Chapter 8 | His Splendid Efficiency | Acres of Diamonds

CONWELL has a few strong and efficient executive helpers who have long been associated with him; men and women who know his ideas and ideals, who are devoted to him, and who do their utmost to relieve him; and of course there is very much that is thus done for him; but even as it is, he is so overshadowing a man (there is really no other word) that all who work with him look to him for advice and guidance the professors and the students, the doctors and the nurses, the church officers, the Sunday-school teachers, the members of his congregation. And he is never too busy to see any one who really wishes to see him.

He can attend to a vast intricacy of detail, and answer myriad personal questions and doubts, and keep the great institutions splendidly going, by thorough systematization of time, and by watching every minute. He has several secretaries, for special work, besides his private secretary. His correspondence is very great. Often he dictates to a secretary as he travels on the train. Even in the few days for which he can run back to the Berkshires, work is awaiting him. Work follows him. And after knowing of this, one is positively amazed that he is able to give to his country-wide lectures the time and the traveling that they inexorably demand. Only a man of immense strength, of the greatest stamina, a veritable superman, could possibly do it. And at times one quite forgets, noticing the multiplicity of his occupations, that he prepares two sermons and two talks on Sunday!

Here is his usual Sunday schedule, when at home. He rises at seven and studies until breakfast, which is at eight-thirty. Then he studies until nine-forty-five, when he leads a men's meeting at which he is likely also to play the organ and lead the singing. At ten-thirty is the principal church service, at which he preaches, and at the close of which he shakes hands with hundreds. He dines at one, after which he takes fifteen minutes' rest and then reads; and at three o'clock he addresses, in a talk that is like another sermon, a large class of men--not the same men as in the morning. He is also sure to look in at the regular session of the Sunday-school. Home again, where he studies and reads until supper-time. At seven-thirty is the evening service, at which he again preaches and after which he shakes hands with several hundred more and talks personally, in his study, with any who have need of talk with him. He is usually home by ten-thirty. I spoke of it, one evening, as having been a strenuous day, and he responded, with a cheerfully whimsical smile: "Three sermons and shook hands with nine hundred."

That evening, as the service closed, he had said to the congregation: "I shall be here for an hour. We always have a pleasant time together after service. If you are acquainted with me, come up and shake hands. If you are strangers"-- just the slightest of pauses--"come up and let us make an acquaintance that will last for eternity." I remember how simply and easily this was said, in his clear, deep voice, and how impressive and important it seemed, and with what unexpectedness it came. "Come and make an acquaintance that will last for eternity!" And there was a serenity about his way of saying this which would make strangers think--just as he meant them to think--that he had nothing whatever to do but to talk with them. Even his own congregation have, most of them, little conception of how busy a man he is and how precious is his time.

One evening last June to take an evening of which I happened to know--he got home from a journey of two hundred miles at six o'clock, and after dinner and a slight rest went to the church prayer-meeting, which he led in his usual vigorous way at such meetings, playing the organ and leading the singing, as well as praying and talking. After the prayer-meeting he went to two dinners in succession, both of them important dinners in connection with the close of the university year, and at both dinners he spoke. At the second dinner he was notified of the sudden illness of a member of his congregation, and instantly hurried to the man's home and thence to the hospital to which he had been removed, and there he remained at the man's bedside, or in consultation with the physicians, until one in the morning. Next morning he was up at seven and again at work.

"This one thing I do," is his private maxim of efficiency, and a literalist might point out that he does not one thing only, but a thousand things, not getting Conwell's meaning, which is that whatever the thing may be which he is doing he lets himself think of nothing else until it is done.

Dr. Conwell has a profound love for the country and particularly for the country of his own youth. He loves the wind that comes sweeping over the hills, he loves the wide-stretching views from the heights and the forest intimacies of the nestled nooks. He loves the rippling streams, he loves the wild flowers that nestle in seclusion or that unexpectedly paint some mountain meadow with delight. He loves the very touch of the earth, and he loves the great bare rocks.

He writes verses at times; at least he has written lines for a few old tunes; and it interested me greatly to chance upon some lines of his that picture heaven in terms of the Berkshires:

The wide-stretching valleys in colors so fadeless, Where trees are all deathless and flowers e'er bloom.

That is heaven in the eyes of a New England hill-man! Not golden pavement and ivory palaces, but valleys and trees and flowers and the wide sweep of the open.

Few things please him more than to go, for example, blackberrying, and he has a knack of never scratching his face or his fingers when doing so. And he finds blackberrying, whether he goes alone or with friends, an extraordinarily good time for planning something he wishes to do or working out the thought of a sermon. And fishing is even better, for in fishing he finds immense recreation and restfulness and at the same time a further opportunity to think and plan.

As a small boy he wished that he could throw a dam across the trout-brook that runs near the little Conwell home, and--as he never gives up-- he finally realized the ambition, although it was after half a century! And now he has a big pond, three-quarters of a mile long by half a mile wide, lying in front of the house, down a slope from it-- a pond stocked with splendid pickerel. He likes to float about restfully on this pond, thinking or fishing, or both. And on that pond he showed me how to catch pickerel even under a blaze of sunlight!

He is a trout-fisher, too, for it is a trout stream that feeds this pond and goes dashing away from it through the wilderness; and for miles adjoining his place a fishing club of wealthy men bought up the rights in this trout stream, and they approached him with a liberal offer. But he declined it. "I remembered what good times I had when I was a boy, fishing up and down that stream, and I couldn't think of keeping the boys of the present day from such a pleasure. So they may still come and fish for trout here."

As we walked one day beside this brook, he suddenly said: "Did you ever notice that every brook has its own song? I should know the song of this brook anywhere."

It would seem as if he loved his rugged native country because it is rugged even more than because it is native! Himself so rugged, so hardy, so enduring--the strength of the hills is his also.

Always, in his very appearance, you see something of this ruggedness of the hills; a ruggedness, a sincerity, a plainness, that mark alike his character and his looks. And always one realizes the strength of the man, even when his voice, as it usually is, is low. And one increasingly realizes the strength when, on the lecture platform or in the pulpit or in conversation, he flashes vividly into fire.

A big-boned man he is, sturdy-framed, a tall man, with broad shoulders and strong hands. His hair is a deep chestnut-brown that at first sight seems black. In his early manhood he was superb in looks, as his pictures show, but anxiety and work and the constant flight of years, with physical pain, have settled his face into lines of sadness and almost of severity, which instantly vanish when he speaks. And his face is illumined by marvelous eyes.

He is a lonely man. The wife of his early years died long, long ago, before success had come, and she was deeply mourned, for she had loyally helped him through a time that held much of struggle and hardship. He married again; and this wife was his loyal helpmate for many years. In a time of special stress, when a defalcation of sixty-five thousand dollars threatened to crush Temple College just when it was getting on its feet, for both Temple Church and Temple College had in those early days buoyantly assumed heavy indebtedness, he raised every dollar he could by selling or mortgaging his own possessions, and in this his wife, as he lovingly remembers, most cordially stood beside him, although she knew that if anything should happen to him the financial sacrifice would leave her penniless. She died after years of companionship; his children married and made homes of their own; he is a lonely man. Yet he is not unhappy, for the tremendous demands of his tremendous work leave him little time for sadness or retrospect. At times the realization comes that he is getting old, that friends and comrades have been passing away, leaving him an old man with younger friends and helpers. But such realization only makes him work with an earnestness still more intense, knowing that the night cometh when no man shall work.

Deeply religious though he is, he does not force religion into conversation on ordinary subjects or upon people who may not be interested in it. With him, it is action and good works, with faith and belief, that count, except when talk is the natural, the fitting, the necessary thing; when addressing either one individual or thousands, he talks with superb effectiveness.

His sermons are, it may almost literally be said, parable after parable; although he himself would be the last man to say this, for it would sound as if he claimed to model after the greatest of all examples. His own way of putting it is that he uses stories frequently because people are more impressed by illustrations than by argument.

Always, whether in the pulpit or out of it, he is simple and homelike, human and unaffected. If he happens to see some one in the congregation to whom he wishes to speak, he may just leave his pulpit and walk down the aisle, while the choir is singing, and quietly say a few words and return.

In the early days of his ministry, if he heard of a poor family in immediate need of food he would be quite likely to gather a basket of provisions and go personally, and offer this assistance and such other as he might find necessary when he reached the place. As he became known he ceased from this direct and open method of charity, for he knew that impulsiveness would be taken for intentional display. But he has never ceased to be ready to help on the instant that he knows help is needed. Delay and lengthy investigation are avoided by him when he can be certain that something immediate is required. And the extent of his quiet charity is amazing. With no family for which to save money, and with no care to put away money for himself, he thinks only of money as an instrument for helpfulness. I never heard a friend criticize him except for too great open-handedness.

I was strongly impressed, after coming to know him, that he possessed many of the qualities that made for the success of the old-time district leaders of New York City, and I mentioned this to him, and he at once responded that he had himself met "Big Tim," the long-time leader of the Sullivans, and had had him at his house, Big Tim having gone to Philadelphia to aid some henchman in trouble, and having promptly sought the aid of Dr. Conwell. And it was characteristic of Conwell that he saw, what so many never saw, the most striking characteristic of that Tammany leader. For, "Big Tim Sullivan was so kind-hearted!" Conwell appreciated the man's political unscrupulousness as well as did his enemies, but he saw also what made his underlying power--his kind-heartedness. Except that Sullivan could be supremely unscrupulous, and that Conwell is supremely scrupulous, there were marked similarities in these masters over men; and Conwell possesses, as Sullivan possessed, a wonderful memory for faces and names.

Naturally, Russell Conwell stands steadily and strongly for good citizenship. But he never talks boastful Americanism. He seldom speaks in so many words of either Americanism or good citizenship, but he constantly and silently keeps the American flag, as the symbol of good citizenship, before his people. An American flag is prominent in his church; an American flag is seen in his home; a beautiful American flag is up at his Berkshire place and surmounts a lofty tower where, when he was a boy, there stood a mighty tree at the top of which was an eagle's nest, which has given him a name for his home, for he terms it "The Eagle's Nest."

Remembering a long story that I had read of his climbing to the top of that tree, though it was a well-nigh impossible feat, and securing the nest by great perseverance and daring, I asked him if the story were a true one. "Oh, I've heard something about it; somebody said that somebody watched me, or something of the kind. But I don't remember anything about it myself."

Any friend of his is sure to say something, after a while, about his determination, his insistence on going ahead with anything on which he has really set his heart. One of the very important things on which he insisted, in spite of very great opposition, and especially an opposition from the other churches of his denomination (for this was a good many years ago, when there was much more narrowness in churches and sects than there is at present), was with regard to doing away with close communion. He determined on an open communion; and his way of putting it, once decided upon, was: "My friends, it is not for me to invite you to the table of the Lord. The table of the Lord is open. If you feel that you can come to the table, it is open to you." And this is the form which he still uses.

He not only never gives up, but, so his friends say, he never forgets a thing upon which he has once decided, and at times, long after they supposed the matter has been entirely forgotten, they suddenly find Dr. Conwell bringing his original purpose to pass. When I was told of this I remembered that pickerel-pond in the Berkshires!

If he is really set upon doing anything, little or big, adverse criticism does not disturb his serenity. Some years ago he began wearing a huge diamond, whose size attracted much criticism and caustic comment. He never said a word in defense; he just kept on wearing the diamond. One day, however, after some years, he took it off, and people said, "He has listened to the criticism at last!" He smiled reminiscently as he told me about this, and said: "A dear old deacon of my congregation gave me that diamond and I did not like to hurt his feelings by refusing it. It really bothered me to wear such a glaring big thing, but because I didn't want to hurt the old deacon's feelings I kept on wearing it until he was dead. Then I stopped wearing it."

The ambition of Russell Conwell is to continue working and working until the very last moment of his life. In work he forgets his sadness, his loneliness, his age. And he said to me one day, "I will die in harness."