Monday, November 21, 2016

Conwell’s ‘Acres of Diamonds’ and Massachusetts

The  name ‘Russell H. Conwell’ may no longer be a household name (unless you are a student or alumni of Philadelphia’s Temple University), but his legacy as a passionate and tireless minister, educator, and orator shaped the United States at the turn of the century. His life began in Worthington, Massachusetts in Hampshire County, where his family owned a small farm, and he later enrolled at Yale University, though the American Civil War would interrupt his studies. He joined the Union Army and became a persuasive recruiter known for his passionate and patriotic speeches. At only 19 years old, he was elected captain of Company F, 46th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia and later re-enlisted under Company D, Second Regiment, Massachusetts Heavy Artillery in 1863. During the Battle of Kenesaw Mountain, a bursting shell broke his arm and shoulder and, despite being left for dead on the battlefield, he survived and retired from military service.

After graduating from law school at the University of Albany, he returned to Massachusetts to pursue ministry. He became the full-time pastor of a diminishing Baptist church in Lexington, Massachusetts, which he revived and helped grow. Due to his success there, Conwell was offered a pastorate at the Grace Baptist Church in Philadelphia, where his ministry also continued to grow exponentially due to his energetic and passionate oratory. He began tutoring working class members of his congregation in the basement of the Baptist Temple. This educational mission continued to expand until Conwell established Temple College in 1884. The city of Philadelphia granted a charter to establish the Temple College of Philadelphia in 1888.

In the late 19th century, Conwell began travelling as a lecturer throughout the United States and became most famous for his speech “Acres of Diamonds.” This speech, the text of which is available online, told several stories of men who went in search of success far away from home when they could have found the opportunity for riches and greatness on their own land or backyard, where the supposed ‘acres of diamonds’ could be waiting just below the surface. Conwell refers back to Massachusetts many times in the speech, often telling supposedly true stories of success and failure, the difference of which depended on the subject identifying a need for the community rather than pursuing personal riches blindly:
“I remember meeting personally a poor carpenter of Hingham, Massachusetts, who was out of work and in poverty. His wife also drove him out of doors. He sat down on the shore and whittled a soaked shingle into a wooden chain. His children quarreled over it in the evening, and while he was whittling a second one, a neighbor came along and said, "Why don't you whittle toys if you can carve like that?" He said, "I don't know what to make!"
There is the whole thing. His neighbor said to him: "Why don't you ask your own children?" Said he, "What is the use of doing that? My children are different from other people's children." I used to see people like that when I taught school. The next morning when his boy came down the stairway, he said, "Sam, what do you want for a toy?" "I want a wheelbarrow." When his little girl came down, he asked her what she wanted, and she said, "I want a little doll's wash-stand, a little doll's carriage, a little doll's umbrella," and went on with a whole lot of things that would have taken his lifetime to supply. He consulted his own children right there in his own house and began to whittle out toys to please them.
He began with his jack-knife, and made those unpainted Hingham toys. He is the richest man in the entire New England States, if Mr. Lawson is to be trusted in his statement concerning such things, and yet that man's fortune was made by consulting his own children in his own house. You don't need to go out of your own house to find out what to invent or what to make.”

The speech goes on to celebrate the value of hard work, education, and opportunity as well as the role that capitalism and entrepreneurship have in contributing to the wealth and quality of life in your local community rather than solely to one’s personal wealth, which could easily be lost in the next generation:
“But there are ever coming to me young men who say, "I would like to go into business, but I cannot." "Why not?" "Because I have no capital to begin on." Capital, capital to begin on! What! young man! Living in Philadelphia and looking at this wealthy generation, all of whom began as poor boys, and you want capital to begin on? It is fortunate for you that you have no capital. I am glad you have no money. I pity a rich man's son. A rich man's son in these days of ours occupies a very difficult position. They are to be pitied. A rich man's son cannot know the very best things in human life. He cannot. The statistics of Massachusetts show us that not one out of seventeen rich men's sons ever die rich. They are raised in luxury, they die in poverty. Even if a rich man's son retains his father's money, even then he cannot know the best things of life.”
“Acres of Diamonds” is listed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas A&M as the 24th best American speech of the 20th century and is considered a classic of New Thought philosophy. According to Conwell’s own count, it was so popular that he gave the speech over 6,152 times before his death in 1925. Throughout his life he also wrote several histories and biographies, including a tome on the Great Boston Fire of 1872. While Russell H. Conwell is most often remembered as the founder of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, his early life in Massachusetts continuously informed his work as a minister, educator, and orator.

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Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff