“…if you wish to be great at all, you must begin where you are and what you are...”
Russell H. Conwell
If any of us had lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania around the turn of the 20th century we would probably have heard about Russell H. Conwell’s famous lecture titled “Acres of Diamonds.” It is hard for us today to imagine the huge influence of this man and this lecture which he delivered 6,152 times around the world.
Raised on a farm in Massachusetts, Conwell graduated from Yale University in 1862 and joined the Union Army during the American Civil War. After the war he studied law and worked as an attorney, journalist and lecturer. He published about 10 books including biographies of Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes and James A. Garfield.
In 1880 Conwell became an ordained Baptist minister and two years later was asked to serve as the pastor of a new Baptist church in Philadelphia. This church eventually became the Baptist Temple (aka The Temple), one of the largest Protestant churches in America. Under his leadership the first classes of Temple College, later Temple University, were held on the site which today is the Temple Performing Arts Center.
But this story is not about the founding of Temple University but rather about Conwell’s lecture “Acres of Diamonds.” Conwell’s capacity to establish Temple University and many of his other civic projects, however, came primarily from the income he earned from that speech.
Conwell memorized 28 lectures which he gave without notes, but it was his “Acres of Diamonds” speech that earned for him more than $11 million. He gave all of this income away before he died, earning him the name “the penniless millionaire.”
Although the lecture was originally published in 1915, the most recent and complete form of the lecture begins with a story an old Arab guide gave Conwell as he and a “party of English travelers” traveled down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Apparently a very wise man told a very wealthy, ancient Persian farmer about a place which was filled with diamonds.
That wealthy farmer “…heard all about diamonds, how much they were worth, and went to his bed that night a poor man. He had not lost anything, but he was poor because he was discontented, and discontented because he feared he was poor.” He said, “I want a mine of diamonds,” and he stayed up all night thinking about it.
The story continues, “So he sold his farm, collected his money, left his family in charge of a neighbor…” and went off on his quest to find diamonds. He searched the world over and ended up as a “poor, afflicted suffering, dying man” who cast himself into the ocean and he died.
A few days later, the wise old man went to visit the farmer’s successor and there he saw a brilliant diamond glistening on a windowsill. In the farmer’s backyard there was discovered the most brilliant diamond-mine in all history. The old Arab guide who told the story said this, “Had (the farmer) remained at home and dug in his own cellar, or underneath his own wheat-fields, or in his own garden, instead of wretchedness, starvation, and death by suicide in a strange land, he would have had ‘acres of diamonds.’ For every acre of that old farm, yes, every shovelful, afterward revealed gems which since have decorated the crowns of monarchs.”
Conwell’s lecture continues with story after story of such examples where people have found (or just missed) acres of diamonds in their own back yards. He ended this lecture which was shared in Philadelphia with these words, “Let every man or woman here, if you never hear me again, remember this, that if you wish to be great at all, you must begin where you are and what you are, in Philadelphia now.”
Think about it.
Dr. Don Meyer is President ofValley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA
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