Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Temple Baptist Church was built on land sold for fifty-seven cents, the amount saved by a little girl who had been turned away from its Sunday school.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1999]
Origins: It seems these days that no true story is deemed sufficiently inspirational but that it can't be made even more so by the addition of exaggerated and fabricated details. If a story about a sad little orphan makes you misty-eyed, the thinking goes, then transforming it into a tale about a whole busload of abandoned, homeless orphans will make you cry your heart out.
Here we have such a tale, one that contains a kernel of truth wrapped in a layer of exaggeration.
If there's anyone who knows the truth behind this story, it would be
For starters, he does tell of a little girl who was turned away from Sunday school because there was no room for her:
One afternoon a little girl, who had eagerly wished to go, turned back from the Sunday-school door, crying bitterly because there was no more roomSo far, so good. But what happened next? Unbeknownst to
She was a lovable little thing — but in only a few weeks after that she was taken suddenly ill and died; and at the funeral her father told me, quietly, of how his little girl had been saving money for a building-fund. And there, at the funeral, he handed me what she had saved — just fifty-seven cents in pennies.Dr. Conwell says nothing about being asked to handle the little girl's "final arrangements," makes no mention of a worn and crumpled purse with a note explaining the purpose of the girl's savings, and explains that the girl passed away a "few weeks" (not "two years") after he encountered her outside the church. In fact, there was no note nor any "cracked, red pocketbook" for him to "carry to the pulpit" and use to "challenge his deacons." What occurred next was somewhat more prosaic:
At a meeting of the church trustees I told of this gift of fifty-seven cents — the first gift toward the proposed building-fund of the new church that was some time to exist. For until then the matter had barely been spoken of, as a new church building had been simply a possibility for the future.The immediate result of Dr. Conwell's tale of the little girl and her fifty-seven cents? Advice on a piece of property. Hardly the industrious fund-raising efforts this telling leads us to believe took place in short order.
The trustees seemed much impressed, and it turned out that they were far more impressed than I could possibly have hoped, for in a few days one of them came to me and said that he thought it would be an excellent idea to buy a lot on Broad Street — the very lot on which the building now stands.
I talked the matter over with the owner of the property, and told him of the beginning of the fund, the story of the little girl. The man was not one of our church, nor, in fact, was he a church-goer at all, but he listened attentively to the tale of the fifty-seven cents and simply said he was quite ready to go ahead and sell us that piece of land for ten thousand dollars, taking — and the unexpectedness of this deeply touched me — taking a first payment of just fifty-seven cents and letting the entire balance stand on a five-per-cent mortgage!No mention of a newspaper article that publicized the story, or of a generous realtor who offered a "parcel of land worth many thousands" and dropped the price to fifty-seven cents when told "the church could not pay so much." Just a direct deal between
As things turned out, the church soon came to own the land free and clear, not because "church members made large subscriptions," but because the church received "a single large subscription — one of ten thousand dollars."
This anecdote has all the elements an inspirational tale needs: a little girl who saved her pennies after being turned away from a church that had no room for her, a stranger who was inspired by her story to offer his land to the church at some very favorable terms, and a benefactor who contributed $10,000 so that the church could buy the property outright instead of carrying a mortgage. So why cheapen it by making up details that simply aren't true? Because
But "truth is stranger than fiction" is not merely an aphorism — sometimes it's advice that should be heeded.
Last updated: 16 December 1999
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