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Conwell's Early Years



The arrival of Rev. Conwell is told in Temple and Templars as follows: 

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 (see Story of the Fifty-Seven Cents). 

          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. Next - College and Hospital


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