*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 15th of February 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Ok- So a fun bit of kismet here on the Almanac.
This past weekend on the Weekend Edition, we told the story of Saddleback Church and Rick Warren. It was an experiment for me to look at something that I could criticize from a theological perspective but instead opted to look at from a larger historical perspective. “Purpose Driven” stuff doesn’t do it for me, but it does for many people. As I was thinking through historical parallels, one of the first names that popped into my head was Russell Conwell- a Baptist minister whose bible studies, tutoring, and Sunday schools turned into an empire that became Temple University. And I did a show on him back in 2020, so I went to my notes to see what I had to say about the fellow… and I was less than gracious. He was a kind of proto-prosperity preacher (that is, the idea that God wants you to be rich). I thought, “I should reexamine him one of these days.” And it turns out that this is one of “these days” as it was on this, the 15th of February in 1925, that Russell Conwell died.
In 2020 I said of Conwell:
“Conwell was born in Massachusetts in 1843. He studied law, enlisted in the Civil War, was discharged as a deserter, practiced law, and 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.”
Conwell was, in many ways, a prototypical turn of the century man around the year 1900. He was self-made, moved from career to career, and engaged in what would become hallmarks for the age: a socially conscious Christianity, public education, and a bit of what would become an American tradition- the “look what I did, why can’t you?” Mentality. His page at Temple University lists the following as his professions: “[he was] an actor, showman, brilliant orator, journalist and editor, lawyer, minister, educator, real estate speculator, promoter, [and] entrepreneur.”
Let’s go to the Acres of Diamonds speech. The gist of it is this: a dude decides to search for diamonds and sells everything he has to find his treasure. So far, this sounds like a parable we know.
But the guy ends up not finding the diamonds and learning that the property he sold was a veritable diamond mine. In other words, you don’t need to go looking for what you already have. And then, this is explained in several ways with similar parables and defense of Christians making money. According to the Bible, Conwell points out, correctly, that money is not the root of all evil but rather “the love of money” is at the heart of all evil. The American protestant fascination with wealth is on full display here. A parsing of language would impress the scholastics in how wealth was defined and defended…
But the story of Temple is, in some ways, Conwell trying to prove that he could use his money for a good cause. In an early speech at the college’s new building, Conwell said, "This college goes out into the neglected corners, and there we often find the gems of humanity. We intend to bring them out and polish them.” The school’s foundation was not just the money that Conwell gave from the millions he made from speaking but also that the college began as late night tutoring sessions he gave to local students who had to work during the day. Fun fact: the temple University mascot is the owl from the late-night tutoring filled with “night owls.”
Temple College- grown out of Temple Baptist Church, would become Temple University and a public school (with private functions- it’s confusing). Still, the tradition of training ministers in the region would move to what would become Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
It’s fair to suggest that Russell Conwell was a little more showmanship than substance, but his wealth- derived from a folksy speech that encouraged millions- was poured back into the community and church. Born on this day in 1843, he was 82 when he died in 1925.
The Last Word for today comes from Matthew 13:
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 15th of February 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Temples include the Temple of Athena (for cultural reasons), Solomon’s Temple (for theological reasons), and the Temple of Doom (for when the guy rips that guy’s heart our), he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who will not become insufferable. Will not gloat. Won’t remind you of the score I picked. Wore my #99 Jersey all Sunday. And fell asleep happy and stuffed with Nachos. Go rams. Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.