THE STORY OF ACRES OF DIAMONDS
By Robert Shackleton
CONSIDERING everything, the most remarkable thing in Russell Conwell’s remarkable life is his lecture, “Acres of Diamonds.” That is, the lecture itself, the number of times he has delivered it, what a source of inspiration it has been to myriads, the money that he has made and is making, and, still more, the purpose to which he directs the money. In the circumstances surrounding “Acres of Diamonds,” in its tremendous success, in the attitude of mind revealed by the lecture itself and by what Dr. Conwell does with it, it is illuminative of his character, his aims, his ability.
The lecture is vibrant with his energy. It flashes with his hopefulness. It is full of his enthusiasm. It is packed full of his intensity. It stands for the possibilities of success in every one. He has delivered it over five thousand times. The demand for it never diminishes. The success grows never less.
There is a time in Russell Conwell’s youth of which it is pain for him to think. He told me of it one evening, and his voice sank lower and lower as he went far back into the past. It was of his days at Yale that he spoke, for they were days of suffering. For he had not money for Yale, and in working for more he endured bitter humiliation. It was not that the work was hard, for Russell Conwell has always been ready for hard work. It was not that there were privations and difficulties, for he has always found difficulties only things to overcome, and endured privations with cheerful fortitude. But it was the humiliations that he met–the personal humiliations that after more than half a century make him suffer in remembering them–yet out of those humiliations came a marvelous result.
“I determined,” he says, “that whatever I could do to make the way easier at college for other young men working their way I would do.”
And so, many years ago, he began to devote every dollar that he made from “Acres of Diamonds” to this definite purpose. He has what may be termed a waiting-list. On that list are very few cases he has looked into personally. Infinitely busy man that he is, he cannot do extensive personal investigation. A large proportion of his names come to him from college presidents who know of students in their own colleges in need of such a helping hand.
“Every night,” he said, when I asked him to tell me about it, “when my lecture is over and the check is in my hand, I sit down in my room in the hotel”–what a lonely picture, tool–“I sit down in my room in the hotel and subtract from the total sum received my actual expenses for that place, and make out a check for the difference and send it to some young man on my list. And I always send with the check a letter of advice and helpfulness, expressing my hope that it will be of some service to him and telling him that he is to feel under no obligation except to his Lord. I feel strongly, and I try to make every young man feel, that there must be no sense of obligation to me personally. And I tell them that I am hoping to leave behind me men who will do more work than I have done. Don’t think that I put in too much advice,” he added, with a smile, “for I only try to let them know that a friend is trying to help them.”
His face lighted as he spoke. “There is such a fascination in it!” he exclaimed. “It is just like a gamble! And as soon as I have sent the letter and crossed a name off my list, I am aiming for the next one!”
And after a pause he added: “I do not attempt to send any young man enough for all his expenses. But I want to save him from bitterness, and each check will help. And, too,” he concluded, naïvely, in the vernacular, “I don’t want them to lay down on me!”
He told me that he made it clear that he did not wish to get returns or reports from this branch of his life-work, for it would take a great deal of time in watching and thinking and in the reading and writing of letters. “But it is mainly,” he went on, “that I do not wish to hold over their heads the sense of obligation.”
When I suggested that this was surely an example of bread cast upon the waters that could not return, he was silent for a little and then said, thoughtfully: “As one gets on in years there is satisfaction in doing a thing for the sake of doing it. The bread returns in the sense of effort made.”
On a recent trip through Minnesota he was positively upset, so his secretary told me, through being recognized on a train by a young man who had been helped through “Acres of Diamonds,” and who, finding that this was really Dr. Conwell, eagerly brought his wife to join him in most fervent thanks for his assistance. Both the husband and his wife were so emotionally overcome that it quite overcame Dr. Conwell himself.
The lecture, to quote the noble words of Dr. Conwell himself, is designed to help “every person, of either sex, who cherishes the high resolve of sustaining a career of usefulness and honor.” It is a lecture of helpfulness. And it is a lecture, when given with Conwell’s voice and face and manner, that is full of fascination. And yet it is all so simple!
It is packed full of inspiration, of suggestion, of aid. He alters it to meet the local circumstances of the thousands of different places in which he delivers it. But the base remains the same. And even those to whom it is an old story will go to hear him time after time. It amuses him to say that he knows individuals who have listened to it twenty times.
It begins with a story told to Conwell by an old Arab as the two journeyed together toward Nineveh, and, as you listen, you hear the actual voices and you see the sands of the desert and the waving palms. The lecturer’s voice is so easy, so effortless, it seems so ordinary and matter-of-fact–yet the entire scene is instantly vital and alive! Instantly the man has his audience under a sort of spell, eager to listen, ready to be merry or grave. He has the faculty of control, the vital quality that makes the orator.
The same people will go to hear this lecture over and over, and that is the kind of tribute that Conwell likes. I recently heard him deliver it in his own church, where it would naturally be thought to be an old story, and where, presumably, only a few of the faithful would go; but it was quite clear that all of his church are the faithful, for it was a large audience that came to listen to him; hardly a seat in the great auditorium was vacant. And it should be added that, although it was in his own church, it was not a free lecture, where a throng might be expected, but that each one paid a liberal sum for a seat–and the paying of admission is always a practical test of the sincerity of desire to hear. And the people were swept along by the current as if lecturer and lecture were of novel interest. The lecture in itself is good to read, but it is only when it is illumined by Conwell’s vivid personality that one understands how it influences in the actual delivery.
On that particular evening he had decided to give the lecture in the same form as when he first delivered it many years ago, without any of the alterations that have come with time and changing localities, and as he went on, with the audience rippling and bubbling with laughter as usual, he never doubted that he was giving it as he had given it years before; and yet–so up-to-date and alive must he necessarily be, in spite of a definitive effort to set himself back–every once in a while he was coming out with illustrations from such distinctly recent things as the automobile!
The last time I heard him was the 5,124th time for the lecture. Doesn’t it seem incredible! 5,124 times’ I noticed that he was to deliver it at a little out-of-the-way place, difficult for any considerable number to get to, and I wondered just how much of an audience would gather and how they would be impressed. So I went over from there I was, a few miles away. The road was dark and I pictured a small audience, but when I got there I found the church building in which he was to deliver the lecture had a seating capacity of 830 and that precisely 830 people were already seated there and that a fringe of others were standing behind. Many had come from miles away. Yet the lecture had scarcely, if at all, been advertised. But people had said to one another: “Aren’t you going to hear Dr. Conwell?” And the word had thus been passed along.
I remember how fascinating it was to watch that audience, for they responded so keenly and with such heartfelt pleasure throughout the entire lecture. And not only were they immensely pleased and amused and interested–and to achieve that at a crossroads church was in itself a triumph to be proud of–but I knew that every listener was given an impulse toward doing something for himself and for others, and that with at least some of them the impulse would materialize in acts. Over and over one realizes what a power such a man wields.
And what an unselfishness! For, far on in years as he is, and suffering pain, he does not chop down his lecture to a definite length; he does not talk for just an hour or go on grudgingly for an hour and a half. He sees that the people are fascinated and inspired, and he forgets pain, ignores time, forgets that the night is late and that he has a long journey to go to get home, and keeps on generously for two hours! And every one wishes it were four.
Always he talks with ease and sympathy. There are geniality, composure, humor, simple and homely jests–yet never does the audience forget that he is every moment in tremendous earnest. They bubble with responsive laughter or are silent in riveted attention. A stir can be seen to sweep over an audience, of earnestness or surprise or amusement or resolve. When he is grave and sober or fervid the people feel that he is himself a fervidly earnest man, and when he is telling something humorous there is on his part almost a repressed chuckle, a genial appreciation of the fun of it, not in the least as if he were laughing at his own humor, but as if he and his hearers were laughing together at something of which they were all humorously cognizant.
Myriad successes in life have come through the direct inspiration of this single lecture. One hears of so many that there must be vastly more that are never told. A few of the most recent were told me by Dr. Conwell himself, one being of a farmer boy who walked a long distance to hear him. On his way home, so the boy, now a man, has written him, he thought over and over of what he could do to advance himself, and before he reached home he learned that a teacher was wanted at a certain country school. He knew he did not know enough to teach, but was sure he could learn, so he bravely asked for the place. And something in his earnestness made him win a temporary appointment. Thereupon he worked and studied so hard and so devotedly, while he daily taught, that within a few months he was regularly employed there. “And now,” says Conwell, abruptly, with his characteristic skimming over of the intermediate details between the important beginning of a thing and the satisfactory end, “and now that young man is one of our college presidents.”
And very recently a lady came to Dr. Conwell, the wife of an exceptionally prominent man who was earning a large salary, and she told him that her husband was so unselfishly generous with money that often they were almost in straits. And she said they had bought a little farm as a country place, paying only a few hundred dollars for it, and that she had said to herself, laughingly, after hearing the lecture, “There are no acres of diamonds on this place!” But she also went on to tell that she had found a spring of exceptionally fine water there, although in buying they had scarcely known of the spring at all; and she had been so inspired by Conwell that she had had the water analyzed and, finding that it was remarkably pure, had begun to have it bottled and sold under a trade name as special spring water. And she is making money. And she also sells pure ice from the pool, cut in winter-time and all because of “Acres of Diamonds”!
Several millions of dollars, in all, have been received by Russell Conwell as the proceeds from this single lecture. Such a fact is almost staggering–and it is more staggering to realize what good is done in the world by this man, who does not earn for himself, but uses his money in immediate helpfulness. And one can neither think nor write with moderation when it is further realized that far more good than can be done directly with money he does by uplifting and inspiring with this lecture. Always his heart is with the weary and the heavy-laden. Always he stands for self-betterment.
Last year, 1914, he and his work were given unique recognition. For it was known by his friends that this particular lecture was approaching its five-thousandth delivery, and they planned a celebration of such an event in the history of the most popular lecture in the world. Dr. Conwell agreed to deliver it in the Academy of Music, in Philadelphia, and the building was packed and the streets outside were thronged. The proceeds from all sources for that five-thousandth lecture were over nine thousand dollars.
The hold which Russell Conwell has gained on the affections and respect of his home city was seen not only in the thousands who strove to hear him, but in the prominent men who served on the local committee in charge of the celebration. There was a national committee, too, and the nation-wide love that he has won, the nation-wide appreciation of what he has done and is still doing, was shown by the fact that among the names of the notables on this committee were those of nine governors of states. The Governor of Pennsylvania was himself present to do Russell Conwell honor, and he gave to him a key emblematic of the Freedom of the State.
The “Freedom of the State”–yes; this man, well over seventy, has won it. The Freedom of the State, the Freedom of the Nation–for this man of helpfulness, this marvelous exponent of the gospel of success, has worked marvelously for the freedom, the betterment, the liberation, the advancement, of the individual.