It is the 6th of December 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1925.
We find ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Roaring Twenties. This is the year Louis Armstrong started his band, "The Great Gatsby" was published, and Calvin Coolidge gave the first-ever inaugural address over the radio. The automobile's use was ubiquitous, and new highways opened the country for travel, recreation, and relocation. Arthur Heineman recognized the trends and his location halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1925 he opened the first-ever Mo-tel, short for "motorists hotel." His Milestone Mo-tel was the first designed for traveling motorists. For $1.70, you could rent a bungalow and park your car right out in front of it. It was nothing like a modern motel. The Milestone cost $80,000 to build in 1925. Heineman planned to open a chain of motels, but cheaper competitors undercut him, and the Great Depression put the kibosh on that kind of luxury.
We were in 1925 before. This was the year of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial. We'll pass over that story for today and note that it was a crucial moment in the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy. But the specter of either a dreaded fundamentalist or modernist can draw our attention away from other trends in the American church in the early 20th century. The direction of popular psychology, positive thinking, and promises of wealth marked these new ministers. Itinerant preachers took to the road with a new theology that emphasized traits that made the Gospel sound more like good advice than good news.
Before there was Kenneth Copeland or Benny Hinn or even St. Gene Scott, there was Russell Conwell, who died on this day in 1925. Conwell was born in Massachusetts in 1843. He studied law, enlisted in the Civil War, was discharged as a deserter, practiced law, and then became a Baptist minister at 38. He had no theological training but was renowned as an engaging speaker. His most famous sermon was entitled "Acres of Diamonds." It is estimated he delivered it over 6,000 times and earned close to 8 million dollars to do so. The message was undeniably popular as well as undoubtedly foreign to historic Christianity.
"I say that you ought to get rich, and it is your duty to get rich ... I sympathize with the poor, but the number of poor who are to be sympathized with is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins ... is to do wrong. ... Let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings."
Despite his callous heterodoxy, his popularity led his home church to grow. Eventually, the church purchased the building they worshipped in and built new facilities for a growing Sunday school. This would become the foundation of what would become Temple College, and then Temple University. Today football players at the University have diamond-shaped decals on their helmets, a nod to the man they consider their founder and his famous speech.
We will remind you again about our select category here on the show we call the "Dr. Gene Scott All-Stars," named after the irascible and bizarre television pastor. We reserve this category for people we might want to give an asterisk—their life and work help reveal the contours of some very peculiar times in the church. Russell Conwell was untrained, he was unencumbered by church oversight, and he found a way to tickle the ears of successful Americans who believed that their wealth was confirmation of God's blessings. While others would develop these themes, they had to endure the Great Depression. Health and wealth theology tends to do poorly when people are poor and sick. Conwell died before the crash and depression came, on this day in 1925.
The reading for today is an Advent prayer written by Walter Brueggeman.
In our secret yearnings
we wait for your coming,
and in our grinding despair
we doubt that you will.
And in this privileged place
we are surrounded by witnesses who yearn more than do we
and by those who despair more deeply than do we.
Look upon your church and its pastors
in this season of hope
which runs so quickly to fatigue
and in this season of yearning
which becomes so easily quarrelsome.
Give us the grace and the impatience
to wait for your coming to the bottom of our toes,
to the edges of our fingertips.
We do not want our several worlds to end.
Come in your power
and come in your weakness
in any case
and make all things new.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 6th of December 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, whose favorite Temple Grads include Darryl Hall, John Oates, and Toby Flenderson. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. Remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.