Russell H. Conwell is best known for a motivational speech called “Acres of Diamonds,” which he delivered about 6,000 times in more than six decades on the lecture circuit. However, when he became a Christian, he grew to become also a notable pastor and preacher while continuing a full schedule of lecturing. A contemporary of Spurgeon, Moody and Phillips Brooks, he was unlike any of them except in his ability to reach people from the pulpit.
He was born in Massachusetts in 1843 and entered Yale in 1860. In his second year of college, he enlisted in Lincoln’s Army and became a captain of a company of his friends and neighbors that he recruited. John B. Gough, a notable temperance orator, encouraged young Conwell in his early efforts at public speaking. He told Conwell to take every opportunity to practice his speaking. He did so at picnics, cattle shows, patriotic rallies, funerals and a sewing circle, all without pay.
He was still an unbeliever and quite agnostic in those early years, but the war softened his heart. Watching those close to him die gave him pause to think. One death affected him more profoundly than all the others. There was a youngster named John Q. Ring who was too young and too small to enlist but went along as Captain Conwell’s personal aide. He lived in the tent with him and among other duties took care of an ornamental gold-sheathed sword the men of his company had bought for their captain.
Johnny Ring was devoted to his captain, and Conwell came to love him dearly though he was annoyed by Johnny’s daily reading of his mother’s Bible and his devotion to Christ. A surprise raid of rebels overran the Union camp one day. They retreated over a covered bridge and set it on fire to keep the rebels from pursuing. Suddenly Johnny dashed back over the burning bridge and into the captain’s tent to retrieve that sword. He managed to get back across the bridge but was too badly burned to survive. This profoundly shook Conwell who eventually made his peace with God.
After the war, Conwell became a writer and editor, then entered law, still taking every occasion for public speaking. The lecture circuit as a public institution came into its own in those post-war years. The first speaker’s bureau managed a number of notable orators including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry W. Longfellow and Henry Ward Beecher. Gen. Charles H. Taylor suggested young Conwell might be someone who would accept assignments in smaller cities the more famous speakers didn’t want.
Russell Conwell began traveling and delivering what today would be called a motivational speech. Toward the end of his ministry, Conwell said he had given the “Acres of Diamonds” lecture 200 times each year at an average of $150 per lecture. In the early decades of the 20th century, a man’s fine suit would cost $15 to $20; a factory worker earned $400 per year, so $150 was a nice speaking fee. He devoted all the proceeds to help preachers get an education.
While Conwell was practicing law, a member of a struggling church in Lexington, Mass., sought his advice. They were down to 18 members, and some of them felt strongly they should sell the deteriorating property and disband. Conwell encouraged them to give one more try, and agreed to commute by train every Sunday to preach for them. They tore down the decaying church and started over.
With Conwell preaching, the church grew rapidly. Soon he agreed to give up his law practice and become their pastor, though he did not give up his lecture circuit. Two years later, the new minister was called to Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia. He stayed for the rest of his days, adding to his growing lecture circuit the building of a great church, the founding of a college and a hospital. He lived until 1925 and died at age 82.
One day, a young man came to his pastor and asked if he would teach him to preach. Conwell agreed to meet with him once a week and give him some guidance. When the appointed day came, the young preacher brought six others with him. This was a beginning that would grow into a full liberal arts college and ultimately merge into Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Eventually he published a small book for students on the study and practice of oratory. Here are some of the things Conwell thought important.
1. Articulation: “Clear-cut articulation is the charm of eloquence,” he said. Those who heard Conwell in his sermons and lectures in large halls without any public address system said every word could be heard in every part of the building. This came from a lifetime of practicing to speak without apparent effort. One who heard him when he was more than 70 said, “His voice is soft-pitched and never breaks.” Conwell explained that was due to his always speaking in a natural voice and avoiding what was called elocution.
2. Empathy: Conwell said, “A speaker must possess a large-hearted regard for the welfare of his audience.” This is something that never can be faked, and it is a trait that earns a hearing.
3. Enthuiasm: Conwell was enthusiastic and made tremendous effort to put enthusiasm into those who gathered to hear him. “Enthusiasm invites enthusiasm,” he said and made that a keystone of every sermon and every lecture he delivered.
4. Cautious Use of Humor: Conwell taught his students, “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 solid earth.” Conwell’s biographer said he might say something near the end of his sermon that would send a ripple of laughter over the entire congregation. Then in a moment he had every individual under his control, listening soberly to his closing words. He never feared to use humor, but he was able to do so without robbing his message of any power.
5. Illustrations from Life: Conwell was well-read, but he did not draw his illustrations from literature so much as from the observations and incidents in his own life. It might be something he heard a child say on the train a day prior, something he saw the previous week or someone he met a month earlier or in the past year. It might be an incident from 10 years ago in Ohio, California, London, Paris, New York or Bombay. He used each illustration, his biographer said, as “a hammer with which he drives home a truth.”
He could not do this without the diligently exercised powers of observation developed throughout life. In this skill, he was like a dedicated scientist. Missionary Henry M. Stanley knew Conwell well and called him, “that double-sighted Yankee (who could) see at a glance all there is and all there ever was.”
He used the invention of the sewing machine in a story made more real by his acquaintance with Elias Howe. Conwell said, “I suppose that if any of you were asked who invented 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 tried for 14 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.”
6. Preach earnestly for souls: One of the young ministers Conwell trained said the noted preacher once told him with deep feeling. “Always remember as you preach that you are striving to save at least one soul in every sermon.” To one of his close friends, Conwell repeated the importance of evangelistic earnestness when he said, “I feel whenever I preach there is always one person in the congregation to whom, in all probability, I shall never preach again; therefore I feel I must exert my utmost power in that last chance.”
7. Keep it simple: Some people thought of Conwell more as a public speaker than a preacher. He would take that as a compliment, as he said, “I want to preach so simply that you will not think it preaching, but just that you are listening to a friend.”
8. Storytelling: There are many things Conwell can teach a preacher. One is his use of stories. His preaching is a guidebook in the use of narrative in presenting the text, as well as illustrating it. His sermons, as his popular lectures, depended mostly on his storytelling skill. He never wrote his sermons in advance. He was not an expositor or Bible scholar, but he stayed true to a very brief text which gave him the theme of his sermon.
For example, a sermon titled “Heaven’s Open Door” is based on the fragment of a verse, “Behold a door was opened in heaven” (
9. Focus in Sermons: The second important matter he did not talk about, but demonstrated for all who study him is the power of focus. Conwell called himself “a lay worker and not a preacher.” That is certainly debatable, but he certainly gave good advice when he said: “You preachers have too many points in your sermons. Really they are three sermons in one. One point is enough. I make one point only, stick to it, illustrate it in every way possible, so that everyone sees it; then clinch it and let it go.”
One of my seminary professors was asked how many points a sermon should have. He said, “At least one.” Conwell would say one and only one. I dare you to try a sermon on the Conwell model some time and have only one point. Use narrative to explain the text and make the sermon’s one point vivid and memorable. Then in Conwell’s words, “Clinch it and let it go.”