Russell H. Conwell was called to the pastorate of the Grace Baptist Church before the church had heard him preach and this was due to the favorable report made after Brother Alexander Reed had visited him at Lexington. Such was the confidence the church had in Brother Reed, an outstanding leader, that the official “call” was made on October 16, 1882. Shortly after that he came by himself to Philadelphia on a Friday evening and was met at the Columbia Avenue Station of the Reading Railroad by a committee consisting of Deacons Stoddard and Singley, also Enos Spare and Spencer VanHorn, who escorted him to the church, where Deacon Reed was holding forth at the church prayer meeting. Here pastor and members met for the first time.
On the following Sunday, the new pastor preached in the lower room of the basement—later to be called the Lecture Room since the Upper Main Audience Room was occupied with workmen completing the frescoing, placing the pews, stained glass windows and carpeting, etc.
On December 3, 1882, Mr. Conwell preached a sermon of dedication of the new building. Quoting from the Public Ledger concerning the new minister and the new church, the December 4, 1882 issue read:
Dedication of a New Baptist Church***services conducted by the Rev. Russell H. Conwell, late of Massachusetts.***The church proper on the upper story is in the form of an amphitheater, and has seating capacity for between six and seven hundred persons. It is finished with great taste and completeness. The ceiling is frescoed, the windows are of stained glass and the pews of hard wood and handsomely upholstered. The edifice cost about $70,000.
From his earliest days, Mr. Conwell ended the evening service with an hour of prayer, leading the song service, and giving remarks along the lines of his sermon. The musical pastor often contributed a solo during the evening service.
One of the most significant incidents of those early days relates to Hattie May Wiatt. The story was repeatedly told that at five or six years of age, Hattie was found crying because there was not enough room in the Sunday School for her to attend. Mr. Conwell placed her on his shoulders and carried her through the waiting crowds into the church. It is recorded that she was so delighted that she began saving her pennies to build a larger Sunday School. She had saved only fifty-seven cents when she contracted diphtheria and died. Her parents gave the money to Mr. Conwell with an explanation of her reason for saving the money, and he in turn gave the fifty-seven pennies as a down payment toward the purchase of the corner lot for the new church, which was accepted as the legal down payment.
So impressed was Mr. Conwell that he repeatedly told the story of the little girl and a Wiatt Mite Society was formed to carry on Hattie’s dream. The society continued for many years.
In September of 1887 at the Centennial celebration of the United States Constitution, money received from the Wiatt Mite Society was given “for the success of the new Temple”. This was the first time the name “Temple” was used in place of the church name.
As early as 1885, the membership was thinking of larger facilities. The letter to the Philadelphia Association stated:
The year that has passed since we met with you has been a year of uninterrupted growth and prosperity, spiritual, social and financial. Our church is much too small for those who desire to worship with us and our vestry rooms far too small for our Sabbath School. We are setting our faces as a united people toward a new and much larger house of worship, awaiting the Lord’s time and direction in the matter.
The following are the statistics for the year: United by baptism 149, of whom 34 came from the Sabbath School; total membership 700, with 975 scholars in Sabbath School. Home church expenses, $9,465.
On June 28, 1886, a committee was appointed to consider a lot at the corner of Broad and Berks Streets. A few days later the congregation agreed to purchase the lot, using the fifty-seven cents. The property was conveyed to the church on January 31, 1887.
As early as 1888, the youth group considered joining a world-wide youth organization. The pastor was a speaker at a Christian Endeavor Convention and was so impressed by the purpose and enthusiasm of the group that he recommended the Christian Endeavor to his youth. At a meeting of some of the members of Grace Baptist Church, held on September 10, 1888, Mr. Frank Bauder, acting Chairman, the Society of Christian Endeavor was finally organized. After the meeting was called to order and the members led in prayer by Deacon Moss, the members elected Mr. Frank Bauder.
Another significant incident in those early years while still in the Mervine and Berks Streets church involved a young deacon, Charles M. Davis. Mr. Davis approached the pastor with his desire to preach but with little education and without the necessary funds to continue his studies. Mr. Conwell agreed to tutor him, but in a few days seven prospective students met with Mr. Conwell and Temple College was conceived. Ultimately, Mr. Conwell became Dr. Conwell, president of the college, presently known as Temple University.
As the membership continued to grow to over one thousand and the Sunday School to even greater members, a larger facility was desperately needed. Consequently, on Monday, March 29, 1889, a contract was negotiated to build the new church for $109,000. This figure included only the building itself.
William Bucknell, who had given money toward the tent, agreed to give $10,000 and ground was broken on Wednesday, March 27, 1889. The cornerstone was laid on Saturday, July 13, 1889.
As the new church building was nearing completion, the pastor wanted to test the acoustics. A group of five members met in the sanctuary as Mr. Conwell read Habakkuk 2:20: “The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him.” The acoustics proved to be excellent.
The pastor preached his last sermon in the old church on February 15, 1891, and the first sermon at the new building on March 1. Sixty persons were baptized in the afternoon and several addresses were given. The Rev. L. B. Hartman, the first minister, was present. The celebration continued throughout the week and the church was filled to capacity at all of the services.
Not only was a college of prime concern to the church, but so was the need for a hospital. In September of 1891, there was a resolution “that we unanimously recommend the establishment of a Baptist hospital.”
The hospital began in humble circumstances. A doctor and nurse were on call in two houses: one for patients, opened on January 30, 1892, and a second for mothers and babies. The name “Samaritan” was chosen. Soon after, the Garretson Hospital was established. A maternity hospital was also started and called the “Greatheart”. Later these three hospitals were joined under one name—Temple University Hospital.
Having been a military person, Dr. Conwell decided to use the military as a means of working with youth. A Temple Guard was formed in 1890 for young boys, with its first encampment in July of 1892. The Philadelphia Bulletin printed the following:
The Temple Guard is an independent military company of young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two years, with headquarters at Columbia Hall, 1325 Columbia Ave. The Temple Guard was an idea of the Rev. Russell H. Conwell, who organized it in 1890 at the Baptist Temple, Broad and Berks Sts., where the company remained until a couple of months ago, but owing to some friction with the trustees of the church, the young men sought other quarters. In drilling the guard soon gained perfection, as twenty-two victories over as many companies will attest. The company has also appeared at 211 public functions, covering three States, twenty-four towns, twice in New York City. Although military science has occupied a great part of the company’s attention, patriotic demonstrations have added materially to the fame of the Temple Guard. Fifteen hundred dollars were raised at three great Cuban demonstrations at the Temple and at the Academy of Music, which money was given for the relief of suffering Cuban reconcentrados. The Temple Guard was the first American association to place flowers on the graves of the dead of the U.S. Maine at Havana, this act being done by their president, Dr. Frank Lambader, who was in Cuba at the time distributing funds raised by popular subscription. Receptions have been given to honor Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher (her only visit to Philadelphia), General Julio Sanguilly, the hero of the Ten Years’ War, Miss Evangeline Cisneros, who escaped from Recojidas Fortress, and the People’s Sword presented by the people of Pennsylvania, was given to Admiral Schley under the auspices of the Guard, who served as guard of honor and whose guest he was at the Temple. The company is armed and equipped and meets for drill each Thursday night. During the summer a military camp is held for two weeks; former outings being at Ogontz, Jenkintown, Neshaminy Falls, Stone Harbor, Delaware Water Gap, twice, Point Pleasant and twice at Sanatoga Park. The aims of the Guard are both military and social. The armory and reading-room are open every day and evening excepting Sunday, where full information can be secured from the guardsmen on duty.
By 1895, Mr. Conwell had baptized nearly 3,000 persons. When the invitation to accept Christ or join the church was given, it was not unusual for seven persons to respond. When this fact became known, the pastor would seek the seven and if there were more he would then seek a multiple of seven. Although there were no revival services, large groups of people responded.
When asked by a reporter for the secret of the Temple where the congregation increased to nearly 1,700, built a church, founded a college and opened a hospital, the Associate Pastor, Dr. George A. Peltz responded quickly, “Sanctified common sense.”
An unusual method of the selection of deacons occurred for many years. Names were placed in a bowl and a member was asked to pick out seven names. With the names in hand, the Church Clerk was instructed to declare the seven people elected as deacons. This practice continued until 1927.
Crowds desiring to hear the pastor were so large that an overflow meeting was held in the college as the regular service continued in the Temple.
One might surmise that such a strong leader as Dr. Conwell could have his own way in all matters, but this was far from the truth. Records show that on one occasion, for example, he desired a leave of absence to continue his lecturing. The congregation, knowing that the attendance would suffer if the pastor were absent and furthermore that the pastor needed rest from his duties, voted to disallow his absence. On the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, he told of being asked a question and his answer:
I met a man, a few days ago, on a railway train in Massachusetts. He said to me, “I would like to know how you ever expect to build the college, and enlarge the hospital, and found an orphanage and a young ladies’ home, and all these things of which I have read.” I said, “I don’t expect to do it.”
“Are you going to give it up?”
“No. We will have the Young Women’s Home and the Orphanage.”
“Well, what do you mean by that? You say you don’t expect to do it, yet you are not going to give it up, and you expect to have it?”
I said, when the church gets ready to go on with it, it will go; not when I get ready, for I am ready now. Indeed we do need a better home for our college; our hospital should be extended until the great Baptist denomination which we represent shall have a place for the sick, until thousands instead of hundreds shall have the advantage of a home for the maimed, the sick, and the suffering; and I believe that is yet to come. That will grow out under God’s leadership for purposes of greater philanthropic work when we have passed into eternity. I am ready for it now. When the church is ready, it will come, and I am willing to wait until the judgment of our people shall say, “The time is come.”
How could such a growing church maintain a continued interest of the members other than their listening to the pastor’s sermons each Sunday?
The following organizations might be overwhelming to readers today, but the membership was divided into separate groups, many of them with well over one hundred members.
- The Sunday School had five large active departments
- The Christian Endeavor Society had seven sections.
- The Ladies Aid Society
- The Business Men’s Union
- The Young Women’s Association
- The Beneficial Association
- Missionary Circles
- The Perseverance Missionary Board
- The Young Men’s Association
- The Tourist’s Club
- The Girl’s Auxiliary
- The Needlework Guild
- The Ministerial Brotherhood
- The Ushers Association
- The Bible Training Class
- The Loyal Sunday School Army
- The Temple Guard
- The Temple Cyclers
- The Youth’s Culture League
- The Baseball Club
The work of the Temple extended far from its doors. Other missions (some to become churches) included Logan Grace, Clearfield Street, Rising Sun, Tioga, Mayfair and West Oak Lane.
Dr. Conwell was a prolific writer. His books included:
- Lessons of Travel
- Why and How Chinese Emigrate
- Nature’s Aristocracy
- History of the Great Fire in Boston
- The Life of General U.S. Grant
- Woman and the Law
- The Life of Rutherford B. Hayes
- History of the Great Fire in St. Johns
- The Life of Bayard Taylor
- The Life, Speeches and Public Service of James A. Garfield
- Little Bo
- Joshua Gianvello
- The Life of James G. Blaine
- The Life of Daniel Manin
- “A True Story” (unpublished)
- “The Life of St. Paul” (partly prepared)
- How to LIVE the Christ Life
- Observation: Every Man His Own University
- Six Nights in the Garden of Gethsemane
- The Angel’s Lily
- The New Day
- The Romantic Rise of a Great American
- Unused Power
- Why Lincoln Laughed
- Every Member Evangelism
- Acres of Diamonds
- Borrowed Axes
- Effective Prayer
- Fields of Glory
- Gleams of Grace
- Gleams Through the Temple Gates
- How a Soldier May Succeed After the War
- Life of Charles Haddon Spurgeon
- The Jolly Earthquake
Dr. Conwell was probably best known around the country and the world as a lecturer. Before arriving in Philadelphia,, he was a successful lecturer. The church gave him opportunities toward this pursuit. Millions of dollars were received from his speeches, but records show that all monies except expenses were given to deserving college students, the church, college or hospital.
His lectures included:
“The Philosophy of History”
“The Old and New New England”
“The Dust of Our Battlefields”
“Was it a Ghost Story?”
“Three Scenes in Babylon”
“Americans in Europe”
“General Grant’s Empire”
“Acres of Diamonds”
“The Silver Crown or Born a King”
“The Jolly Earthquake”
“Garibaldi or the Power of Blind Faith”
“The Angel’s Lily”
“The Seven Guardian Angels of Columbus”
“Five Million Dollars for the Face of the Moon”
“Henry Ward Beecher”
“Cuba’s Appeal to the United States”
“Men of the Mountains”
“My Fallen Comrades”
“The Unfortunate Chinese”
“Three Scenes from the Mount of Olives”