“THE HISTORY OF FIFTY-SEVEN CENTS”
Sermon By Russell H. Conwell
Sunday Morning, December 1, 1912.
We are here to unveil this picture of Hattie May Wiatt, a little girl who died in 1886. Years have gone rapidly by, but she still speaks. We intend to put this picture in the pastor’s study, in the most prominent place, and keep it there through the years to come, that people, as they pass through, may ask: “What meaneth that picture?” And the story, simple and wonderful, may be told.
Little Hattie May Wiatt lived in a house near the church in which we then worshipped, at Berks and Mervine, which is now occupied by the Christian Church It was a small church and was crowded, tickets of admission were obtained sometimes weeks in advance for every service. The Sunday school was as crowded as the rest of the congregation, and one day when I came down to the church, to attend Sabbath school, I found a number of children outside. They were greatly disturbed because they could not get in, on account of the crowd of children already in the Sunday school rooms of the church, and little Hattie May Wiatt, who lived nearby, had brought her books and a contribution, and was standing by the gate, hesitating whether to go back home or wait and try to get in later. I took her up in my arms, lifted her to my shoulder, and then as she held on to my head – an embrace I never can forget – I carried her through the crowd in the hall, into the Sunday school room, and seated her in a chair away back in a dark corner. The next morning as I came down to the church from my home I came by their house and she was going up the street to school. As we met, I said: “Hattie, we are going to have a larger Sunday school room soon”, and she said: “I hope you will. It is so crowded that I am afraid to go there alone”. “Well”, I replied, “When we get the money with which to erect a school building we are going to construct one large enough to get all the little children in, and we are going to begin very soon to raise the money for it”. It was only in my mind as a kind of imaginary vision, but I wished to make conversation with the child. The next that I heard about it was that Hattie was very sick, and they asked me to come in and see the child, which I did and prayed with her. I walked up the street, praying for the little girl’s recovery, and yet all the time with the conviction that it was not to be.
Hattie May Wiatt died. She had gathered 57 cents – some have written 54 – which was left as her contribution towards securing another building for the children. After the funeral, the mother handed me the little bag with the gathered 57 cents. I took it to the church and stated that we had the first gift toward the new Sunday school building; that little Hattie May Wiatt, who had gone on into the Shining World, had left behind her this gift towards it. I then changed all the money into pennies and offered them for sale. I received about $250 for the 57 pennies, and 54 of those cents were returned to me by the people who bought them. I then had them put in a frame where they could be seen and exhibited them, and we received by a sale of the $250 changed into pennies money enough to buy the next house north of the church at Berks and Mervine. That house was bought by the Wiatt Mite Society, which was organized for the purpose of taking the 57 cents and enlarging on them sufficiently to buy the property for the Primary Department of the Sunday school. In the Wiatt Mite Society was Mr. Edward O. Elliott ( now one of our trustees) who has charge of this picture, and was then a member.
Then when the crowd became so great we could no longer get in there, the thought impressed itself upon our congregation, “We ought to have a larger church and a larger Sunday school room”. Faith in God was the characteristic of this people, and they said, “We can do it”, notwithstanding the fact that the church had a mortgage on it then, I think, of $30,000, and that we had no money in advance. Yet the conviction was strong that we ought to build a larger church, and some ventured so far, though then it seemed absurd, to say that we might “build on Broad Street somewhere”. But the Wiatt Mite Society, using the influence of Hattie May Wiatt’s first deposit, raised the money to pay, as I said, for the house, and then the undertaking was before us, whether we would go out and try to build a large church. I walked over to see Mr. Baird, who lived on the corner where the German Athletic Association now has its meetings and asked him what he wanted for this lot on which the Temple now stands.
He said that he wanted $30,000. I told him that we had only 54 cents toward the $30,000, but that we were foolish enough to think that sometimes we would yet own that lot. Encouraged by what he said, and with no opposition on the part of the Board of Deacons, I went around again to talk with him and asked him if he would not hold the lot for five years. Mr. Baird said: “I have been thinking this matter over and have made up my mind I will sell you that lot for $25,000, taking $5,000 less than I think it is worth, and I will take the 54 cents as the first payment and you may give me a mortgage for the rest at 5%. I went back and so reported to the church, and they said: “Well, we can raise more money than 54 cents”, but I went over and left the 54 cents with Mr. Baird and took a receipt for it as a part payment on the lot. Mr. Baird afterward returned the 54 cents as another gift. Thus we bought the lot, and thus encouraged of God step by step, we went on constructing this building. We owed $109,000 when it was done, but we had courage and faith in God then. We could hardly have dreamed then that in the number of years that followed this people, without wealth, each giving only as he could afford from his earnings, could have paid off so great a debt without any outside help. The only outside help that we really received was from Mr. Bucknell. Although our church was then called the Grace Baptist Church, he was not willing that we should call the new building a church until the mortgage was paid. He gave us $10,000 on the condition that we call this building by some other name than the Grace Baptist Church, and that accounts for its being called The Temple instead of the Grace Church. Afterwards, when we did pay off the mortgage accounts, we dedicated the building and have a right now to call it whatever we choose, but after 21 years of being named as it is, there is no reason why we should change it, and there is no hope of doing so if we should undertake it. It will always be known as The Temple. I must state here also that in the house purchased by the sale of the 57 cents was organized The Temple University.
Pastor Chris’ Thoughts: I shared this story because it is so powerful and demonstrates the power of even the smallest action. Some have questioned the veracity of this story. Check Out Temple University’s Page where I first discovered this story here. Again, I did not write this post only shared the story and link back to others who shared it first. There are many versions but I believe TU’s to be accurate and worth sharing. May it encourage you to Ask God to accomplish great things for him.