It may be the most successful fundraising speech ever given. Russell Conwell (1843-1925) delivered his “Acres of Diamonds” speech 6152 times over a span of 55 years. It is estimated that 13 million people heard his speech. In 1882 Conwell became pastor of Grace Baptist Temple in Philadelphia. A few years after his arrival, a young man approached Conwell with the dilemma that he wanted to study for pastoral ministry but couldn’t afford to quit his day job. Conwell agreed to tutor him in the evenings and soon the young man’s friends accompanied him. Two years later, an evening school of 250 students had come into being. Conwell promoted the idea to his church of an educational institution to aid working people and took his Acres of Diamonds speech on the road to raise money for the school. The speech began with a story about a wealthy man who sold his property in search of diamonds, only to learn later they were hidden in his own field. Conwell used the story to stress that everyone had hidden resources at their disposal. He debunked the mistaken notion from Scripture that money is the root of all evil. He said, “To attain money is a noble thing because you can do more with it than you can do without it.” He included practical business suggestions such as, “Find out what people want and get it for them. It’s not criminal to do so in ways that bring profit to you.” The school Conwell founded became Temple University. A division of Temple, Conwell School of Theology, later merged with Gordon Seminary in 1969 to form Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Conwell was also a prolific author. His last composition in 1924, “My Prayer,” was written to friends and students during his hospitalization before his death:
I ask not for a larger garden,
But for finer seeds.
I ask not for a more distant view,
But for a clearer vision of the hills between.
I ask not to do more deeds,
But more effective ones.
I ask not for a longer life,
But a more efficient one for the present hour.
I want to plant more,
Tell the story of Jesus
In clearer form,
I want the world to be more wise,
And also, more glad because I was used.
May some oak say,
“I grew stronger;”
May some lily say,
“I grew purer;”
May some fountain say,
“I threw the clear water higher,”
May some good book be read,
May some good friendship be made,
May my total influence tell for righteousness,
Without an unnecessary tear.
Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.