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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

“Find Out What the People Want”: The Russell Conwell Story

“There is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings. . . .”

Those words come, interestingly enough, from what is almost certainly the most successful charitable fundraising speech ever delivered. It was given over 6,000 times, provided almost 1,700 young people with the opportunity to go to college, and played a significant role in assisting 91,000 more to reach their educational goals. If the man who gave this speech had kept and invested the proceeds, an editor of the time observed, he would have had around $8 million (and this was back in 1917, when $8 million was still a lot of money). Virtually all the money was in fact used to provide a first-class education for people who would not otherwise have been able to afford it.

The author of the speech had been a poor kid himself. He could remember being embarrassed, during his year at Yale, that he had to wear such cheap, shabby clothes. Looking back even further, he remembered that the diet of his youth had consisted almost entirely of Indian pudding and baked potatoes, supplemented occasionally by salt pork and cider-apple sauce. It took his father 12 years to pay off the $1,200 mortgage on their farm and another year to come up with enough for an Estey melodeon (a small reed organ). Rather than money each of the three children had been given a hen to feed; a cackle from the chicken house meant a toy or a piece of candy. And yet there was always an empty plate on the table, just in case anyone (even a tramp) stopped by.

This is not the background or the record of a man who would harbor a grudge against the unfortunate. To read his words about the nature of poverty as an attack on the poor is to read them wrongly. His speech was addressed to struggling entrepreneurs and people who were down on their luck, and he wanted them to know that it was well within their power to vastly improve on their present circumstances. More important, and in sharp contrast with the “leading intellectuals” of his time, he insisted that becoming wealthy was one of the most honorable things they could do.

His name was Russell H. Conwell. He was born in 1843 and showed an early penchant for public speaking. To provide the money needed for his last term at Wilbraham Academy he got permission to speak in nearby schools about the recently executed John Brown. The children went home to tell their parents, who were soon waiting in line to buy copies of the biography that young Conwell (with amazing foresight) just happened to have in ample supply. When the Civil War came he went around speaking about the causes, called on men to enlist, formed a company known as “The Mountain Boys,” and at the age of 19 found himself one of the youngest captains in the United States Army. After the war he worked as, among other things, a newspaper correspondent and an attorney.

He then took over a small, struggling church, which after a few years under his leadership was neither small nor struggling.

In 1882 he accepted a call to Grace Baptist Temple in Philadelphia. He had not been there long when he was approached by a young man who, with only 30 cents to his name, wanted to get an education. His efforts to put the boy off with descriptions of the difficulties involved failed, and Conwell agreed to spend three hours a week with him. The new student arrived for the first lesson with five of his friends. For the second lesson there were 40. By the end of the second year 250 were enrolled in the night school being conducted in the church’s basement. The teachers were volunteers, attendance was mandatory, and examinations were notoriously difficult.

Students were required to pay tuition, but as the school expanded, the need for funds grew. Assistance from the wealthy of the surrounding community was not forthcoming. Employers were afraid that an education would turn their best workers to other pursuits, and the comfortably situated were unhappy with the idea of raising the poor above their proper station in life. There were no government assistance programs, but even if there had been, Conwell would not have applied. He believed it would be unjust to tax all of the people for something that would benefit only those with the ambition to take advantage of it. State-sponsored charities, he said, serve mainly to create a sense of entitlement and a great deal of petty fraud.

But there were now 590 enrolled at Temple, and it seemed to be faced with the necessity of a tuition increase that would close the door to some of its best students. Then Conwell had an idea. It had been bumping around in his mind since 1861, when he gave a lecture entitled “Heroes at Home” to a crowd of a few hundred in a Methodist church. Years of experience had ripened his thought on the subject and turned him into an excellent speaker. He decided to try his luck on the then-popular Chautauqua circuit, where Ralph Waldo Emerson had already made a name for himself. Before Conwell was done he had spoken to crowds as large as 15,000 and in places as famous as Madison Square Garden (back when it was still near Madison Square).

“Acres of Diamonds”

He spoke without notes, and he never put his words on paper, so the speech has come down to us in various forms, four of which were consulted in the preparation of this article. (The author would be delighted to provide specific sources and page numbers for any who are interested.)

Conwell’s introduction is the story of one al Hafed (given in some versions as Ali-Hafed), who was contentedly prosperous until a visiting Buddhist priest told him about the concentrated wealth of diamonds. Al Hafed inquired about the kind of place in which these might be found, sold his farm, and went off to search for them. Unsuccessful after many years, he threw himself into the ocean. The person who bought his farm had in the meantime come across a curious black stone that seemed somehow to catch the light. He set it on the mantle, and the next time the priest came by he recognized it as a diamond. “Had Al-Hafed remained at home and dug in his own cellar or his own garden, instead of wretchedness, starvation, poverty and death in a strange land, he would have had acres of diamonds,” Conwell said. The farm was in fact the scene of what would later come to be known as the Golconda Diamond Mines (in Conwell’s time, the word was often spelled Golkonda and was a synonym for incredible wealth).

The motivational speaker Earl Nightingale built one of his best presentations around this introduction; the point, he said, is that the grass on the other side of the fence may be greener because it is getting better care. While Conwell would have agreed with this observation, he was interested primarily in wider themes. He told several other tales about people who had missed the prosperity waiting on the doorstep, but his first major point was the development of a mindset for the discovery of opportunities. He was a voracious reader with a photographic memory and may have been familiar with Adam Smith. Even if he was not, his thoughts suggest a more than passing familiarity with the principles of economics.

To those who wanted to become wealthy he gave this advice: Find out what people want and get it for them. It seems obvious enough, but Conwell could remember a time in his life when he had yet to grasp it. As a boy he had on several occasions been left in charge of his father’s country store. Once a man came in and asked, “Do you have any jackknives?” (What was then called a jackknife is now referred to as a pocket knife.) No, he did not, Conwell replied. Another farmer came in with same question and received the same reply. A third was met with this somewhat more emphatic response: “No. Why is everyone around here asking for jackknives? Do you suppose we are keeping this store to supply the whole neighborhood with jackknives?” Looking back, Conwell realized that if they had kept the store for that purpose it might have been more profitable.

He told about how John Jacob Astor, having foreclosed on a millinery store, went into partnership with the man who had just failed. Astor did not put a nickel of new money into the deal. He just went out to sit on a park bench and see what the ladies were wearing. He wanted to learn which styles had the most positive effect on a woman’s feelings about herself. Conwell said that when Astor saw “a lady pass, with her shoulders back and her head up, as if she did not care if the whole world looked at her, he studied the bonnet” and went back with instructions for the hat maker. Then he repeated the process. The store was soon flourishing.

Conwell did not say Astor liked all the hats that seemed to have such an impact on the feelings of those wearing them. The point was not Astor’s feelings but those of the women in the park. Both parties felt better off as a result of the transaction.

“I say you ought to be rich,” he told the members of his audience. If they were not getting a little richer with each passing year, he said, it was only because they were not paying attention to what other people wanted. “If you will just take only four blocks around you, and find out what the people want and what you ought to supply and set them down with your pencil, and figure up the profits you would make if you did supply them, you would very soon see it. There is wealth right within the sound of your voice.” He told the story of a man who provided so well for people of his neighborhood that when they learned of his plans to move and build a warehouse, they petitioned him to stay.

There is nothing even slightly cutthroat about economic success, Conwell said. It is a matter simply of giving people what they want and letting them reward you for it. The true businessperson is the one who has found a way to serve and let himself or herself be served in return. The dishonest are a minority who might retain employees and customers for long enough to do some damage but not for long enough to build a business. Lasting success, he insisted, is always the result of serving others as you yourself would like to be served.

He had no patience with ministers who condemned the “filthy lucre” of material prosperity. They only talk like that, he said, until they pass the collection plate. “Money printed your Bible, money builds your churches, money sends your missionaries, and money pays your preachers, and you would not have many of them, either, if you did not pay them.” Significant material accomplishment is not only honorable in its own right but the means to much else that we honor.

Defending Prosperity

Conwell understood that in thus exalting the nature and consequences of the economic process he was swimming against the intellectual current of his time. “The age,” he said, “is prejudiced against advising a Christian man . . . from attaining unto wealth.” What he had to say about the nature of this prejudice is something early twenty-first century America badly needs to hear.

He pointed out that not everything in print agrees with the facts: “How little we can tell what is true nowadays when newspapers try to sell their papers entirely on sensation.” Neil Postman observed that in the case of television the effect of this sensationalism is compounded by the need to break everything up into 45-second bits. The program does not need to tell the whole story, but it does need to be entertaining. Television producers, like the yellow journalists of Conwell’s time, are more interested in getting our attention than in giving us the truth.

That, however, is the smaller part of the problem. The greater part is malicious jealousy. “If a man knows more than I know, don’t I incline to criticize his learning? . . . We always do that to the man who gets ahead of us.”

Even as he spoke, Germany’s Max Scheler, borrowing a term from Nietzsche, was writing a book entitled Ressentiment. Nothing so excites public indignation, he observed, as remarkable success. There is a great deal that is easily forgiven, but the thought of any impressive achievement that might just as well have been our own seems to fester. The one who is merely envious wants whatever the object of his envy has gained and may even confess to such a desire. The person who is consumed with ressentiment, on the other hand, is no longer conscious of where the feelings come from and is therefore incapable of admitting to them. He or she no longer cares about the accomplishment itself but longs to harm the person it belongs to.

There is much about Conwell’s world that has passed into history. Lies about the crimes of the successful and the ressentiment that gives birth to them remain. They are a central fact of American politics and the real issue in the debate over tax increases. Whatever else Barack Obama may be, he is not stupid. He knows perfectly well that even if all the loopholes could be closed and even if the marginal tax rate on incomes greater than $250,000 were 100 percent, there still would not be enough to put the government’s books in the black. His driving motive is not a desire to balance the budget but his unadmitted need to punish the successful.

It is by pointing to such motives that Russell H. Conwell makes his greatest contribution to modern America. There is a seminary that bears his name, and Grace Temple Baptist Church continues to carry on the ministry he began there. Temple University, no longer just for students who have to come in the evening, has become a leading institution of higher learning, complete with a hospital and a law school. More important than these, however, is Conwell’s reminder about the nature of the attack on prosperity and individual achievement. We need to keep it in mind whenever politicians represent themselves as our saviors and the real sources of national prosperity. They are the ones from whom we need to be protected.

  • Harold Jones did his Ph.D. for a mid-life crisis. He served before that as a chaplain on active duty with the United States Army, as a pastor, and as a branch office manager for Investment Management & Research, Inc. (now Raymond, James & Associates). More than a dozen of his articles were written for the Foundation for Economic Education, and he is the author of a book, Personal Character and National Destiny (Paragon House, 2002).