Russell H. Conwell

Temple's first president, Russell Conwell, was pastor of Grace Baptist Church and founder of Temple College. The temporary Board of Trustees elected him president of the faculty October 14, 1887, and he served until December 6, 1925, the date of his death. Read his famous "Acres of Diamonds" speech

Russell ConwellThis page is excerpted from Hilty, James. Temple University: 125 Years of Service to Philadelphia, the Nation, and the World. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010. Pages 3–5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 17, 18, 25, 45.

Photograph courtesy of Conwellana-Templana Collection: University Archives

Temple’s founding was principally the work of one man—not a captain of industry, but a captain of erudition, an educational entrepreneur—who sought to democratize, diversify and widen the reach of higher education.

Russell Herman Conwell’s life story and his aspirations for Temple University resonate with the personal life narratives of Temple University’s students, faculty, staff and alumni. He is connected to us all. Conwell played many roles—as an actor, showman, brilliant orator, journalist and editor, lawyer, minister, educator, real estate speculator, promoter, entrepreneur and founder of Temple University.

Born February 15, 1843, Russell Conwell was reared on a 350-acre hardscrabble subsistence farm in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, near South Worthington, about 15 miles from Westfield, Mass.

Conwell left home in 1861 to enroll at Yale University, where he planned to study law. To earn money for tuition he worked several jobs near campus but apparently spent only a few months actually enrolled in classes.

When Civil War broke out, Conwell returned to Massachusetts, where he proved a persuasive recruiter for the Union cause, giving rousing patriotic speeches that made young men enlist on the spot. Credited with recruiting an entire company of volunteers, though only 19, he was elected captain, Company F, Forty-sixth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia. Company F was mustered out in July 1863, after seeing light action. Conwell re-enlisted in August and was commissioned captain of Company D, Second Regiment, Massachusetts Heavy Artillery.

Returning home, Conwell read the law with a local lawyer, entered law school at the University of Albany and earned a bachelor of laws in the spring of 1865.

In 1876 he formally committed to the ministry, becoming the full-time pastor of a frail Baptist church in Lexington, Mass., immediately reviving it and putting it on its feet financially. Conwell was formally ordained in 1879 at the Newton Seminary.

In November 1882 Russell Conwell accepted the pastorate of the Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia and moved his family into the parsonage at 2004 N. Park Ave. (now the site of Peabody Hall). Conwell’s energy, organizational skills and gifted oratory attracted many new parishioners, and soon there was not enough room to accommodate all who wished to worship at the church and to listen to the brilliant, entertaining and motivating pastor. He had barely arrived before the parishioners were discussing the need to build yet another, larger church.

By the time Conwell arrived in Philadelphia he had gained fame as a lecturer on the Chautauqua circuit, a traveling tent show that visited towns in America’s heartland, presenting musical performances, plays, political speeches and spellbinding orations, such as Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds” lecture, part sermon, part dramatic recitation, part autobiographical recounting and always entertaining. By Conwell’s count he gave the speech 6,152 times, a fact included in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Tirelessly delivered in conversation style, “Acres of Diamonds” was a morality tale of the value of education, devotion to the Protestant ethic and importance of family and community service.

Conwell’s message had a larger purpose transcending contemporary wisdom. The pathway to personal success, he stressed, was largely education. Educated persons, in turn, were obligated to serve the less fortunate and to help them realize their full potential. Further, it was the duty of all to meet the needs of the community. “We must know what the world needs first,” said Conwell, “and then invest ourselves to supply that need, and success is almost certain.” To meet those needs Conwell initially used his church to reach out to all peoples of North Philadelphia—many of them poor and many of them recent immigrants—offering spiritual sustenance, recreation, social life, economic assistance and instruction in basic life skills. Gradually he channeled his energies into meeting what he considered the foremost of those needs, namely education.

One Sunday evening in 1884, Charles M. Davies, a young printer, approached Conwell to ask for advice on preparing for the ministry. Davies had little money or formal education. Conwell offered to teach him. Davies brought along one friend, then six, and Conwell tutored them in his study. Shortly after, the number grew to 40. Conwell found volunteer teachers and moved classes from his study into the church basement. Extensive tutorials or short courses continued until the fall of 1887, when Conwell announced from the pulpit the official formation of Temple College and set a formal schedule of classes.

With the aid of pamphlets prepared by Davies, word was sent throughout Center City and the working-class neighborhoods describing Grace Baptist Church and Temple College as within “easy walking distance to factories employing 30,000 workmen” and within a half hour’s ride by horse car from where “180,000 working men and working women” were employed. Two hundred prospective students signed up in the first month.

On May 14, 1888, Temple College was chartered and incorporated by the state. Its stated purpose was “the support of an education institution, intended primarily for the benefit of Working Men.” In 1891 the charter was amended to read “primarily for the benefit of Working Men; and for men and women desirous of attending the same.” “The regular tuition,” according to the college catalog, “is free.” Moreover, “no special grade of previous study is at present required for admission, as the purpose of the faculty is to assist any ambitious young man, without especial reference to previous study.”

Temple College was more than a place, more than just a gathering of teachers and students: It was a bold new idea, a transforming concept. “The Temple Idea,” Conwell explained, is to educate “workingmen and workingwomen on a benevolent basis, at an expense to the students just sufficient to enhance their appreciation of the advantages of the institution.”

The first commencement was held in June 1892. Eighteen graduates of Conwell’s class in oratory were awarded the bachelor of oratory. Four women were among those receiving degrees. The college also received authority to award honorary degrees, and one of the earliest recipients was Conwell, who received doctor of divinity and doctor of laws degrees.

Temple began its dramatic transformation in 1907 when it incorporated as a university and the next year when the Pennsylvania College and University Council listed Temple as one of the state’s higher-education institutions. Finally recognized as a bona fide postsecondary institution, Temple University set a new course, one heavily influenced by the burgeoning interest in formal training for the new professions, such as education, business and health, and formal training for and licensing of the established professions of law, medicine and dentistry as the appeal of freestanding professional schools vanished.

Conwell died December 6, 1925. [He and his wife, Sarah] were buried with full honors in a small courtyard next to Conwell Hall. In 1968 the remains were quietly removed and reburied in a lovely pocket garden in the center of campus, a Class of ’67 gift now called Founder’s Garden. The grave lies behind a large bust of Conwell sculpted by Boris Blai.

 
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