Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Dr. Russell H. Conwell, Lecturer and Clergyman

It was misfortune that proved the fortunate turningpoint for Dr. Russell H. Conwell, the pastor of the largest church in America, and president of Temple College, which has upward of 8,000 students. He had not been unsuccessful prior to his ordination to the ministry; on the contrary, he had been a successful newspaper man and lawyer, and had served with distinction in the Civil War. But, in the panic of 1873, he lost most of his investments. I quote his own words: —

"I then wondered, —being always of a religious temperament, — why I should make money my goal."

We sat in his study, and he spoke thus of his interesting life: —

"I was born at South Worthington, Hampshire County, Massachusetts, February 15, 1843, on my father's farm, called the 'Eagle's Nest,' on account of its high and rocky surroundings. At an early age, I went to school, and, when I grew older, worked on the farm. I was sometimes laughed at because I always carried a book around with me, studying and memorizing as I worked. Yet I was dull and stupid, never stood high in my classes, and could not grasp a subject as quickly as others. But I would stick to it. I am just as dull now, but I preserve my old habit of stick-to-it-iveness. If I am driving a tack and it goes in crooked, I lift it out, straighten it, and send it home. That is one of my golden rules that I force myself to obey."


"I went to Wilbraham, and, in 1861, entered Yale College, taking up law, but the breaking out of the war interrupted my studies. I enlisted, but, being only eighteen years of age, my father made me 'right about face', and come home. If I could not fight, I could speak, and I delivered orations all over my native state, and was in some demand in Boston, Finally, in 1862, I could stand the strain no longer, and my father, already greatly interested in the war, permitted me to go to the field.

"I returned a colonel, suffering from a wound, campaigns and imprisonment, and entered the law school of the Albany University, from which I was graduated in 1865.

"I married and moved to the great far west, to the then small town of Minneapolis. There I suffered the usual uphill experiences and privations of a young lawyer trying to make his way single-handed. I opened a law office in a two-story stone building on Bridge square. My clients did not come, and poverty stared my wife and I in the face. I became an agent for Thompson Brothers, of St. Paul, in the sale of land warrants.

"Fortune favored me in business, and I also became the Minneapolis correspondent of the St. Paul 'Press.' I acquired some real estate, and took part in politics. Having once dipped into journalism, I started a paper of my own called 'Conwell's Star of the North.' Then the sheriff made his appearance, and turned the concern over to a man with more capital. Next, I brought the Minneapolis daily 'Chronicle' to life. It united with the 'Atlas,' and the combined papers formed the foundation for the great journal of Minneapolis, the Tribune.' "


"I continued to practice law. My wife and myself lived in two small rooms. The front one was my office, and the back one, kitchen, parlor, sitting room and bedroom. I had never fully recovered from my wound received in the war. I knew Governor Marshall, and it was he who appointed me emigration commissioner for the state of Minnesota. My duties, of course, took me to Europe."

When Dr. Conwell arrived in Europe, his health, that had been breaking down, gradually gave way, and he gave up his place as commissioner. For awhile, he rested; then, for several months, he attended lectures at the University of Leipsic. That pilgrimage was followed by a number of other journeys across the Atlantic to the principal countries of Europe, and to northern Africa.

"In 1870," continued Dr. Conwell, "I made a tour of the world as special correspondent for the New York 'Tribune' and the Boston 'Traveler.' I then exposed the iniquities of Chinese contract immigration. I next returned to Boston and law, and became editor of the Boston 'Traveler.' "

''But, doctor, had you never entertained a desire to enter the ministry ?" I asked.

"All my life I studied theology. The question was before me always: Shall it be law or the ministry? The change came after I had lost considerable money in the panic of 1873. Then came death into my home, and the loss of my first wife. I turned to missionary work in Boston. As time rolled on, I became more interested. But the turning-point was really brought about by a law case. There was a meeting house in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1877, dilapidated and old. The congregation had left it, so the few old persons who remained decided that it should be sold. They wished to consult a lawyer, and called me to Lexington. Standing on the platform, I asked the few present to vote upon the question. The edifice had been dear to some of them, and they hemmed and hawed, and couldn't decide.

"At length, I suggested that they put new life into the place. But interest in the building as a place of worship seemed to have departed, although they did not care to see it torn down."


"On the spur of the moment, I said that, if they would gather there the following Sunday morning, I would address them. A few came at first, then more. We had to rent a hall in another place. I suggested that they should get a pastor.

"To my surprise, they replied that if I would be their pastor, they would erect a new church. "I studied for the ministry. One day, I startled the quaint village of Lexington by demolishing the little old church with an axe. The people were aroused by my spirit, and gave donations for a new church. I worked with the men we hired to construct it, and afterward attended the Newton Theological Seminary. Seventeen years ago, I came to Philadelphia as pastor of this church, which then worshipped in a basement some squares away."

"But Temple College, Doctor; how was that started?"

"About fourteen years ago a poor young man came to me to ask my advice how to obtain a college education. I offered to be his teacher. Then others joined until there were six. The number was gradually enlarged to forty, when the idea came to me to found a people's college. Certain gentlemen became interested, and we erected Temple College, which was then connected with this church, but now is a separate and distinct institution. We hope shortly to have it like the New York University. We have rented a number of outside buildings, and have a law school and a seminary. About four thousand attend the evening classes, while four thousand attend the special day classes."


"How do you manage to keep up in all the studies?" I asked. Do you carry text-books around with you in your pockets?"

"Yes, and I always have. I study all the time. I have acquired several languages in that way."

"When do you prepare your sermons?"

"I have never prepared a lecture or a sermon in my life, and I have lectured for thirty-seven years. I seldom use even notes. When in the pulpit, I rivet my attention on preaching, and think of nothing else."

"Application in the most severe form, and honesty, are the means by which true success is attained. No matter what you do, do it to your utmost. You and I may not do something as well as someone else, but no stone should be unturned to do it to the best of our individual ability. I have had a varied life, and many experiences, and I attribute my success, if you are so pleased to call it, to always requiring myself to do my level best, if only in driving a tack in straight."

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