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[Illustration: RUSSELL H CONWELL]
RUSSELL H. CONWELL
Founder of the Institutional Church in America
THE WORK AND THE MAN
AGNES RUSH BURR
With His Two Famous Lectures as Recently Delivered, entitled "Acres of
Diamonds," and "Personal Glimpses of Celebrated Men and Women"
With an Appreciative Introduction by FLOYD W. TOMKINS, D.D., LL.D.
TO THE MEMBERS
GRACE BAPTIST CHURCH
TO THOSE WHO IN THE OLD DAYS WORKED WITH SUCH SELF SACRIFICE AND
DEVOTION TO BUILD THE TEMPLE WALLS; TO THOSE WHO IN THE LATER DAYS
ANYWHERE WORK IN LIKE SPIRIT TO ENLARGE THEIR SPHERE OF USEFULNESS,
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED
The measure of greatness is helpfulness. We have gone back to the
method of the Master and learned to test men not by wealth, nor by
birth, nor by intellectual power, but by service. Wealth is not to be
despised if it is untainted and consecrated. Ancestry is noble if the
good survives and the bad perishes in him who boasts of his forebears.
Intellectual force is worthy if only it can escape from that cursed
attendant, conceit. But they sink, one and all into insignificance
when character is considered; for character is the child of godly
parents whose names are self-denial and love. The man who lives not
for himself but for others, and who has a heart big enough to take all
men into its living sympathies--he is the man we delight to honor.
Biographies have a large place in present day literature. A woman long
associated with some foreign potentates tells her story and it is read
with unhealthy avidity. Some man fights many battles, and his career
told by an amiable critic excites temporary interest. Yet as we read
we are unsatisfied. The heart and mind, consciously or unconsciously,
ask for some deeds other than those of arms and sycophancies. Did he
make the world better by his living? Were rough places smoothed and
crooked things straightened by his energies? And withal, had he that
tender grace which drew little children to him and made him the
knight-attendant of the feeble and overborne amongst his fellows? The
life from which men draw daily can alone make a book richly worth the
It is good that something should be known of a man whilst he yet
lives. We are overcrowded with monuments commemorating those into
whose faces we cannot look for inspiration. It is always easy to strew
flowers upon the tomb. But to hear somewhat of living realities; to
grasp the hand which has wrought, and feel the thrill while we hear of
the struggles which made it a beautiful hand; to see the face marked
by lines cut with the chisel of inner experience and the sword of
lonely misunderstanding and perchance of biting criticism, and
learn how the brave contest spelt out a life-history on feature and
brow;--this is at once to know the man and his career.
This life of a man justly honored and loved in Philadelphia will find
a welcome seldom accorded to the routine biography. It is difficult
for one who rejoices in Dr. Conwell's friendship to speak in tempered
language. It is yet more difficult to do justice to the great work
which Church and College and Hospital, united in a trinity of service,
have accomplished in our very midst. God hath done mighty things
through this His servant, and the end is not yet. To attend the Temple
services on Sunday and feel the pulse of worship is to enter into a
blessed fellowship with God and men. To see the thousands pursuing
their studies during the week in Temple College and to realize the
thoroughness of the work done is to gain a belief in Christian
education. To move through the beautiful Hospital and mark the gentle
ministration of Christian physician and nurse is to learn what Jesus
meant when, quoting Hosea, He said: "I will have mercy and not
sacrifice." And these all bring one very near to the great human
heart, the intelligent and far-reaching judgment, the ripe and real
religion of him whose life this volume tells.
May God bless Dr. Conwell in the days to come, and graciously spare
him to us for many years! We need such men in this old sin-stained and
weary world. He is an inspiration to his brothers in the ministry
of Jesus Christ, He is a proof of the power in the world of pure
Christianity. He is a friend to all that is good, a foe to all that is
evil, a strength to the weak, a comforter to the sorrowing, a man of
He would not suffer these words to be printed if he saw them. But they
come from the heart of one who loves, honors, and reverences him for
his character and his deeds. They are the words of a friend.
[Illustration: Floyd W. Tomkins Church of the Holy Trinity
Philadelphia, Oct. 6th 1905.]
CONWELL THE PIONEER
Speaking of Russell Conwell's career, a Western paper has called it,
"a pioneer life."
No phrase better describes it.
Dr. Conwell preaches to the largest Protestant congregation in America
each Sunday. He is the founder and president of a college that has a
yearly roll-call of three thousand students. He is the founder and
president of a hospital that annually treats more than five thousand
patients. Yet great as these achievements are, they are yet greater in
prophecy than in fulfilment. For they are the first landmarks in a new
world of philanthropic work. He has blazed a path through the dark,
tangled wilderness of tradition and convention, hewing away the
worthless, making a straight road for progress, letting in God's clear
light to show what the world needs done and how to do it.
He has shown how a church can reach out into the home, the business,
the social life of thousands of people until their religion is their
life, their life a religion. He has given the word "church" its real
meaning. No longer is it a building merely for worship, but, with
doors never closed, it is a vital part of the community and the lives
of the people.
He has proven that the great masses of people are hungry and thirsty
for knowledge. The halls of Temple College have resounded to the tread
of an army of working men and women more than fifty thousand strong.
The man with an hour a day and a few dollars a year is as eager and as
welcome a student there, and has the same educational opportunities to
the same grade of learning as though he had the birthright of leisure
and money which opens the doors to Harvard and Yale.
He has shown that a hospital can be built not merely as a charity, not
merely as a necessity, but as a visible expression of Christ's love
and command, "Heal the sick."
In all these three lines he has blazed new paths, opened new worlds
for man's endeavors--new worlds of religious work, new worlds of
educational work. He has not only proven their need, demonstrated
their worth, but he has shown how it is possible to accomplish such
results from small beginnings with no large gifts of money, with only
the hands and hearts of willing workers.
Not only has he done a magnificent pioneer work in these great fields,
but from boyhood he has blazed trails of one kind or another, for
the pioneer fever was in his blood--that burning desire to do, to
discover, to strike out into new fields.
As a mere child, he organized a strange club called "Silence," also
the first debating society in the district schoolhouse, and circulated
the first petition for the opening of a post-office near his home in
South Worthington, Mass.
In his school days at Wilbraham Academy, he organized an original
critics' club, started the first academy paper, organized the original
In war time, he built the first schoolhouse for the first free colored
school, still standing at Newport, N.C.; and started the first
"Comfort Bag" movement at a war meeting in Springfield, Mass.
As a lawyer, he opened the first noon prayer meeting in the Northwest,
called the first meeting to organize the Y.M.C.A. at Minneapolis,
Minn., organized four literary and social clubs in Minneapolis,
started the first library in that city, began the publication of the
first daily paper there called "The Daily Chronicle," afterward "The
In Boston, he started the "Somerville Journal," now edited by his son,
Leon M. Conwell, one of the most quoted publications in the country.
He called the first meeting which organized the Boston Young Men's
Congress, and was one of the first editors of the "Boston Globe."
He was the personal adviser of James Redpath, who opened the first
Lecture and Lyceum Bureau in the United States.
He began a new church work in the old Baptist church building at
Lexington, Mass., and he opened in a schoolhouse the mission from
which grew the West Somerville (Mass.) Baptist church.
He was special counselor for four new Railroad companies and for two
new National banks.
In Philadelphia, in addition to being the founder of the first
Institutional church in America, of a college practically free for
busy men and women, and a hospital for the sick poor, he has organized
twenty or more societies for religions and benevolent purposes
including the Philadelphia Orphan's Home Society.
His pioneer work is not all. As a lecturer Dr. Conwell is known from
the Atlantic to the Pacific, having been on the lecture platform
for forty-three years, speaking from one hundred to two hundred and
twenty-five nights each year.
As an author he has written books that have run into editions of
hundreds of thousands, his "Life of Spurgeon" selling one hundred and
twenty-five thousand copies in four months. He has been around the
globe many times, counted among his intimate friends Garibaldi, Bayard
Taylor, Stanley, Longfellow, Blaine, Henry Ward Beecher, John G.
Whittier, President Garfield, Horace Greeley, Alexander Stevens, John
Brown, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John B. Gough and General Sherman.
He fought in the war of the Rebellion, was left for dead on the
battlefield of Kenesaw mountain--in fact, he has had a career as
picturesque and thrilling as a Scott or Dumas could picture.
Yet the man whose energy has reared enduring monuments of stone, and
more lasting ones in the hearts of thousands whose lives he has made
happier and brighter, fought his way upward alone and single-handed
from a childhood of poverty. He rose by his own efforts, in the face
of great and seemingly insurmountable obstacles and discouragements.
The path he took from that little humble farmhouse to the big church,
the wide-reaching college, the kindly hospital, the head of the
Lecture Platform, it is the purpose of this book to picture, in the
hope that it may be helpful to others, either young or old, who desire
to better their condition, or to do some work of which the inner voice
tells them the world is in need.
Dr. Conwell believes, with George Macdonald, that "The one secret of
life and development is not to devise or plan, but to fall in with the
forces at work--to do every moment's duty aright--that being the part
in the process allotted to us; and let come ... what the Eternal
Thought wills for each of us, has intended in each of us from the
Or in the words of the greatest of Books, "See that thou make it
according to the pattern that was shewed thee in the mount."
Every one at some time in his life has been "in the mount." To follow
and obey the Heavenly Vision means a life of usefulness and happiness.
That obstacles and discouragements can be surmounted, the life of
Russell Conwell shows. For this purpose it is written, that others who
have heard the Voice may go forward with faith and perseverance to
work of which the world stands in need.
In the preparation of this book, the three excellent biographies
already written, "Scaling the Eagle's Nest," by Wm. C. Higgins, "The
Modern Temple and Templars," by Robert J. Burdette, and "The Life of
Russell H. Conwell," by Albert Hatcher Smith, have been of the utmost
help. The writer wishes to acknowledge her great indebtedness to all
for much of the information in the present work. These writers have
with the utmost care gathered the facts concerning Dr. Conwell's early
life, and the writer most gratefully owns her deep obligation to them.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter I.--Ancestry. John Conwell, the English Ancestor who fought for
the Preservation of the English Language. Martin Conwell of Maryland. A
Runaway Marriage. The Parents of Russell H. Conwell.
Chapter II.--Early Environment. The Family Circle. An Unusual Mother.
What She Read Her Children. A Preacher at Three Years of Age.
Chapter III.--Days of Study, Work and Play. The Schoolhouse in the
Woods. Maple Sugar-making. The Orator of the Dawn. A Boyish Prank.
Capturing the Eagle's Nest.
Chapter IV.--Two Men and Their Influence. John Brown. Fireside
Discussions. Runaway Slaves. Fred Douglas. Rev. Asa Niles. A Runaway
Trip to Boston.
Chapter V--Trying His Wings. Boyhood Days. Russell's First Case at Law.
A Cure for Stage Fever. Studying Music. A Runaway Trip to Europe.
Chapter VI--Out of the Home Nest. School Days at Wilbraham Academy. The
First School Oration and Its Humiliating End. The Hour of Prayer in the
Conwell Home at the Time of John Brown's Execution.
Chapter VII.--War's Alarms. College Days at Yale. The Outbreak of the
Civil War. Patriotic Speechmaking. New York and Henry Ward Beecher.
Chapter VIII.--While the Conflict Raged. Lincoln's Call for One Hundred
Thousand Men. Enlistment. Captain Conwell. In Camp at Springfield, Mass.
The Famous Gold-sheathed Sword.
Chapter IX.--In the Thick of the Fight. Company F at Newberne, N.C. The
Fight at Batchelor's Creek. The Goldsboro Expedition. The Battle of
Kingston. The Gum Swamp Expedition.
Chapter X.--The Sword and the School Book. Scouting at Bogue Sound.
Captain Conwell Wounded. The Second Enlistment. Jealousy and
Misunderstanding. Building of the First Free School for Colored
Children. Attack on Newport Barracks. Heroic Death of John Ring.
Chapter XI.--A Soldier of the Cross. Under Arrest for Absence Without
Leave. Order of Court Reversed by President. Certificate from State
Legislature of Massachusetts for Patriotic Services. Appointed by
President Lincoln, Lieutenant-Colonel on General McPherson's Staff.
Wounded at Kenesaw Mountain. Conversion. Public Profession of Faith.
Chapter XII.--Westward. Resignation from Army. Admission to Bar.
Marriage. Removal to Minnesota. Founding of the Minneapolis Y.M.C.A.
and of the Present "Minneapolis Tribune." Burning of Home. Breaking Out
of Wound. Appointed Emigration Agent to Germany by Governor of
Minnesota. Joins Surveying Party to Palestine. Near to Death in Paris
Hospital. Journey to New York for Operation in Bellevue Hospital. Return
Chapter XIII.--Writing His Way Around the World. Days of Poverty in
Boston. Sent to Southern Battlefields. Around the World for New York and
Boston Papers. In a Gambling Den in Hong Kong, China. Cholera and
Chapter XIV.--Busy Days in Boston. Editor of "Boston Traveller." Free
Legal Advice for the Poor. Temperance Work. Campaign Manager for General
Nathaniel P. Banks. Urged for Consulship at Naples. His Work for the
Widows and Orphans of Soldiers.
Chapter XV.--Troubled Days. Death of Wife. Loss of Money. Preaching on
Wharves. Growth of Sunday School Class at Tremont Temple from Four to
Six Hundred Members in a Brief Time. Second Marriage. Death of Father
and Mother. Preaching at Lexington. Building Lexington Baptist Church.
Chapter XVI.--His Entry Into the Ministry. Ordination. First Charge at
Lexington. Call to Grace Baptist Church, Philadelphia.
Chapter XVII.--Going to Philadelphia. The Early History of Grace Baptist
Church. The Beginning of the Sunday Breakfast Association. Impressions
of a Sunday Service.
Chapter XVIII.--First Days at Grace Baptist Church. Early Plans for
Church Efficiency. Practical Methods for.
Chapter XXXI.--The Manner of the Message. The Style of the Sermons.
Their Subject Matter. Preaching to Help Some Individual Church Member.
Chapter XXXII.--These Busy Later Days. A Typical Week Day. A Typical
Sunday. Mrs. Conwell. Back to the Berkshires in Summer for Rest.
Chapter XXXIII.--As a Lecturer. Wide Fame as a Lecturer. Date of Entrance
on Lecture Platform. Number of Lectures Given. The Press on His
Lectures. Some Instances of How His Lectures Have Helped People. Address
at Banquet to President McKinley.
Chapter XXXIV.--As a Writer. Rapid Method of Working. A Popular
Biographical Writer. The Books He has Written.
Chapter XXXV.--A Home Coming. Reception Tendered by Citizens of
Philadelphia in Acknowledgment of Work as Public Benefactor.
Chapter XXXVI.--The Path That Has Been Blazed. Problems That Need
Solving. The Need of Men Able to Solve Them.
Acres of Diamonds.
Personal Glimpses of Celebrated Men and Women.
[Illustration: MARTIN CONWELL]
John Conwell, the English Ancestor who fought for the Preservation of
the English Language. Martin Conwell of Maryland. A Runaway Marriage.
The Parents of Russell Conwell.
When the Norman-French overran England and threatened to sweep from
out the island the English language, many time-honored English
customs, and all that those loyal early Britons held dear, a doughty
Englishman, John Conwell, took up cudgels in their defence. Long and
bitter was the struggle he waged to preserve the English language.
Insidious and steady were the encroachments of the Norman-French
tongue. The storm centre was the Castle school, for John Conwell
realized that the language of the child of to-day is the language of
the man of to-morrow. Right royal was the battle, for it was in those
old feudal days of strong feeling and bitter, bloody partisanship. But
this plucky Briton stood to his guns until he won. Norman-French was
beaten back, English was taught in the schools, and preserved in the
speech of that day.
It was a tale that was told his children and his children's children.
It was a tradition that grew into their blood--the story of
perseverance, the story of a fight against oppression and injustice.
"Blood" is after all but family traditions and family ideals, and this
fighting ancestor handed down to his descendants an inheritance of
greater worth than royal lineage or feudal castle. The centuries
rolled away, a new world was discovered, and the progressive,
energetic Conwell family were not to be held back when adventure
beckoned. Two members of it came to America. Courage of a high
order, enthusiasm, faith, must they have had, or the call to cross
a perilous, pathless ocean, to brave unknown dangers in a new world
would have found no response in their hearts. They settled in Maryland
and into this fighting pioneer blood entered that strange magic
influence of the South, which makes for romance, for imagination, for
the poetic and ideal in temperament.
[Illustration: MIRANDA CONWELL]
Of this family came Martin Conwell, of Baltimore, hot-blooded, proud,
who in 1810, visiting a college chum in western Massachusetts, met
and fell in love with a New England girl, Miss Hannah Niles. She was
already engaged to a neighbor's son, but the Southerner cared naught
for a rival. He wooed earnestly, passionately. He soon swept away her
protests, won her heart and the two ran away and were married. But
tragic days were ahead. On her return her incensed father locked her
in her room and by threats and force compelled her to write a note to
her young husband renouncing him. He would accept no such message, but
sent a note imploring a meeting in a nearby schoolhouse at nightfall.
The letter fell into the father's hands. He compelled her to write a
curt reply bidding him leave her "forever." Then the father locked
the daughter safely in the attic, and with a mob led by the rejected
suitor, surrounded the schoolhouse and burnt it to the ground. The
husband, thinking he had been heartlessly forsaken, made a brave fight
against the odds, but seeing no hope of success, leaped from the
burning building, amid the shots fired at him, escaped down a rocky
embankment at the back of the schoolhouse, and under cover of the
woods, fled. They told his wife that he was dead.
A little son came to brighten her shadowed life, whom she named, after
him, Martin Conwell; and after seven years she married her early
lover. But Martin was the son of her first husband and always her
dearest child, and day after day when old and gray and again a widow,
she would come over the New England hills, a little lonely old woman,
to sit by his fireside and dream of those bygone days that were so
Too proud to again seek an explanation, Martin Conwell, her husband,
returned to his Maryland home, living a lonely, bitter life, believing
to the day of his death, thirty years later, that his young wife had
repudiated and betrayed him.
Martin Conwell, the son, grew to manhood and in 1839 brought a bride
to a little farm he had purchased at South Worthington, up in the
Hampshire Highlands of the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts. Here and
there among these hills, along the swift mountain streams, the land
sweeps out into sunny little meadows filled in summer with rich,
tender grasses, starred with flowers. It is not a fertile land. The
rocks creep out with frequent and unpleasing persistency. But Martin
Conwell viewed life cheerfully, and being an ingenious man, added to
the business of farming, several other occupations, and so managed to
make a living, and after many years to pay the mortgage on his home
which came with the purchase. The little farmhouse, clinging to the
bleak hillside, seemed daring to the point of recklessness when the
winter's winds swept down the valley, and the icy fingers of the storm
reached out as if to pluck it bodily from its exposed position.
But when spring wove her mantle of green over the hills, when summer
flung its leafy banners from a million tree tops, then in the
wonderful panorama of beauty that spread before it, was the little
home justified for the dangers it had dared. Back of the house the
land climbed into a little ridge, with great, gray rocks here and
there, spots of cool, restful color amid the lavish green and gold and
purple of nature's carpeting. To the north swept hills clothed with
the deep, rich green of hemlock, the faint green flutter of birch, the
dense foliage of sugar maples. To the east, in the valley, a singing
silver brook flashed in and out among somber boulders, the land
ascending to sunny hilltop pastures beyond. But toward the south from
the homestead lay the gem of the scenery; one of the most beautiful
pictures the Berkshires know. Down the valley the hills divided,
sweeping upward east and west in magnificent curves; and through the
opening, range on range of distant mountains, including Mount Tom,
filled the view with an ever-changing fairyland of beauty--in the
spring a sea of tender, misty green; in the summer, a deep, heaving
ocean of billowy foliage; in the fall, a very carnival of color--gold,
rich reds, deep glowing browns and orange. And always, at morning,
noon and night, was seen subtle tenderness of violet shadows, of hazy
blue mists, of far-away purple distances.
Such was the site Martin Conwell chose for a home, a site that told
something of his own character; that had marked influence on the
family that grew up in the little farmhouse.
A mixture of the practical, hard common sense of New England and the
sympathetic, poetic temperament of the South was in this young New
England farmer--the genial, beauty-loving nature of his Southern
father, the rigid honesty, the strong convictions, the shrewd sense of
his Northern mother. Quiet and reserved in general, he was to those
who knew him well, kind-hearted, broad-minded, fun-loving. He not
only took an active interest in the affairs of the little mountain
community, but his mind and heart went out to the big problems of the
nation. He grappled with them, sifted them thoroughly, and having
decided what to him was the right course to pursue, expressed his
convictions in deed as well as word. His was no passive nature. The
square chin denoted the man of will and aggression, and though the
genial mouth and kindly blue eyes bespoke the sympathetic heart, they
showed no lack of courage to come out in the open and take sides.
The young wife, Miranda Conwell, shared these broader interests of her
husband. She came from central New York State and did not have that
New England reserve and restraint that amounts almost to coldness. Her
mind was keen and vigorous and reached out with her husband's to grasp
and ponder the higher things of life. But the beauty of her character
lay in the loving, affectionate nature that shone from her dark eyes,
in the patient, self-sacrificing, self-denying disposition which found
its chief joy in ministering to her husband and children. Deeply
religious, she could no more help whispering a fervent little prayer,
as she tucked her boys in bed, that the Father above would watch over
and protect them, than she could help breathing, her trust in God
was so much a part of her nature. Such a silent, beautiful influence
unconsciously permeates a child's whole character, moulding it,
setting it. Unconscious of it at the time, some day a great event
suddenly crystalizes it like a wonderful chemical change, and the
beauty of it shines evermore from his life. Miranda Conwell built
better than she knew when in the every-day little things of her life,
she let her faith shine.
Not a usual couple, by any means, for the early 40's in rugged New
England. Yet their unusualness was of a kind within every one's reach.
They believed the making of a life of more importance than the making
of a living, and they grasped every opportunity of those meagre days
to broaden and uplift their mental and spiritual vision. Martin
Conwell's thoughts went beyond his plow furrow, Miranda's further than
her bread-board; and so the little home had an atmosphere of earnest
thought and purpose that clothed the uncarpeted floors and bare walls
with dignity and beauty.
The Family Circle. An Unusual Mother. What She Read Her Children. A
Preacher at Three Years of Age.
Such was the heritage and the home into which Russell H. Conwell
was born February 15, 1843. Think what a world his eyes opened
upon--"fair, searching eyes of youth"--steadfast hills holding mystery
and fascination in green depths and purple distances, streams rushing
with noisy joy over stony beds, sweet violet gloom of night with
brilliant stars moving silently across infinite space; tender moss,
delicate fern, creeping vine, covering the brown earth with living
beauty--a fascinating world of loveliness for boyish eyes to look upon
and wonder about.
The home inside was as unpretentious as its exterior suggested. The
tiny hall admitted on one side to a bedroom, on the other to a living
room, from which opened a room used as a store. Above was an attic.
The living room was the bright, cheery heart of the house. The morning
sun poured in through two windows which faced the east; a window and
door on the south claimed the same cheery rays as the sun journeyed
westward. The big open fireplace made a glowing spot of brightness.
The floor was uncarpeted, the walls unpapered, the furnishing of the
simplest, yet cheerfulness and homely comfort pervaded the room as
with an almost tangible spirit.
A brother three years older and a sister three years younger made a
trio of bright, childish faces about the hearth on winter evenings
as the years went by, while the mother read to them such tales as
childish minds could grasp. It was a loving little circle, one that
riveted sure and fast the ties of family affection and which helped
one boy at her knee in after life to enter with such sure sympathy
into the plain, simple lives of the humblest people he met. He had
lived that same life, he knew the family affection that grows with
such strength around simple firesides, and those of like circumstances
felt this knowledge and opened their hearts to him.
That Miranda Conwell was an unusual woman for those times and
circumstances is shown in those readings to her children. Not only
did she read and explain to them the beautiful stories of the Bible,
implanting its truths in their impressionable natures to blossom forth
later in beautiful deeds; but she read them the best literature of the
ancient days as well as current literature. Into this poor New England
home came the "New York Tribune" and the "National Era." The letters
of foreign correspondents opened to their childish eyes another world
and roused ambitions to see it. Henry Ward Beecher's sermons, and
"Uncle Tom's Cabin," when it came out as a serial, all such good and
helpful literature, she poured into the eager childish ears. These
readings went on, all through the happy days of childhood.
Interesting things were happening in the world then; things that were
to mould the future of one of the boys at her knee in a way she little
dreamed. A war was being waged in Mexico to train soldiers for a
greater war coming. Out in Illinois, a plain rail-splitter, farmer and
lawyer was beginning to be heard in the cause of freedom and justice
for all men, black or white. These rumors and discussions drifted into
the little home and arguments rose high around the crackling woodfire
as neighbors dropped in. Martin Conwell was not a man to watch
passively the trend of events. He took sides openly, vigorously, and
though the small, blue-eyed boy listening so attentively did not
comprehend all that it was about, Martin Conwell's views later took
shape in action that had a marked bearing on Russell's later life.
But the mother's reading bore more immediate, if less useful, fruit.
Hearing rather unusual sounds from the back yard one day, she went
to the door to listen. The evening before she had been reading the
children one of the sermons of Henry Ward Beecher and telling them
something of this great man and his work. Mounted upon one of the
largest gray rocks in the yard, stood Russell, solemnly preaching to
a collection of wondering, round-eyed chickens. It was a serious,
impressive discourse he gave them, much of it, no doubt, a transcript
of Henry Ward Beecher's. What led his boyish fancy to do it, no
one knew, though many another child has done the same, as children
dramatize in play the things they have heard or read. But a chance
remark stamped that childish action upon the boyish imagination,
making it the corner stone of many a childish castle in Spain. Telling
her husband of it in the evening, Miranda Conwell said, half jokingly,
"our boy will some day be a great preacher." It was a fertile seed
dropped in a fertile mind, tilled assiduously for a brief space by
vivid childish imagination; but not ripened till sad experiences of
later years brought it to a glorious fruition.
Another result of the fireside readings might have been serious. A
short distance from the house a mountain stream leaps and foams over
the stones, seeming to choose, as Ruskin says, "the steepest places
to come down for the sake of the leaps, scattering its handfuls of
crystal this way and that as the wind takes them." The walls of the
gorge rise sheer and steep; the path of the stream is strewn with huge
boulders, over which it foams snow white, pausing in quiet little
pools for breath before the next leap and scramble. Here and there at
the sides, stray tiny little waterfalls, very Thoreaus of streamlets,
content to wander off by themselves, away from the noisy rush of the
others, making little silvery rills of beauty in unobtrusive ways.
Over this gorge was a fallen log. Russell determined to enact the part
of Eliza in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," fleeing over the ice. It was a feat
to make a mother's heart stand still. Three separate times she
whipped him severely and forbade him to do it. He took the punishment
cheerfully, and went back to the log. He never gave up until he had
The vein of perseverance in his character was already setting into
firm, unyielding mould--the one trait to which Russell H. Conwell, the
preacher, the lecturer, writer, founder of college and hospital, may
attribute the success he has gained. This childish escapade was the
first to strike fire from its flint.
DAYS OF STUDY, WORK AND PLAY
The Schoolhouse in the Woods. Maple Sugar-making. The Orator of the
Dawn. A Boyish Prank. Capturing the Eagle's Nest.
At three years of age, he trudged off to school with his brother
Charles. Though Charles was three years the senior, the little fellow
struggled to keep pace with him in all their childish play and work.
Two miles the children walked daily to the schoolhouse, a long walk
for a toddler of three. But it laid the foundation of that strong,
rugged constitution that has carried him so unflinchingly through
the hard work of these later years. The walk to school was the most
important part of the performance, for lessons had no attraction for
the boy as yet. But the road through the woods to the schoolhouse was
a journey of ever new and never-ending excitement. The road lay along
a silver-voiced brook that rippled softly by shadowy rock, or splashed
joyous and exultant down its boulder-strewn path. It was this same
brook whose music drifted into his little attic bedroom at night,
stilled to a faint, far-away murmur as the wind died down, rising to a
high, clear crescendo of rushing, tumbling water as the breeze stirred
in the tree tops and brought to him the forest sounds. Hour after
hour he lay awake listening to it, his childish imagination picturing
fairies and elves holding their revels in the woods beyond. An
oratorical little brook it was, unconsciously leaving an impress of
its musical speech on the ears of the embryo orator. Moreover, in its
quiet pools lurked watchful trout. Few country boys could walk along
such a stream unheeding its fascinations, especially when the doors
of a school house opened at the farther end, and many an hour when
studies should have claimed him, he was sitting by the brookside,
care-free and contented, delightedly fishing. Nor are any berries
quite so luscious as those which grow along the country road to
school. It takes long, long hours to satisfy the keen appetite of
a boy, and lessons suffered during the berry seasons. Another keen
excitement of the daily journey through a living world of mystery and
enchantment was the search for frogs. Woe to the unlucky frog that
fell in the way of the active, curious boy. Some one had told him that
old, old countryside story, "If you kill a frog, the cows will give
bloody milk." Eager to see such a phenomenon, he watched sharply. Let
an unlucky frog give one unfortunate croak, quick, sure-aimed, flew a
stone, and he raced home at night to see the miracle performed. He was
just a boy as other boys--mischievous, disobedient, fonder of play
than work or study. But underneath, uncalled upon as yet, lay that
vein of perseverance as unyielding as the granite of his native hills.
The schoolhouse inside was not unattractive. Six windows gave plenty
of light, and each framed woodland pictures no painter's canvas could
rival. The woods were all about and the voice of the little
brook floated in, always calling, calling--at least to one small
listener--to come out and see it dance and sparkle and leap from rock
to rock. If he gained nothing else from his first school days but a
love and appreciation of nature's beauties, it was a lesson well worth
learning. To feed the heart and imagination of a child with such
scenery is to develop unconsciously a love of the beautiful which
brings a pure joy into life never to be lost, no matter what stress
and storm may come. In the darkest, stormiest hours of his later life,
to think back to the serene beauty of those New England hills was as a
hand of peace laid on his troubled spirit.
This love and joy in nature--and the trait was already in his
blood--was at first all that he gained from his trips to school. Then
came a teacher with a new way of instructing, a Miss Salina Cole, who
had mastered the art of visual memory. She taught her pupils to make
on the mind a photographic impression of the page, which could be
recalled in its entirety, even to the details of punctuation. This
was a process of study that appealed immediately to Russell's boyish
imagination. Moreover, it was something to "see if he could do,"
always fascinating to his love of experiment and adventure. It had
numerous other advantages. It was quick. It promised far-reaching
results. If page after page of the school books could be stored in the
mind and called up for future reference, getting an education would
become an easy matter. Besides, they could be called up and pondered
on in various places--fishing, for instance. He quickly decided
to would master this new method, and he went at it with his
characteristic energy and determination. Concentrating all his mental
force, he would study intently the printed page, and then closing his
eyes, repeat it word for word, even giving the punctuation marks. With
the other pupils, Salina Cole was not so successful, but with Russell
Conwell, the results were remarkable. It was a faculty of the utmost
value to him in after years. When in military camp and far from books,
he would recall page after page of his law works and study them during
the long days of garrison duty as easily as though the printed book
were in his hand.
But the work was of more value to him than the mere mastery of
something new. It whetted his appetite for more. He began to want to
know. School became interesting, and he plunged into studies with an
interest and zest that were unflagging. And as he studied, ambitions
awoke. The history of the past, the accomplishments of great men
stirred him. He began to dream of the things to do in the days to
Outside of school hours his time was filled with the ordinary duties
of the farm. In the early spring, the maple sugar was to be made
and there were long, difficult tramps through woods in those misty,
brooding days when the miracle of new life is working in tree and vine
and leaf. Often the very earth seemed hushed as if waiting in awe for
this marvelous change that transforms brown earth and bare tree to a
vision of ethereal, tender green. But his books went with him, and in
the long night watches far in the woods alone, when the pans of sirrup
were boiling, he studied. So enrapt did he become that sometimes the
sugar suffered, and the patience of his father was sorely taxed when
told the tale of inattention.
It was during those long night watches that he learned by heart two
books of Milton's "Paradise Lost," and so firmly were they fixed
in the boyish memory that at this day, Dr. Conwell can repeat them
without a break. Many a time as the shadows lightened and the dim,
misty dawn came stealing through the forest, would the small boy step
outside the rude sugar-house and repeat in that musical, resonant
voice that has since held audiences enthralled, Milton's glorious
"Invocation to the Light." Strange scene--the great shadowy forest,
the distant mist-enfolded hills, the faintly flushing morning sky,
the faint splash of a little mountain stream breaking the brooding
stillness, and the small boy with intent, inspired face pouring out
his very heart in that wonderful invocation:
"Hail, holy light, offspring of Heaven, Firstborn
Or of the Eternal, co-eternal beam,
May I express thee Unblamed? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from eternity--dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate!
Or hear'st thou, rather, pure Eternal Stream,
Whose fountain who shall tell? Before the sun,
Before the Heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God as with a mantle didst invest
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless Infinite!"
Later in spring there was plowing, though the farm was so rocky and
stony, there was little of that work to do. But here and there, a
sunny hilltop field made cultivation worth while, and as he followed
the patient oxen along the shining brown furrow, he looked away to the
encircling hills so full of mystery and fascination. What was there?
What was beyond? Then into the the morning and well into the afternoon
they pried and labored. They dug away earth and exerted to the utmost
their childish strength. Charles would soon have given up the gigantic
task, but Russell was not of the stuff that quits, and so they toiled
on. The father and mother at home wondered and searched for the boys.
Then as they began truly to get alarmed, from the woods to the south
came a crash and roar, the sound of trees snapping and then a shock
that made the earth tremble. The rock had fallen, traversing a mile,
in its downward rush to the river bed. Flushed and triumphant the
boys returned, and the neighbors who had heard the noise, when it was
explained to them, went to see the wreckage. It had dropped first a
fall of fifteen feet, where it had paused an instant. Then the earth
giving way under its tons of weight, it had plowed a deep furrow right
down the mountain side, dislodging rocks, uprooting trees, until with
a mighty crash, it struck the borders of the stream where it stands to
this day, a monument to boyish ingenuity and perseverance.
But of all the mischievous pranks of these childish days, the one that
had perhaps the greatest influence on his life was the capture of
an eagle's nest from the top of a dead hemlock. To the north of the
farmhouse a hill rises abruptly, covered with bare, outcropping rocks,
their fronts sheer and steep. On top clusters a little sombre grove
of hemlock trees, and from the midst of these rose the largest one,
straight, majestic, swaying a little in the wind that swept on from
the distant hills. In the top of this tree, an eagle had built her
nest, and it had long been a secret ambition of the boy to capture
it, the more resolved upon because it seemed impossible. One day in
October he left his sheep, ran to the foot of the hill, and with the
sure-footed agility of a mountain boy climbed the rocks and began the
ascent of the tree. From the top of a high ledge nearby two men hid
and watched him. A fall meant death, and many a time their hearts
stood still, as the intrepid lad placed his foot on a dead branch only
to have it break under him, or reached for a limb to find it give way
at his touch. The tree was nearly fifty feet high and at some time a
stroke of lightning had rent it, splintering the trunk. Only one limb
was left whole, the others had been broken off or shattered by the
storms of winter. In the very crown of the tree swayed the nest, a
rude, uncouth thing of sticks and hay.
Up and up he climbed, stopping every now and then in the midst of his
struggles to call to the sheep if he saw them wandering too far. He
had only to call them by name to bring them nibbling back again.
"Not a man in the mountains," wrote one of those who watched him in
that interesting sketch of Mr. Conwell's life, "Scaling the Eagle's
Nest," "would have thought it possible to do anything else but shoot,
that nest down. When we first saw him he was half way up the great
tree, and was tugging away to get up by a broken limb which was
swinging loosely about the trunk. For a long time he tried to break it
off, but his little hand was too weak. Then he came down from knot to
knot like a squirrel, jumped to the ground, ran to his little jacket
and took his jack-knife out of the pocket. Slowly he clambered up
again. When he reached the limb, he clung to another with his left
hand, threw one leg over a splintered knot and with the right hand
hacked away with his knife.
"'He will give it up,' we both said.
"But he did not. He chipped away until at last the limb fell to the
ground. Then he pocketed his knife, and bravely strove to get up
higher. It was a dizzy height even for a grown hunter, but the boy
never looked down. He went on until he came to a place about ten feet
below the nest, where there was a long, bare space on the trunk, with
no limbs or knots to cling to. He was baffled then. He looked up at
the nest many times, tried to find some place to catch hold of the
rough bark and sought closely for some rest higher up to put his foot
on. But there was none. An eagle's nest was a rare thing to him, and
he hugged the tree and thought. Suddenly he began to descend again
hastily, and soon dropped to the ground. Away he ran down through the
ravines, leaped the little streams and disappeared toward his home.
In a few minutes the torn straw hat and blue shirt came flitting back
among the rocks and bushes. He called the sheep to him, talked to
them, and shook his finger at them, then he clambered up the tree
again, dragging after him a long piece of his mother's clothes line.
At one end of it, he had tied a large stone, which hindered his
progress, for it caught in the limbs and splinters. The wind blew his
torn straw hat away down a side cliff, and one side of his trousers
was soon torn to strips. But he went on. When he got to the smooth
place on the tree again, he fastened one end of the rope about his
wrist, and then taking the stone which was fastened to the other end,
he tried to throw it up over the nest. It was an awkward and dangerous
position, and the stone did not reach the top. Six or seven times he
threw that stone up, and it fell short or went to one side, and nearly
dragged him down as it fell.
"The boy felt for his knife again, opened it with his teeth as he held
on, and hauling the rope up, cut off a part of it. He threw a short
piece around the trunk and tied himself with it to the tree. Then
he could lean back for a longer throw. He tied the rope to his hand
again, and threw the stone with all his energy. It went straight as an
arrow, drew the rope squarely over the nest and fell down the other
side of the tree. After a struggle he reached around for the stone,
and tied that end of the rope to a long broken limb. When he drew the
other end of the rope which had been fastened to his hand, it broke
down the sides of the nest, and an old bird arose with a wild scream.
"Then he loosed the rope which held him to the tree, and pulling
himself up with his hands on the scaling line, digging his bare toes,
heels and knees at times into the ragged bark, he was up in two
minutes to the nest."
"That is a child's ambition," said one of the men, as they both drew a
breath of relief, when he stepped safely to the ground. "Wait until he
has a man's ambition. If that vein of perseverance doesn't run out, he
will do something worth while."
TWO MEN AND THEIR INFLUENCE
John Brown. Fireside Discussions. Runaway Slaves. Fred Douglas. Rev.
Asa Niles. A Runaway Trip to Boston.
Two men entered into Russell Conwell's life in these formative days of
boyhood who unconsciously had much to do with the course of his after
One was John Brown, that man "who would rush through fire though it
burn, through water though it drown, to do the work which his soul
knew that it must do." During his residence in Springfield, this man
"possessed like Socrates with a genius that was too much for him" was
a frequent visitor at the Conwell home. Russell learned to know that
face with "features chiselled, as it were, in granite," the large
clear eyes that seemed fairly to change color with the intensity of
his feelings when he spoke on the one subject that was the very heart
of the man. Tall, straight, lithe, with hair brushed back from a high
forehead, thick, full beard and a wonderful, penetrating voice whose
tones once heard were never forgotten, his arrival was always received
with shouts by the Conwell boys. Had he not lived in the West and
fought real Indians! What surer "open sesame" is there to a boy's
heart? He was not so enrapt in his one great project, but that he
could go out to the barn and pitch down hay from the mow with Russell,
or tell him wonderful stories of the great West where he had lived as
a boy, and of the wilderness through which he had tramped as a mere
child when he cared for his father's cattle. Russell was entirely too
young to grasp the meaning of the earnest discussions that went on
about the fireplace of which this Spartan was then the centre. But in
later years their meaning came to him with a peculiar significance. A
light seemed to be shed on the horrors of slavery as if the voice of
his childhood's friend were calling from the grave in impassioned
tones, to aid the cause for which he had given his life.
Martin Conwell, progressive, aggressive, was not a man to let his
deeds lag behind his words. Such help as he could, he lent the
cause of the oppressed. He made his home one of the stations of the
"Underground Railway," as the road to freedom for escaping slaves was
called. Many a time in the dead of night, awakened by the noise of a
wagon, Russell would steal to the little attic window, to see in the
light of the lantern, a trembling black man, looking fearfully this
way and that for pursuers, being hurried into the barn. Back to bed
went Russell, where his imagination pictured all manner of horrible
cruelties the slaves were suffering until the childish heart was near
to bursting with sympathy for them and with fiery indignation at the
injustice that brought them to this pitiful state. Not often did he
see them, but sometimes childish curiosity was too strong and he
searched out the cowering fugitive in the barn, and if the runaway
happened to be communicative, he heard exaggerated tales of cruelty
that set even his young blood to tingling with a mighty desire to
right their wrongs. Then the next night, the wagon wheels were heard
again and the slave was hurried away to the house of a cousin of
William Cullen Bryant, at Cummington. As the wheels died in the
distance up the mountain road, the boyish imagination pictured the
flight, on, on, into the far north till the Canada border was reached
and the slave free. Little wonder that when the war broke out, this
boy, older grown, spoke as with a tongue of fire and swept men up by
the hundreds with his impassioned eloquence, to sign the muster roll.
One of these slaves thus helped to freedom is now Rev. J.G. Ramage, of
Atlanta, Ga. In 1905, he applied to Temple College for the degree of
LL.D. Noticing on the letter sent in reply to his request, the name
of Russell Conwell, President of the College, he wrote Dr. Conwell,
telling him that in 1856 when a runaway slave he had stopped at a
farmhouse at South Worthington, Mass., and remembered the name of
Conwell. Undoubtedly Martin Conwell was one of the men who had helped
him to freedom.
John Brown brought Fred Douglas, the colored orator, with him on one
of his visits. When Russell was told by his father that this was "a
celebrated colored speaker and statesman," the boyish eyes opened wide
with amazement, and not able to control himself, he burst out in a fit
of laughter, saying, "Why, he's not black," much to the amusement of
Douglas, who afterwards told him of his life as a slave.
The other man who so helped Russell in his younger days was the Rev.
Asa Niles, a cousin of his father's who lived on a neighboring farm.
He had heard of Russell's various exploits and saw that he was a boy
far above the average, that he had talents worth training. Himself a
scholar and a Methodist minister, he knew the value of an education,
and the worth to the world of a brilliant, forceful character with
clear ideas of right, and high ideals of duty. He was a man far ahead
of his times, broad-minded, spiritual in its best sense, and with
a winning personality, just the man to attract a clear-sighted,
keen-witted boy who quickly saw through shams and despised
affectations. Russell at that plastic period could have fallen into
no better hands. With loving interest in the boy's welfare, Asa Niles
inspired him to get the broadest education in order to make the most
of himself, yet ever held before him the highest ideals of life and
manhood. Out of the stores of his own knowledge he told him what to
read, helped, encouraged, talked over his studies with him, and in
every way possible not only made them real and vital to him, but at
every step aided him to see their worth.
His curiosity keenly aroused, his ambitions kindled by his studies,
Russell was restless to be off to see this great world he had read and
studied about. The mountains suddenly seemed like prison walls holding
him in. An uncontrollable longing swept his soul. He determined to
escape. Telling no one of his intentions, one morning just before
dawn, he raised the window of the little attic in which he and his
brother slept, climbed out over the roof of the woodshed, slipped to
the ground and made off down the valley to seek his fortune in the
world. It was a hasty resolve. In a little bundle slung over his
shoulders he had a few clothes and something to eat. How his heart
thumped as he went down the familiar path in the woods, crossed the
little brook and began the tramp toward Huntington! Every moment he
expected to hear his father's footsteps behind him. Charles might have
awakened, found him missing and roused the family! When morning came
he climbed a little hill, from which he could look back at the house.
He gazed long, and his heart nearly failed him. He could see in
imagination every homely detail of the living room, his father's chair
to the right of the fireplace, his mother's on the left, the clock
between the front windows, which his father wound every night. On a
nail hung his old rimless hat, Charlie's coat, and the little sister's
sunbonnet. His mother would soon be up and getting breakfast. They
would all sit down without him--a lump began to rise in his throat and
he almost turned back. But something in his nature always prevented
him from giving up a thing he had once undertaken. He set his teeth,
picked up his bundle and went down the road between the mountains,
the woods stretching, dense, silent, on each side, the little brook
keeping close by him like the good, true friend it was.
It was a long, long tramp to the little village of Huntington, a walk
that went for miles beneath overarching green trees, the sunlight
sifting down like a shower of gold in the dim wood aisles. The wild
mountain stream merged into the quiet Westfield river that flowed
placidly through little sunny meadows and rippled in a sedate way here
and there over stones as became the dignity of a river. Small white
farmhouses, set about with golden lilies and deep crimson peonies,
here and there looked out on the road. But his mind was intent on the
wonderful experiences ahead of him; he walked as in a dream. Reaching
Huntington, he asked a conductor if he could get a job on the train to
pay his way to Boston. The conductor eyed the lanky country boy with
sympathetic amusement. He appreciated the situation and told Russell
he didn't think he had any job just then, but he might sit in the
baggage car and should a job turn up, it would be given him. Delighted
with this piece of good luck, Russell sat in the baggage car and
journeyed to Boston.
He arrived at night. He found himself in a new world, a world of
narrow streets, of hurrying people, of house after house, but in none
of them a home for him. They would not let him sit in the station all
night, as he had planned to do in his boyish inexperience, and he
had no money, for money was a scarce article in the Conwell home. He
wandered up one street and down another till finally he came to the
water. Footsore and hungry, he crawled into a big empty cask lying on
Long Wharf, ate the last bit of bread and meat in his bundle, and went
The next day was Sunday, not a day to find work, and he faced a very
sure famine. He began again his walk of the streets. It was on
toward noon when he noticed crowds of children hurrying into a large
building. He stood and watched them wistfully. They made him think
of his brother and sister at home. Suddenly an overwhelming longing
seized him to be back again in the sheltering farmhouse, to see his
father, hear his mother's loving voice, feel his sister's hand in his.
Perhaps it was his forlorn expression that attracted the attention of
a gentleman passing into the building. He stopped, asked if he would
not like to go in; and then taking him by the hand led him in with the
others. It was Deacon George W. Chipman, of Tremont Temple, and ever
afterwards Russell Conwell's friend. Many, many years later, the boy,
become a man, came back to this church, organized and conducted one of
the largest and most popular Sunday School classes that famous church
has ever known.
After Sunday School, Deacon Chipman and Russell "talked things over."
The Deacon, amused and impressed by the original mind of the country
boy, persuaded him to go home, and the next morning put him on the
train that carried him back to the Berkshires.
TRYING HIS WINGS
Boyhood Days. Russell's First Case at Law. A Cure for Stage Fever.
Studying Music. A Runaway Trip to Europe.
So scanty was the income from the rocky farm that the father and
mother looked about them to see how they could add to it. Miranda
Conwell turned to her needle and often sewed far into the night,
making coats, neckties, any work she could obtain that would bring in
a few dollars. She was never idle. The moment her housework was done,
her needle was flying, and Russell had ever before him the picture of
his patient mother, working, ever working, for the family good. The
only time her hands rested was when she read her children such stories
and pointed such lessons as she knew were needed to develop childish
minds and build character. She never lost sight of this in the
pressing work and the need for money. She had that mental and
spiritual breadth of view that could look beyond problems of the
immediate present, no matter how serious they might seem, to the
greater, more important needs coming in the future.
Martin Conwell worked as a stonemason every spare minute, and in
addition opened a store in the mountain home in a small room adjoining
the living room. Neighbors and the world of his day saw only a poor
farmer, stonemason and small storekeeper. But in versatility, energy
and public spirit, he was far greater than his environment. Considered
only as the man there was a largeness of purpose, a broadness of
mental and spiritual vision about him that gave a subtle atmosphere of
greatness and unconsciously influenced his son to take big views of
In the little store one day was enacted a drama not without its effect
on Russell's impressionable mind. For a brief time, the store became
a court room; a flour barrel was the judge's bench, a soap box and
milking stool, the lawyers' seats. The proceedings greatly interested
Russell, who lay flat on his breast on the counter, his heels in the
air, his chin in his hands, drinking it in with ears and eyes.
[Illustration: THE CONWELL FARMHOUSE AT SOUTH WORTHINGTON, MASS.]
A neighbor had lost a calf, a white-faced calf with a broken horn. In
the barn of a neighbor had been seen a white-faced calf with a broken
horn. The coincidence was suspicions. The plaintiff declared it was
his calf. The defendant swore he had never seen the lost heifer, and
that the one in his barn he had raised himself. Neighbors lent their
testimony, for the little store was crowded, a justice of the peace
from Northampton having come to try the case. One man said he had seen
the defendant driving a white-faced calf up the mountain one night
just after the stolen calf had been missed from the pasture. The
defendant intimated in no mild language that he must be a close blood
relation to Ananias. Hot words flew back and forth between judge,
lawyers and witnesses, and it began to look as if the man in whose
barn the calf was placidly munching was guilty. Just then Russell,
with a chuckle, slipped from the counter and disappeared through the
back door. In a minute he returned, and solemnly pushed a white-faced
calf with a broken horn squarely among the almost fighting disputants.
There was a lull in the storm of angry words. Here was the lost calf.
With a bawl of dismay and many gyrations of tail, it occupied the
centre of the floor. None could dispute the fact that it was the calf
in question. The defendant assumed an injured, innocent air, the
plaintiff looked crestfallen. Russell explained he had found the calf
among his father's cows. But, knowing the true situation, he had
enjoyed the heated argument too hugely to produce the calf earlier in
The event caused much amusement among the neighbors. Some said if they
ever were hailed to court, they should employ Russell as their lawyer.
The women, when they dropped in to see his mother, called him the
little lawyer. The boyish ambition to be a minister faded. Once more
he went to building castles in Spain, but this time they had a legal
Thus the years rolled by much as they do with any boy on a farm.
Of work there was plenty, but he found time to become a proficient
skater, and a strong, sturdy swimmer, to learn and take delight in
outdoor sports, all of which helped to build a constitution like iron,
and to give him an interest in such things which he has never
lost. The boys of Temple College find in him not only a pastor and
president, but a sympathetic and understanding friend in all forms of
healthy, honorable sport.
Attending a Fourth of July parade in Springfield, he was so impressed
with the marching and manoeuvres of the troops that he returned home,
formed a company of his schoolmates, drilled and marched them as if
they were already an important part of the G.A.R. He secured a book on
tactics and studied it with his usual thoroughness and perseverance.
He presented his company with badges, and one of the relics of his
childhood days is a wooden sword he made himself out of a piece of
board. Little did any one dream that this childish pastime would in
later years become the serious work of a man.
In all the school and church entertainments he took an active part.
His talent for organizing and managing showed itself early, while his
magnetism and enthusiasm swept his companions with him, eager only to
do his bidding. Many were the entertainments he planned and carried
through. Recitations, dialogues, little plays all were presented under
his management to the people of South Worthington. It was these that
gave him the first taste of the fascination of the stage and set him
to thinking of the dazzling career of an actor. He is not the only
country boy that has dreamed of winning undying fame on the boards,
but not every one received such a speedy and permanent cure.
"One day in the height of the maple sugar season," says Burdette, in
his excellent life of Mr. Conwell, "The Modern Temple and Templars,"
"Russell was sent by his father with a load of the sugar to
Huntington. The ancient farm wagon complicated, doubtless, with sundry
Conwell improvements, drawn by a venerable horse, was so well loaded
that the seat had to be left out, and the youthful driver was forced
to stand. Down deep in the valley, the road runs through a dense
woodland which veiled the way in solitude and silence. The very place,
thought Russell, for a rehearsal of the part he had in a play to be
given shortly at school; a beautiful grade, thought the horse, to trot
a little and make up time. Russell had been cast for a part of a crazy
man--a character admirably adapted for the entire cast of the average
amateur dramatic performer. He had very little to say, a sort of
'The-carriage-waits-my-lord' declamation, but he had to say it with
thrilling and startling earnestness. He was to rush in on a love scene
bubbling like a mush-pot with billing and cooing, and paralyze the
lovers by shrieking 'Woe! Woe! unto ye all, ye children of men!'
Throwing up his arms, after the manner of the Fourth of July orator's
justly celebrated windmill gesture, he roared, in his thunderous
voice: 'Woe! Woe! unto ye--'
"That was as far as the declamation got, although the actor went
considerably farther. The obedient horse, never averse to standing
still, suddenly and firmly planted his feet and stood--motionless as a
painted horse upon a painted highway. Russell, obedient to the laws of
inertia, made a parabola over the dashboard, landed on the back of the
patient beast, ricochetted to the ground, cutting his forehead on the
shaft as he descended, a scar whereof he carries unto this day, and
plunged into a yielding cushion of mud at the roadside."
He returned home, a confused mixture of blood, mud, black eyes and
torn clothes. Such a condition must be explained. It could not
be turned aside by any off-handed joke. The jeers and jibes, the
unsympathetic and irritating comments effectually killed any desire
he cherished for the life of the stage. It became a sore subject. He
didn't even want it mentioned in his hearing. He never again thought
of it seriously as a life work.
But one thing these entertainments did that was of great value. They
developed and fostered a love of music and eventually led to his
gaining the musical education which has proven of such value to him.
He had a voice of singular sweetness and great power. At school, at
church, in the little social gatherings of the neighborhood, whenever
there was singing his voice led. It was almost a passion with him. At
the few parades and entertainments he saw in nearby towns, he watched
the musicians fascinated. He was consumed with a desire to learn to
play. Inventive as he was and having already made so many things
useful about the farm or in the house, it is a wonder he did not
immediately begin the making of some musical instrument rather than go
without it. Probably he would, if an agent had not appeared for the
Estey Organ Company. They were beginning to make the little home
organs which have since become an ornament of nearly every country
parlor. But they were rare in those days and the price to Martin
Conwell, almost prohibitive. Knowing Russell's love of music, the
father fully realized the pleasure an organ in the home would give his
son. But the price was beyond him. He offered the man every dollar he
felt he could afford. But it was ten dollars below the cost of the
organ and the agent refused it.
Martin Conwell felt he must not spend more on a luxury, and the agent
left. Crossing the fields to seek another purchaser, he met Miranda
Conwell. She asked him if her husband had bought the organ. His answer
was a keen disappointment The mother's heart had sympathized with the
boy's passion for music and knew the joy such a possession would be to
Russell. Ever ready to sacrifice herself, she told the man she would
pay him the ten dollars, if he would wait for it, but not to let her
husband know. The agent returned to Martin Conwell, told him he would
accept his offer, and in a short time a brand new organ was installed
in the farmhouse. Miranda Conwell sewed later at nights, that was all.
Not till she had earned the ten dollars with her needle did she tell
her husband why the agent had, with such surprising celerity, changed
his mind in regard to the price.
Russell's joy in the organ was unbounded, and the mother was more than
repaid for her extra work by his pleasure and delight. He immediately
plunged unaided into the study of music, and he never gave up until he
was complete master of the organ. His was no half-hearted love. The
work and drudgery connected with practising never daunted him. He kept
steadily at it until he could roll out the familiar songs and
hymns while the small room fairly rang with their melody. He also
improvised, composing both words and music, a gift that went with him
into the ministry and which has given the membership of Grace Baptist
Church, Philadelphia, many beautiful hymns and melodies.
Later he learned the bass viol, violoncello and cornet, and made money
by playing for parties and entertainments in his neighborhood. Years
afterward, when pastor of Grace Church, and with the Sunday School
on an excursion to Cape May, he saw a cornet lying on a bench on the
pier. Seized with a longing to play again this instrument of his
boyhood, he picked it up and began softly a familiar air. Soon lost to
his surroundings, he played on and on. At last remembering where he
was, he laid down the instrument and walked away. The owner, who had
returned, followed him and offered him first five dollars and then ten
to play that night for a dance at Congress Hall.
Martin Conwell, during Russell's boyhood days, carefully guarded his
son from being spoiled by the flattery of neighbors and friends. He
realized that Russell was a boy in many ways above the average, but
his practical common sense prevented him from taking such pride in
Russell's various achievements as to let him become spoiled and
conceited. Many a whipping Russell received for the personal songs he
composed about the neighbors. But that was not prohibitive. The very
next night, Russell would hold up to ridicule the peculiarity of some
one in the neighborhood, much to his victim's chagrin and to the
amusement of the listeners. He was forever inventing improvements for
the fishing apparatus, oars, boats, coasting sleds, household and farm
utensils, often forgetting the tasks his father had given him while
doing it. Naturally, this exasperated Martin Conwell, who had no help
on the farm but the boys, and the rod would again be brought into
active service. Once, after whipping him for such neglect of work--he
had left the cider apples out in the frost--Martin Conwell asked his
son's pardon because he had invented an improved ox-sled that was of
great practical value.
When he was fifteen he ran away again. No friendly Deacon Chipman
interfered this time, nor is it likely he would easily have been
turned from the project, for he planned to go to Europe. He went to
Chicopee to an uncle's, whom he frankly told of his intended trip. The
uncle kept Russell for a day or two by various expedients, while he
wrote to his father telling him Russell was there and what he intended
doing. The father wrote back saying to give him what money he needed
and let him go. So Russell started on his journey over the sea. He
worked his way on a cattle steamer from New York to Liverpool. But it
was a homesick boy that roamed around in foreign lands, and as he has
said most feelingly since, "I felt that if I could only get back home,
I would never, never leave it again." He did not stay abroad long and
when he returned to his home, his father greeted him as if he had been
absent a few hours, and never in any way, by word or action, referred
to the subject. In fact, so far as Martin Conwell appeared, Russell
might have been no farther than Huntington.
Thus boyhood days passed with their measure of work and their measure
of play. He lived the healthy, active life of a farm boy, taking a
keen interest in the affairs of the young people of the neighborhood,
amusing the older heads by his mischievous pranks. He diligently and
perseveringly studied in school hours and out. He read every book he
could get hold of. He was sometimes disobedient, often intractable, in
no way different from thousands of other farm boys of those days or
But the times were coming which would test his mettle. Would he
continue to climb as he had done after the eagle's nest, though
compelled many times to go to the very ground and begin over again?
Would the experiences of life transmute into pure gold, these
undeveloped traits of character or prove them mere dross? It
rested with him. He was the alchemist, as is every other man. The
philosopher's stone is in every one's hands.
OUT OF THE HOME NEST
School Days at Wilbraham Academy. The First School Oration and Its
Humiliating End. The Hour of Prayer in the Conwell Home at the Time of
John Brown's Execution.
The carefree days of boyhood rapidly drew to a close. The serious work
of life was beginning. The bitter struggle for an education was at
hand. And because one boy did so struggle, thousands of boys now are
being given the broadest education, practically free.
Russell had gone as far in his studies as the country school could
take him. Should he stop there as his companions were doing and settle
down to the work of the farm? The outlook for anything else was almost
hopeless. He had absolutely no money, nor could his father spare him
any. He knew no other work than farming. It was a prospect to daunt
even the most determined, yet Russell Conwell is not the only farmer's
boy who has looked such a situation in the face and succeeded in spite
of it. Nor were helping hands stretched out in those days to aid
ambitious boys, as they are in these.
Asa Niles, matching Russell's progress with loving interest, told
Martin Conwell the boy ought to go to Wilbraham Academy. His own son
William was going, and he strongly urged that Charles and Russell
Conwell enter at the same time. It was no light decision for the
father to make. He needed the boys in the work on the farm. Not only
was he unable to help them, but it was a decided loss to let them go.
Long and earnest were the consultations the father and mother held.
The mother, willing to sacrifice herself to the utmost, said, of
course, "let them go," deciding she could earn something to help them
along by taking in more sewing. So it was decided, and in the fall
of 1858, Russell and his brother entered the Academy of Wilbraham, a
small town about twelve miles east from Springfield.
It was bitter, uphill work. All the money the two boys had, both to
pay their tuition and their board, they earned. They worked for the
near-by farmers. They spent long days gathering chestnuts and walnuts
at a few cents a quart. They split wood, they did anything they could
find to do. In fact, they worked as hard and as long as though no
studies were awaiting to be eagerly attacked when the exhausting
labor was finished. Such tasks interfered with their studies, so that
Russell never stood very high in his Academy classes. Part of the time
they lived in a small room on the outskirts of the village, barren of
all furniture save the absolutely necessary, and for six weeks at a
stretch, lived on nothing but mush and milk. Their clothes were of
the cheapest kind, countrified in cut and make, a decided contrast
to those of their fellow students, who came from homes of wealth and
refinement It is very easy for outsiders and older heads to talk
philosophically of being above such things, but young, sensitive boys
feel such a position keenly and none but those who have actually
endured such a martyrdom of pride know what they suffer. It takes the
grittiest kind of perseverance to face such slights, to seem not to
see the amused glance, not to hear the sneering comment, not to notice
the contemptuous shrug.
Such slights Russell endured daily from certain of his classmates,
and though he realized fully that the opinion of these was of little
value, nevertheless they hurt. But to the world he stood his ground
unflinchingly, even if there were secret heartaches. He studied
hard, and what he studied he learned. He had his own peculiar way
of studying. Once he was missing from his classes several days. The
teachers reported it to the principal, Dr. Raymond, who investigated.
He found Russell completely absorbed in history and mastering it at a
mile-a-minute gait. Dr. Raymond was wise in the management of boys,
especially such a boy as Russell, and he reported to the teachers,
"Let him alone. Conwell is working out his own education, and it isn't
worth while to disturb him."
His passion for debate and oratory found full scope in the debating
societies of the Academy. These welcomed him with open arms. He was
so quick with his witty repartee, could so readily turn an opponent's
arguments against him, that the nights it was known he would speak,
found the "Old Club" hall always crowded to hear "that boy from the
Thus working as hard as though he were doing nothing else, and
studying as hard as though he were not working, Russell made his way
through two terms of the academic year. Nobody knows or ever will
know, all he suffered. Often almost on the point of starvation, yet
too proud and sensitive to ask for help, he toiled on, working by day
and studying by night. He never thought of giving up the fight and
going back to the farm. But funds completely ran out for the spring
term and he yielded the struggle for a brief while, returning to help
his father, or to earn what he could teaching school, or working on
neighboring farms, saving every cent like a very miser for the coming
year's tuition. In addition, he kept up with his studies, so that when
he returned the next fall, he went on with his class the same as if he
had attended for the entire year.
The second year was a repetition of the first, work and study,
grinding poverty, glorious perseverance. Again the spring term found
him out of funds, and this time he replenished by teaching school at
Blandford, Massachusetts. Among his pupils here was a bully of the
worst type, whose conduct had caused most of the former teachers to
resign. In fact, he was quite proud of his ability to give the school
a holiday, and as on former occasions, made his boasts that it
wouldn't be long before the new teacher would take a vacation. The
other pupils watched with eager curiosity for the conflict. In due
course of time it came. Russell at first dealt with him kindly. It
hadn't been so many years since he himself had been the cause of
numerous uproars at school. But this youth was not of the kind to be
impressed by good treatment. He simply took it as a showing of the
white feather on the part of the new teacher and became bolder in his
misconduct. On a day, when he was unruly beyond all pardon, Russell
took down the birch and invited him up before the school to receive
the usual punishment. The great occasion had come. The children waited
with bated breath. The boy refused openly, sneeringly. The next
moment, he thought lightning had struck him. He was grabbed by the
neck, held with a grip of iron despite all his struggles, whipped
before the gaping school, taken to the door and kicked out in the
snow. Then the school lessons proceeded. It made a sensation, of
course. Some of the parents wanted to request the new teacher to
resign. But others rallied to his support and protested to the school
board that the right man had been found at last. And so Russell held
the post until the school term was over. Thirty-five years after,
Russell Conwell, pastor of the Baptist Temple, was asked to head a
petition to get this same evil doer out of Sing Sing prison.
But despite his hard work and hard study at Wilbraham, the spirit of
fun cropped out as persistently as in his younger days at the country
school. A chance to play a good joke was not to be missed. At one of
the school entertainments, a student whom few liked was to take part.
Relatives of his had given a large sum of money to the Academy, and
on this account he somewhat lorded it over the other boys. He was, in
addition, foppish in his dress, and on account of his money, position,
and tailor, felt the country boys of the class a decided drawback to
his social status. So the country boys decided to "get even," and they
needed no other leader while Russell Conwell was about. Finally it
came the dandy's turn to go on the platform to deliver a recitation.
Just as he stepped out of the little anteroom before the audience,
Russell, with deft fingers, fastened a paper jumping-jack to the tail
of his coat, where it dangled back of his legs in plain view of the
audience but unobserved by himself. With every gesture the figure
jumped, climbed, contorted, and went through all manner of gymnastics.
The more enthusiastic became the young orator, the more active the
tiny figure in his rear. The audience went into convulsions. Utterly
unable to tell what was the matter, he finally retired, red and
confused, and the audience wiped away the tears of laughter.
It was at one of these entertainments that Russell himself met with a
bitter defeat. A public debate was announced in which he was to take
part. His classmates had spread abroad the story of his eloquence and
the hall was packed to hear him. Knowing that it would be a great
occasion and conscious of his poor clothes, he determined to make an
impression by his speech. He prepared it with the utmost care, and
to "make assurance doubly sure," committed it to memory, a thing he
rarely did. His turn came. There was an expectant rustle through the
audience, some almost audible comments on his clothes, his height, his
thinness. He cleared his voice. He started to say the first word. It
was gone. Frantically he searched his memory for that speech. His mind
was a blank. Again he cleared his voice and wrestled fiercely with his
inner consciousness. Only one phrase could he remember, and shouting
in his thunderous tones, "Give me liberty or give me death," sat down,
"not caring much which he got," as Burdette says, "so it came quickly
and plenty of it."
It was while at Wilbraham that he laid down text books and stepped
aside for a brief space to pay honor to a hero. Sorrow hung like a
pall over the little home at South Worthington. In far-off Virginia,
a brave, true-hearted man had raised a weak arm against the hosts of
slavery, raised it and been stricken down. John Brown had been tried,
convicted and sentenced to be hanged. The day of his execution was a
day of mourning in the Conwell home. As the hour for the deed drew
near, the father called the family into the little living room where
Brown had so often sat among them. And during the hour while the
tragedy was enacted in Virginia, the family sat silent with bowed
heads doing reverence to the memory of this man who with single-minded
earnestness went forward so fearlessly when others held back, to
strike the shackles from those in chains.
It was a solemn hour, an hour in which worldly ambitions faded before
the sublime spectacle of a man freely, calmly giving his very life
because he had dared to live out his honest belief that all men should
be free. Like a kaleidoscope, Brown's history passed through Russell's
mind as he sat there. He saw the brutal whipping of the little slave
boy which had so aroused Brown's anger when, a small boy himself, he
led cattle through the western forests. Russell's hands clenched as
he pictured it and he felt willing to fight as Brown had done,
single-handed and alone if need be, to right so horrible a wrong.
He could see how the idea had grown with John Brown's growth and
strengthened with his strength until he came to manhood with a single
purpose dominating his life, and a will to do it that could neither be
broken nor bent. He pictured him in Kansas when son after son was laid
on the altar of liberty as unflinchingly as Abraham held the knife at
his own son's breast at God's behest. Then the first "blow at Harper's
Ferry in the cause of liberty for all men--the capture of the town
of three thousand by twenty-two men, and now this--the public
execution--the fearless spirit that looked only to God for guidance,
that feared neither man nor man's laws, stopped on the very threshold
of the supreme effort for which he had planned his life. Stopped? It
was the 2nd Massachusetts Regiment of Infantry that was the first to
sing on its way South, that song, afterward sung by the armies of a
nation to the steady tramp of feet,
"John Brown's body lies mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on."
College Days at Yale. The Outbreak of the Civil War. Patriotic
Speechmaking. New York and Henry Ward Beecher.
School days at Wilbraham ended, Russell determined to climb higher. As
yet, he scarcely knew the purpose of his studying. Ambitions seethed
in him to know, to be able to do. He only realized that he must have
the tools ready when the work came. Not daunted, therefore, by the
bitter experiences at Wilbraham, Russell determined to go to Yale.
This meant a stern fight indeed, one that would call out all his
reserves of determination, perseverance and indifference to the jeers
and jibes of unthinking and unfeeling classmates. But he did not
flinch at the prospect. His brother Charles went with him, and in
the fall of '60 they entered Yale College. If poverty was bitter at
Wilbraham, it was bitterer here. They were utter strangers among
hundreds of boys from all parts of the country, the majority of them
coming from homes of luxury and with money for all their needs. At
Wilbraham, there had been a certain number of boys from their own
section, many of them poor, though few so poor as themselves. They had
not felt so altogether alone as they did at Yale. It is perhaps for
this reason that so little is known of Russell Conwell's career at
Yale. He was as unobtrusive as possible. "Silent as the Sphinx," some
describe him. His sensitive nature withdrew into itself, and since he
could not mingle with his classmates on a ground of equality, he kept
to himself, alone, silent, studying, working, but telling no one how
keenly he felt the difference between his own position and that of his
fellow students. He worked for the nearby farmers as at Wilbraham and
did anything that he could to earn money. But his clothes were poor,
his manner of living the cheapest, and except in classes, his fellow
students met him little.
He took the law course and followed fully the classical course at the
same time--a feat no student at that time had ever done and few, if
any, since. How he managed it, working as hard as he did at the
same time, to earn money, seems impossible to comprehend. His iron
constitution, for one thing, that seemed capable of standing any
strain, helped him. And his remarkable ability to photograph whole
pages of his text books on his memory was another powerful ally. He
could reel off page after page of Virgil, Homer, Blackstone--anything
he "memorized" in this unusual fashion. Well for him that he grasped
the opportunity to learn this method presented him as a child. But
it has always been one of the traits of his character to see
opportunities where others walk right over them, and to seize and make
use of them.
He did not register in the classical course as he was too poor to pay
the tuition fee, nor did he join any of the clubs, as he could not
afford it. He seldom appeared in debates or the moot courts, for
he was so shabbily dressed he felt he would not be welcome. It was
undoubtedly these humiliating experiences, combined with certain of
his studies and reading, that caused him to drift into an atheistic
train of thought. Working hard, living poor, desiring so much, yet
on all sides he saw boys with all the opportunities he longed
for, utterly indifferent to them. He saw boys spending in riotous
dissipation the money that would have meant so much to him. He saw
them recklessly squandering health, time, priceless educational
opportunities, for the veriest froth of pleasure. He saw them sowing
the wind, yet to his inexperienced eyes not reaping the whirlwind, but
faring far more prosperously than he who worked and studied hard and
yet had not what they threw so lightly away. It was all at variance
with his mother's teaching, with such of the preaching at the little
white church as he had heard. Bible promises, as he interpreted them,
were not fulfilled. So he scoffed, cynically, bitterly, and said, as
many another has done before he has learned the lessons of the world's
hard school, "There is no God." And having said it, he took rather a
pride in it and said it openly, boastingly.
As at Wilbraham, funds ran out before the school year was completed
and he left Yale and taught district school during the day and vocal
and instrumental music in the evenings.
But into this eager, undaunted struggle for an education came the
trumpet call to arms. With the memory of John Brown like a living coal
in his heart, with the pictures of the cowering, runaway slaves ever
before his eyes, he flung away his books and was one of the first to
enlist. But his father interfered. Russell was only eighteen. Martin
Conwell went to the recruiting officer and had his name taken from the
rolls. It was a bitter disappointment. But since he might not help
with his hands, he spoke with his tongue. All his pent-up enthusiasm
flowed out in impassioned speeches that brought men by the hundreds to
the recruiting offices. His fame spread up and down the Connecticut
valley and wherever troops were to be raised, "the boy" was in demand.
"His youthful oratory," says the author of "Scaling the Eagle's Nest,"
"was a wonderful thing which drew crowds of excited listeners wherever
he went. Towns sent for him to help raise their quotas of soldiers,
and ranks speedily filled before his inspiring and patriotic
speeches. In 1862 I remember a scene at Whitman Hall in Westfield,
Massachusetts, which none who were there can forget. Russell had
delivered two addresses there before. On that night there were two
addresses before his by prominent lawyers, but there was evident
impatience to hear 'The boy.' When he came forward there was the most
deafening applause. He really seemed inspired by miraculous powers.
Every auditor was fascinated and held closely bound. There was for a
time breathless suspense, and then at some telling sentence the whole
building shook with wild applause. At its close a shower of bouquets
from hundreds of ladies carpeted the stage in a moment, and men from
all parts of the hall rushed forward to enlist."
The adulation and flattery showered upon him were enough to turn any
other's head. But it made no impression upon him. Heart, mind and soul
he was wrapped up in the cause. He was burning with zeal to help the
oppressed and suffering. His words poured from a heart overflowing
with pity, love, and indignation. Never once did he think of himself,
only of those in bonds crying, "Come over and help us."
When Lincoln made his great address in Cooper Institute in 1860,
Russell was there. It was a longer journey from New England to New
York in those days than it is now, and longer yet for a boy who had so
little money, but he let no obstacle keep him away.
He utilized his visit also to hear Beecher, the man who had taken so
powerful a hold of his childish fancy. Ever since those boyish days
when his mother read Beecher's sermons to him, and standing on the big
gray rock he had imagined himself another Beecher, he had longed to
hear this great man. It was only this childish desire holding fast to
him through the year that took him now, for church-going itself had no
attraction for him.
He sat on the steps of the gallery and heard this wonderful man preach
a sermon in which he illustrated an auctioneer selling a negro girl at
the block. He sat as one entranced. So did the immense audience, held
spellbound by the scene so graphically pictured. It was the first
interesting sermon he had ever heard. It made a tremendous impression
on him, not only in itself, but as a vivid contrast between the
formal, rattling-of-dry-bones sermon and the live, vital discourse
that takes hold of a man's mind and heart and compels him to go out
in the world and do things for the good of his fellow men. Long it
remained in his memory, but the greatest inspiration from it did not
come till later years, when suddenly it stood forth as if illumined,
to throw a brilliant radiance on a path he had decided to tread.
WHILE THE CONFLICT RAGED
Lincoln's Call for 100,000 Men. Enlistment. Captain Conwell. In Camp
at Springfield, Mass. The Famous Gold-sheathed Sword.
In 1862, Lincoln sent out an earnest call for 100,000 men for the war.
Russell was not longer to be denied, and his father permitted him to
enlist. What silent agony, what earnest prayers for his safety went
up from his mother's heart, only other mothers in those terrible days
He raised a company from Worthington, Chesterfield, Huntington,
Russell, Blandford and the neighboring towns and was unanimously
elected captain, though only nineteen. His earnest, fiery speeches had
already made him famous, and when it was known he had enlisted and was
raising a company, there was a rush to get into it, and the men as
with one voice, demanded that he be their captain. No one ever thought
of canvassing against him. A committee was appointed to wait on
Governor Andrew to persuade him to commission Russell in spite of his
age, and when he received the appointment, the cheers and applause of
the enthusiastic, the quiet satisfaction of the sedate, showed the
place which he had in their hearts. It is almost incomprehensible to
those not acquainted with the man, but those who have come in contact
with him, know what a hold he would soon gain over those "Mountain
Boys," as the company was called. His kindly sympathy would quickly
make them feel that in their captain, each had a warm personal friend.
His generous heart would back up that belief with a hundred and one
little acts of thoughtful kindness. Over each and every one would be
exercised a watchful care that cheered the long days, lightened heavy
loads, lessened discomforts. It is little wonder that their devotion
to him amounted almost to adoration. Gray-haired men followed him as
proudly as though his years matched theirs. Indeed, to their loyalty
was added a fatherly feeling of guardianship over him, because of his
youth, that brought a new pleasure into the relationship. The company
was knit together with the bonds of loving comradeship as were few
The rendezvous of the company was at Huntington, and there a banquet
was given before the troops departed for war. Proud day for him when
he marched down the familiar road from South Worthington, through the
autumn woods with their slowly falling leaves, their shadowy forest
aisles all glorious now with the banners of autumn, past the white
farmhouses with their golden lilies, the faithful little brook singing
ever at his side. Sad day for his mother as she watched him go, long
looking after him, till she could see no more for tears.
From Huntington the company went into camp at Springfield. And now
came into use, those tactics and drills he had studied as a boy, and
others he had been secretly studying ever since the war broke out. His
men were astonished to find how perfectly at home he was in military
tactics. It further added to their pride in him. They fully expected
him to know as little as they, but when he came to his work fully
prepared, to their admiration of him as an orator, their love as a
leader, was now added their confidence as an officer.
Camp life at Springfield made war no longer a glorious contemplation
but an uncomfortable reality. The ground for a bed, a spadeful
of earth for a pillow, sharp mountain winds, cold autumn storms,
insufficient food, hinted at the hardships to follow. The gold and the
alloy in the men's characters began to shine out, and Company F soon
realized in practical ways, the nature of the man who led them. His
new uniform overcoat went to a shivering boy, his rations were divided
with those less fortunate, his blankets were given to a comrade in
need. Always it was of his men, not himself, he thought.
Before leaving camp for the seat of war, Captain Conwell was presented
with a sword by his Company, bearing this inscription:--
"Presented to Captain Russell H. Conwell by the soldiers of Company F,
46th Mass. Vol. Militia, known as 'The Mountain Boys.' Vera Amicitia
est sempiterna. (True friendship is eternal.)" Colonel Shurtleff made
the speech of presentation. The passionately eloquent reply of the
boy captain is yet remembered by those who heard it. He received the
beautiful, glittering weapon in silence. Slowly he drew the gleaming
steel from its golden sheath and solemnly held it upward as if
dedicating it to heaven, the sunlight bathing the blade with blinding
flashes of light. His eyes were fixed upon the steel, as if in a rapt
vision, he swept the centuries past, the centuries to come, and saw
what it stood for in the destinies of men. Breathless silence fell
upon his waiting comrades. Thus for a few moments he stood and then he
spoke to the sword.
"He called up the shade of the sword of that mighty warrior Joshua,
which purified a polluted land with libations of blood, and made
it fit for the heritage of God's people; the sword of David, that
established the kingdom of Israel; the sword of that resistless
conqueror, Alexander, that pierced the heart of the Orient; the Roman
short sword, the terrible gladius, that carved out for the Caesars
the sovereignty of the world; the sword of Charlemagne, writing its
master's glorious deeds in mingling chapters of fable and history; the
sword of Gustavus Adolphus, smiting the battalions of the puissant
Wallenstein with defeat and overthrow even when its master lay dead on
the field of Lutzen; the sword of Washington, drawn for human freedom
and sheathed in peace, honor, and victory; then he bade the sword
remember all it had done in shaping the destinies of men and nations;
how it had written on the tablets of history in letters red and lurid,
the drama of the ages; closing, he called upon it now, in the battle
for the Union, to strike hard and strike home for freedom, for
justice, in the name of God and the Right; to fail not in the work to
which it was called until every shackle in the land was broken, every
bondman free, and every foul stain of dishonor cleaned from the flag."
IN THE THICK OF THE FIGHT
Company F at Newberne, N.C. The Fight at Batchelor's Creek. The
Goldsboro Expedition. The Battle of Kingston. The Gum Swamp
Breaking camp, the 46th left the beautiful, placid scenery about
Springfield, its silver river, its silent mountains, for Boston, where
they embarked for North Carolina, November 5th, 1862. They sailed out
of Boston Harbor in the teeth of a winter gale which increased so in
fury that the boat was compelled to put back. When they finally did
leave, the sea was still very rough and they had a slow, stormy
It goes without saying that many of the men were ill. The boat was
crowded, the accommodations insufficient, and numbers of the Mountain
Boys had never been on the water before. To the confusion of handling
such a body of men was added inexperience in such work. The members of
Company F would have fared badly had it not been for the forethought
of their boy captain. It seemed as if he had passed beforehand in
mental review, the experiences of these weeks and anticipated their
needs. Out of his own funds, he laid in a stock of medicines and
delicacies for the sick. Indeed, those who know, say that he expended
all of his pay in sutler's stores and various things to make his men
more comfortable. Night and day, he was with those who suffered,
cheering, sympathizing, nursing. He was the life of the ship. His men
saw that his kindness and comradeship were not of the superficial
order, but genuine, sincere, a part of his very self and they became,
if possible, more passionately attached to him than ever.
The placid Neuse river was a glad sight when at last they reached its
mouth and steamed up to Newberne, North Carolina. General Burnside had
already captured the town and Company F began army duties in earnest
with garrison work in the little Southern city, with its long dull
lines of earthworks, its white tents, its fleet of gunboats floating
lazily on the river. The constant tramp of soldiers' feet echoed along
the side-walks of this erstwhile quiet, Southern town. Sentries stood
on the corners challenging passers-by, wharves creaked under the loads
of ordnance and quartermasters' stores. Army wagons and ambulances
were constantly passing in the street, all strange and novel at first
to the Mountain Boys but soon familiar. Drilling and guard duty
filled their days. Morning and afternoon they drilled, and the actual
possession of the enemies' country, the warlike aspect of everything
about them, made drilling a far more real and important matter than it
had seemed at home. Captain Conwell felt his responsibility and threw
himself into the work with an earnestness that infected his men. They
would rather drill with him two hours than with any other officer a
half hour. They not only caught the contagion of his enthusiasm, but
he changed the dull, monotonous drudgery of it, into real, fascinating
work by marching them into seemingly hopeless situations and then in
some unexpected and surprising way, extricating them. Nor did he
spare himself any of the unpleasant phases of the work. One day, the
Colonel, while drilling the regiment, noticed that many of the men of
Company F marched far out of their places to avoid a mudhole in the
road. He marched and countermarched them over the same ground to
compel the men to keep their rank and file regardless of the mud.
Captain Conwell saw his object, and himself plunged into the mire, his
men followed, and were thus saved the reprimand which threatened.
During these days, Captain Conwell kept up with the law studies
abandoned at Yale. Every spare minute, he devoted to his books and
committed to memory, one whole volume of Blackstone during the term of
his first enlistment Not many of the soldiers so used their hours
off duty. But it is this turning of every minute to account that has
enabled Dr. Conwell to accomplish so much. He has made his life count
for a half dozen of most person's by never wasting a moment.
The monotony of garrison duty was broken first by a small fight at
Batchelor's Creek, seven miles above Newbern, but only four companies
were engaged. The Mountain Boys saw the first blood spilled at
Kingston and gained there the first glimpse of the horrors of war.
Nearly the entire marching force was sent into the interior on this
expedition, known as the Goldsboro expedition, the object being to cut
the Weldon railroad at Goldsboro, North Carolina. It was a hard march
with short and uncertain halts and occasional cavalry skirmishes. At
Kingston, they met the enemy in force. The Confederates were massed
about the bridge over the Neuse river and held it bravely till the
charge of the 9th New Jersey and 10th Connecticut drove them from
their position and left the woods and a little open field covered with
the dead and dying. The 46th Massachusetts followed the retreating
army and had that first experience with the grim, bloody side of war
that always makes such a strong impression on the green soldier.
They bivouacked at Kingston and next day marched to the Weldon
railroad, reaching it at the bridge below Goldsboro, where the
Confederates had massed a large body of troops to protect their lines
of communication and supplies. This was a battle in earnest, the
artillery was deafening, and the enemy repeatedly charged the Union
lines. The Northern batteries were on a knoll in front, and at the
very moment that a long line of gray was seen approaching through this
field and the Massachusetts men were ordered to lie down, so that the
shot and shell could pass over them, their boy captain walked openly
forward to the batteries and stood there in the smoke. Careless of
himself, he yet realized to the full the meaning of this grim duel,
for when the fight was over and the Northern men cheering, he was
silent Captain Walkley asked why he did not cheer with the others.
"Too many hearts made sad to-day," was the significant reply that
showed he counted the cost to its bitter end, though he went forward
none the less bravely.
Long, monotonous days of garrison duty followed for the men, days of
drilling, of idling up and down the streets of the dull Southern town.
But Captain Conwell used his spare minutes to advantage, and when
no work connected with his company or the personal welfare of his
comrades occupied him, he was studying. Then came the order to drive
the Confederates from a fort they were erecting on the Newbern
Railroad about thirty miles inland. This expedition, known as the Gum
Swamp Expedition, was an experience that tested the mettle of the men
and the resources of the young captain, and an experience none of the
survivors ever forgot. It was a forced march, a quick charge. The
Confederates fled leaving their fort unfinished. The Union men having
successfully completed their work, began the return to Newberne, and
here disaster overtook them. The Confederates hung on their rear,
riddling their ranks with shot and shell. Suffering, maddened, with no
way to turn and fight, for the enemy kept themselves well hidden, with
no way of escape ahead if they remained on the road, they plunged into
the swamp, that swept up black and dismal to the very edge of the
highway. The Confederate prisoners with them, warned them of their
danger, but the men were not to be stayed when a deadly rain of the
enemy's balls was thinning their ranks every minute. The swamp was one
black ooze with water up to their waists, a tangle of grass, reeds,
cypress trees, bushes. Loaded down with their heavy clothing, and
their army accoutrements, one after another the men sank from sheer
exhaustion. No man could succor his brother. It was all he could do to
drag himself through the mire that sucked him down like some terrible,
silent monster of the black, slimy depths. But Captain Conwell would
not desert a man. He could not see his comrades left to die before his
very eyes, those men who came right from his own mountain town, his
own boy friends, the ones who had enlisted under him, marched and
drilled with him. Rather would he perish in the swamp with them. He
worked like a Hercules, encouraging, helping, carrying some of the
more exhausted. A wet, straggling remnant reached Newberne. Even then,
when Captain Conwell found that two of his own company were missing,
he plunged back into the swamp to rescue them. Hours passed, and just
as a relief expedition was starting to search for him, he came back,
his hat gone, his uniform torn into rags, but with one of the men with
him and the other left on a fallen tree with a path blazed to lead the
rescuers to him. No heart could withstand such devotion as that. Young
and old, it touched his men so deeply, they could not speak of it
unmoved. They would gladly have died for him if need be, as one
did later, changing by his heroic act the whole current of Russell
This same earnest desire to save that made him plunge back into that
swamp, regardless of self, is with him still to-day, now that his
whole soul is consumed with a longing to save men from moral death. He
lets nothing stand in his way of reaching out a succoring hand. Then
it was his comrades that he loved with such unselfish devotion. Now,
every man is his brother and his heart goes out with the same earnest
desire to help those who need help. The genuineness, the unselfishness
of it goes straight to every man's heart. It binds men to him as in
the old days, and it gives them new faith in themselves. The love
of humanity in his heart is, and always has been, a clear spring,
unpolluted by love of self, by ambition, by any worldly thing.
THE SWORD AND THE SCHOOL BOOK
Scouting at Bogue Sound. Capt. Conwell Wounded. The Second Enlistment.
Jealousy and Misunderstanding. Building of the First Free School for
Colored Children. Attack on Newport Barracks. Heroic Death of John
Once more, garrison duty laid its dull hand on the troops, varied by
little encounters that broke the monotony and furnished the material
for many campfire stories, but otherwise did little damage. The men
eagerly welcomed these scouting expeditions, and when an especially
dangerous one to Bogue Sound was planned, and Company F, eager to be
selected, Captain Conwell personally interceded with the Colonel that
his men might be given the task. The region into which they were sent
was known to be full of rebels, and as they approached the danger
zone, Captain Conwell ordered his men to lie down, while he went
forward to reconnoitre. Noticing a Confederate officer behind a tree,
he stole to the tree, and reaching as far around as he could, began
firing with his revolver. Not being experienced in the shooting of
men and believing since it must be done, "'twere well it were done
quickly," he shot all his loads in quick succession. His enemy, more
wily, waited till the Captain's ammunition was gone and then slowly
and with steady aim began returning the fire. But Captain Conwell's
comrades watching from a distance saw big peril, and disobeying
orders, rose as one man and came to his rescue. The Confederate fled
but not before he had left a ball in Captain Conwell's shoulder which,
of little consequence at the time, later came near causing his death.
Thus the days passed away, and as the term of enlistment drew to
a close, General Foster sent for Captain Conwell and promised
to recommend him for a colonelcy if he would enter at once upon
recruiting service among his men. This he willingly consented to do,
and as may be imagined his men nearly all wanted to re-enlist under
him. Such a commission, however, for one so young aroused bitter