Russell Conwell: the Dave Ramsey of last century

In some recent reading I’ve been doing, I stumbled across an early 20th century Baptist preacher named Russell Conwell who went on a speaking tour around the country giving a motivational speech entitled “Acres of Diamonds,” very similar in its values and assumptions to the speeches Dave Ramsey has been giving in his “Great Recovery” tour around the country today. Many of the assumptions we have about self-reliance and individual responsibility have their origin in voices like Conwell, rags-to-riches novelist Horatio Algers, and others at the turn of the 20th century who developed what we call the “American Dream,” which wasn’t really a part of American culture in the first 124 years of our nation. So I figured I’d look at some excerpts from Conwell’s speech to examine some of the roots of the values we take for granted in American culture today:

I say that you ought to get rich, and it is our duty to get rich. How many of my pious brethren say to me, “Do you, a Christian minister, spend your time going up and down the country advising young people to get rich, to get money?” “Yes, of course I do.” They say, “Isn’t that awful! Why don’t you preach the gospel instead of preaching about man’s making money?” “Because to make money honestly is to preach the gospel.” That is the reason. The men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community.

The duty of every American is to be successful. It’s something we don’t really say aloud because it’s common sense. We never stop to question whether other cultures even have the concept of “success” as part of their language. My duty in life is to figure out what I’m good at doing vocationally and be as successful as possible doing it, whether that’s measured quantitatively by how much money I make, or my rank, or specific bullet points that I can enumerate in my list of achievements. That is my duty. I can even find a foundation for it in scripture. I’m preaching this weekend on the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. A straightforward, “literalist” reading would suggest that God rewards those who use their talents to make lots of money. Poor people are those who whine about how unfair life is and bury the talent God gave them in the ground and then He punishes them by making them poor. (Don’t worry; this is not what I’ll be preaching this weekend.)

Money is power… you can do more good with it than you could without it. Money printed your Bible, money builds your churches, money sends your missionaries, and money pays your preachers, and you would not have many of them, either, if you did not pay them. I am always willing that my church should raise my salary, because the church that pays the largest salary always raises it the easiest. You never knew an exception to it in your life. The man who gets the largest salary can do the most good with the power that is furnished to him.

It is true of course that to do good for other people costs money. Of course, Conwell doesn’t see any possibility that wealth could corrupt the person who has it and make them less likely to use it for good. I really like his logic about pastor’s salaries😉 — the more you pay your pastor, the more diligently they will fund-raise for your church.

Some men say, “Don’t you sympathize with the poor people?” of course I do, or else I would not have been lecturing these years… But the number of poor who are to be with us is very small. To sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, no doubt about it, and we do that more than we help those who are deserving. While we should sympathize with God’s poor-that is, those who cannot help themselves-let us remember that is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings, or by the shortcomings of some one else.

The way Conwell expresses his sympathy with poor people is to give them lectures explaining why they have no excuse not being rich. Note how he describes three possible kinds of poor people here: 1) God’s poor — those who cannot help themselves (these are people whom it’s okay to give alms to), 2) those who are being punished by God for their sins (whom we do wrong to give alms to), and 3) those who were made poor by their own shortcomings (which is a slightly different way of understanding it than divine punishment, since not all mistakes are sins).

“The love of money is the root of all evil.” He who tries to attain unto it too quickly, or dishonestly, will fall into many snares, no doubt about that. The love of money. What is that? It is making an idol of money, and idolatry pure and simple every where is condemned by the Holy Scriptures and by man’s common sense. The man that worships the dollar instead of thinking of the purposes for which it ought to be used, the man who idolizes simply money, the miser that hordes his money in the cellar, or hides it in his stocking, or refuses to invest it where it will do the world good, that man who hugs the dollar until the eagle squeals has in him the root of all evil.

This is a clever rhetorical move. Conwell dispenses with the Biblical teaching that “the love of money is the root of all evil” by saying that only those who refuse to invest their money are truly idolizing it by worshiping it as a literal concrete object rather than as a commodity. Of course the irony about this is that it’s the anxious obsession over which investments to make that causes money to have the most power over us as an idol.

To live and let live is the principle of the gospel… The man who goes home with the sense that he has stolen a dollar that day, that he has robbed a man of what was his honest due, is not going home to sweet rest. He arises tired in the morning, and goes with an unclean conscience to his work the next day. He is not a successful man at all, although he may have laid up millions. But the man who has gone through life dividing always with is fellow-men, making and demanding his own rights and his own profits, and giving to every other man his rights and profits, lives every day, and not only that, but it is the royal road to great wealth. The history of the thousands of millionaires shows that to be the case.

This is a very important conflation that Conwell makes. In this paragraph, the “principle of the gospel” (a.k.a. “love your neighbor”) is interpreted as “live and let live.” Conwell is arguing that you should be honest in how you make money because you won’t be able to sleep at night otherwise. But as long as you play fair, “making and demanding your rights and profits” and “giving to others their rights and profits,” you have loved your neighbor. I think this demonstrates how “loving your neighbor” becomes a passive rather than proactive concept in an individualist society. The idea that we should proactively try to help other people beyond treating them fairly is inconceivable.

One of the best things in our life is when a young man has earned his own living, and when he becomes engaged to some lovely young woman, and makes up his mind to have a home of his own. Then with that same love comes also that divine inspiration toward better things, and he begins to save his money. He begins to leave off his bad habits and put money in the bank. When he has a few hundred dollars he goes out in the suburbs to look for a home. He goes to the savings-bank, perhaps, for half of the value, and then goes for his wife, and when he takes his bride over the threshold of that door for the first time he says in words of eloquence my voice can never touch: “ I have earned this home myself. It is all mine, and I divide with thee.” That is the grandest moment a human heart may ever know.

This paragraph is a perfect articulation of the American Dream. Conwell says this in the context of talking about how a rich man’s son who inherited his wealth can never have the same satisfaction of a man who earns it himself. But notice who has disappeared entirely from the picture when you say, “I have earned this home myself. It is all mine, and I divide it with thee.” When the greatest measure of our virtue is that we have earned everything we have without any help from anybody else, then our value system is completely secular.

3 thoughts on “Russell Conwell: the Dave Ramsey of last century

  1. Pingback: I don’t hate Jon Acuff per se… | Mercy not Sacrifice

  2. “For you cannot serve both God and mammon”. Nothing wrong with a little hard work to provide for our families and communities, let’s just not make it a virtue. It is interesting how so many modern values concerning material success and charity are completely opposed to basic Biblical teachings and how most of our energy as Christians has been placed on matters of personal piety and external purity. I’m glad to see that the focus is slowly changing. Keeping preaching it brother.

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