedly cultured class in between that is not thoroughly acquainted with what he has done.

Perhaps, too, this is owing to his having cast in his lot with the city, of all cities, which, consciously or unconsciously, looks most closely to family and place of residence as criterions of merit--a city with which it is almost impossible for a stranger to become affiliated--or aphiladelphiated, as it might be expressed--and Philadelphia, in spite of all that Dr. Conwell has done, has been under the thrall of the fact that he went north of Market Street--that fatal fact understood by all who know Philadelphia--and that he made no effort to make friends in Rittenhouse Square. Such considerations seem absurd in this twentieth century, but in Philadelphia they are still potent. Tens of thousands of Philadelphians love him, and he is honored by its greatest men, but there is a class of the pseudo-cultured who do not know him or appreciate him. And it needs also to be understood that, outside of his own beloved Temple, he would prefer to go to a little church or a little hall and to speak to the forgotten people, in the hope of encouraging and inspiring them and filling them with hopeful glow, rather than to speak to the rich and comfortable.

His dearest hope, so one of the few who are close to him told me, is that no one shall come into his life without being benefited. He does not say this publicly, nor does he for a moment believe that such a hope could be fully realized, but it is very dear to his heart; and no man spurred by such a hope, and thus bending all his thoughts toward the poor, the hard-working, the unsuccessful, is in a way to win honor from the Scribes; for we have Scribes now quite as much as when they were classed with Pharisees. It is not the first time in the world's history that Scribes have failed to give their recognition to one whose work was not among the great and wealthy.

That Conwell himself has seldom taken any part whatever in politics except as a good citizen standing for good government; that, as he expresses it, he never held any political office except that he was once on a school committee, and also that he does not identify himself with the so-called "movements" that from time to time catch public attention, but aims only and constantly at the quiet betterment of mankind, may be mentioned as additional reasons why his name and fame have not been steadily blazoned.

He knows and will admit that he works hard and has all his life worked hard. "Things keep turning my way because I'm on the job," as he whimsically expressed it one day; but that is about all, so it seems to him.

And he sincerely believes that his life has in itself been without interest; that it has been an essentially commonplace life with nothing of the interesting or the eventful to tell. He is frankly surprised that there has ever been the desire to write about him. He really has no idea of how fascinating are the things he has done. His entire life has been of positive interest from the variety of things accomplished and the unexpectedness with which he has accomplished them.

Never, for example, was there such an organizer. In fact, organization and leadership have always been as the breath of life to him. As a youth he organized debating societies and, before the war, a local military company. While on garrison duty in the Civil War he organized what is believed to have been the first free school for colored children in the South. One day Minneapolis happened to be spoken of, and Conwell happened to remember that he organized, when he was a lawyer in that city, what became the first Y.M.C.A. branch there. Once he even started a newspaper. And it was natural that the organizing instinct, as years advanced, should lead him to greater and greater things, such as his church, with the numerous associations formed within itself through his influence, and the university--the organizing of the university being in itself an achievement of positive romance.

"A life without interest!" Why, when I happened to ask, one day, how many Presidents he had known since Lincoln, he replied, quite casually, that he had "written the lives of most of them in their own homes"; and by this he meant either personally or in collaboration with the American biographer Abbott.

The many-sidedness of Conwell is one of the things that is always fascinating. After you have quite got the feeling that he is peculiarly a man of to-day, lecturing on to-day's possibilities to the people of to-day, you happen upon some such fact as that he attracted the attention of the London Times through a lecture on Italian history at Cambridge in England; or that on the evening of the day on which he was admitted to practice in the Supreme Court of the United States he gave a lecture in Washington on "The Curriculum of the Prophets in Ancient Israel." The man's life is a succession of delightful surprises.

An odd trait of his character is his love for fire. He could easily have been a veritable fire-worshiper instead of an orthodox Christian! He has always loved a blaze, and he says reminiscently that for no single thing was he punished so much when he was a child as for building bonfires. And after securing possession, as he did in middle age, of the house where he was born and of a great acreage around about, he had one of the most enjoyable times of his life in tearing down old buildings that needed to be destroyed and in heaping up fallen trees and rubbish and in piling great heaps of wood and setting the great piles ablaze. You see, there is one of the secrets of his strength--he has never lost the capacity for fiery enthusiasm!

Always, too, in these later years he is showing his strength and enthusiasm in a positively noble way. He has for years been a keen sufferer from rheumatism and neuritis, but he has never permitted this to interfere with his work or plans. He makes little of his sufferings, and when he slowly makes his way, bent and twisted, downstairs, he does not want to be noticed. "I'm all right," he will say if any one offers to help, and at such a time comes his nearest approach to impatience. He wants his suffering ignored. Strength has always been to him so precious a belonging that he will not relinquish it while he lives. "I'm all right!" And he makes himself believe that he is all right even though the pain becomes so severe as to demand massage. And he will still, even when suffering, talk calmly, or write his letters, or attend to whatever matters come before him. It is the Spartan boy hiding the pain of the gnawing fox. And he never has let pain interfere with his presence on the pulpit or the platform. He has once in a while gone to a meeting on crutches and then, by the force of will, and inspired by what he is to do, has stood before his audience or congregation, a man full of strength and fire and life.