One Sunday morning in 1919, Dr. Russell H. Conwell, founder and President of Temple University, stood before his congregation in the pulpit of the Philadelphia Baptist Temple and dropped a bombshell:
“At dawn the spirit of my departed wife came often to sit at the foot of my bed and we talked of many things, of people we had known and of her life since she had passed beyond the veil.
“At first I thought she was but a figure in my own mind, that it was but a psychological experience in which my sub-conscious mind was playing with a dream-like figure. I will tell you the story of how I tested the disembodiment of her spirit: this was the experience that has caused me to think out this problem and I feel that the conclusions that must inevitably follow such a clear case are of the deepest significance to human and religious thought.” Boston [MA] Herald 20 December 1919: p. 3
Some in the congregation must have thought that their pastor had gone mad; others thought he must have converted to Spiritualism. Apparently some of his friends thought he was flirting with heresy. Conwell, who has been described as “one of the most venerable and prominent figures in the educational and religious life of America,” was brought to book by his rigidly Christian friends for having told of an experience repugnant to orthodoxy. He had seen “a form which took on the appearance of his dead wife.” He had the courage to stick to his story, even to the length of writing it for The Baptist, a sectarian publication. Here it is, as it was printed in that magazine:
“I never stated that I saw the spirit of my wife. I am not acquainted with a spiritual medium and never consulted one.
“I did not expect to see the matter in any newspaper or magazine. I did not dream that the public would be interested in such a personal incident. Even if I had thought the public would care to see it, I would have regarded it as too sacred a topic to expose to the world’s criticism. But, as briefly as I can state the homely but mysterious facts, I will put them down here.
“Three years after the death of my wife I began to see a form sitting on the side of my bed, at the foot, every morning when I woke. I attributed it to some effect of overwork on my eyesight. But after many weeks it grew so like my wife that I consulted two physicians, who reasonably said that if I would work less the vision would disappear. But the figure became more clear, until her natural smile and her voice were distinct. Believing it to be only a strange effect of my mental state, I fell in with the conditions and amused myself with experiments to see if I was in any abnormal condition. But I seemed healthy in mind and body. I regarded it so surely a figment of my mind that I laughed at it, and said to the figure, “‘I know this is not you. Please let me test this.’
“The figure seemed to consent, and in answer to my question told me where my army discharge papers were which had been lost for twenty-five years. I went to the place indicated by the seeming voice conversation and found the box containing the papers behind a shelf full of old books. The next morning the form was more distinct than ever, and seemed to laugh over my discovery. Then I asked if she would come again the next morning and let me test the matter further. She laughingly said she would come once more.
“Still believing I was playing with an hallucination, I asked my servant girl to hide the gold pen and holder which my wife had presented to me, and I emphatically told the girl not to give me any hint where she had hidden it.
“The next morning there again sat the form as distinct as often in life my wife had sat there, and I arose in bed to look closely, and said,
“‘Do you know where my gold pen is?’
“She seemed pleased, as with a joke, and answered,
“‘Of course I know. Get out of bed and I will show you where it is.’
“I arose and followed the form to a clothes closet, in which was a shelf for medicine bottles. She pointed to the closet, and when I opened the door she pointed impatiently to the far end of the shelf. I removed the bottles and reached far back along the shelf, and my hand fell on the penholder. When I took it out and stepped down from the chair I had mounted the figure was gone, and it has in no way reappeared. I have tried many ways to bring it back to my sight, but with no success.
“Friends give me several solutions of the mystery satisfactory to them:
“1. Some say it was surely the spirt of my wife.
“2. Some say it was a satanic spirit imitating my wife.
“3. Some say it was a case of mental exaltation, wherein I had unconscious telepathic communication with the mind of the girl who hid the pen.
“4. Some others say that it was a case of instinctive ‘sense of presence,’ which as in chemistry, impressed on my mind the direction and presence of the pen I had habitually used.
“5. For myself I do not feel that the phenomena are yet explained. While I believe fully in the truth of the Bible narrative concerning the visits of the angels, and that the spirits of the dead ‘are as the angels of God,’ yet I do not believe they are subject to the call of men on the earth, and I can not admit to myself that the form I saw was actually my wife.
“I will prayerfully and calmly wait for another appearance, when I will feel the importance of making more careful scientific tests.” Spirit Life: Or, Do We Die? William Dunseath Eaton, 1920
The tests—it seems to be all about the tests… Did he really only think about verifying the identity of the “form” when his wife’s spirit showed up at his bedside?
Conwell had a reputation much like that of the Rev. Billy Graham: he was known across America as a popular preacher, orator, and philanthropist, keeping up a killing schedule of services and sermons. He was an advocate for Prohibition and preached that God would reward hard work with prosperity—a notion we see today in the “Prosperity Gospel.” He was renowned for his speech, “Acres of Diamonds,” which suggests that the poor are being punished for their sins or are poor because of their own shortcomings.
He once said he pitied the man who didn’t believe that Jonah was swallowed by the whale, but he refused to believe in his wife’s “spirit.” Perhaps he was only obeying the Biblical injunction: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” 1 John 4:1
Conwell’s first wife, Jennie, had died in 1872. His second wife, Sarah, whom he married in 1873, had died in 1910. Is it logical to assume that the “form” was his second wife? Conwell would die of cancer at the age of 79 in 1925. Why did he wait until 1919 to tell the story? It is not an anecdote you would expect to hear from a Baptist minister. And he put it into writing in the official Baptist magazine. Yet although some people considered him a heretic, or were embarrassed by his prayer meetings that treated God like a vending machine that dispensed divine favors, another closet was once the site of a miracle.
His granddaughter wrote of him:
He worried a lot about raising funds for his institutions but not for himself. He relied on something I would have considered most unreliable, like miracles, wishing, spirits or the number “7”. He had more beautiful words than that for it, which were faith and prayer.
One strange story he told which I thought had no basis except in his imagination took place before Grandmother died. Some crisis at the church had been reached and Grandfather was wondering how to solve this certain financial deficit. He worried a little and then fell back on the theory that the “Lord would provide”. He kept busy with his “think hard enough and your wish will come true,” ideas and his semi-spiritualism fantasies until one morning he regaled us with a weird dream he had had the night before. He called it a vision. He said there had been a spirit coming to his room in the middle of the night several nights prior to this last one and had been trying to tell him something and had been pointing to his clothes closet. It was hazy, mysterious and wraith-like, but Grandfather felt he “had connections” anyway, with the unseen and occult and I myself, believed he was something of a clairvoyant, so he was taking this ghost business seriously, and it proved a good idea that he did. So this night, when his spirit-friend appeared again Grandfather said he watched him carefully, (more likely a HER) and it went toward the closet door again and this time, opened the door and poked around on a shelf above. Finally, Grandfather, convinced that there was more to this than meets the eye, got up and lit the light and went to the closet to see what the ghost was doing. The light had scared the vision away but Grandfather swished his hands around on the shelf above and hit a large package. He opened it and found all the money he needed for the Church debt. If that had been I, I would have awakened the entire household with my shrieks, not of joy, but of fright. You couldn’t disillusion him, because he had his hands full of bank notes to prove. Everyone believed him and he went around with a kind of supernatural aura which he wore with solemnity. No one attempted to explain how actual green-backs got in the closet but he must have hypnotized them away from some one. Life with Grandfather Conwell and his ACRES OF DIAMONDS, Jane Conwell Tuttle
It is more usual to see accounts of money mysteriously appearing at the feet of statues of St. Joseph in straitened convents than in the closets of Baptist ministers…
Tuttle writes affectionately, but sceptically of her grandfather and quotes critics of his financial practices and oratory. I can’t tell if she simply doesn’t believe Conwell’s account or if she verified from other family members that it never happened. The “form” appearing upon waking of course suggests a hypnopompic hallucination. Conwell probably knew, but had forgotten the location of his discharge papers, but why did he need a ghostly figure to tell him where to look? There are hints in Tuttle’s book that Conwell was sometimes overly fond of the ladies. Perhaps even his spirit guides had to be female.
Any certainty that the “form” was Mrs. Conwell the second? Or other anecdotes of Conwell’s “miracles?” Look in the closet and report to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.