Russell Herman Conwell (1843-1925) was the Baptist minister, philanthropist, lawyer, and writer who founded Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was perhaps best known in his time as an orator, primarily for his famous "Acres of Diamonds" speech in which he sermonized that his audience need not look elsewhere for opportunity, achievement, or fortune, as all the resources they needed to achieve good things were present in their own communities.
Conwell's book Acres of Diamonds put his well known lecture into print and included a number of other inspirational tales, including the one presented above about a news church that was built on land purchased with 57¢ donated by a poor little girl (since deceased) who had been turned away from Sunday school class because the existing church in her community didn't have room to accommodate her.
One of the difficulties in analyzing the truthfulness of the 57-cent church purchase story at this point is that Conwell was what today might be termed a "motivational speaker," and as he repeated the tales he told during his orations he tended to modify and embellish them across time. As well, anonymous online denizens have seen fit to edit the 57-cent church purchase anecdote to transform it into even more of a tear-jerker.
We can't vet every detail of this story, but if we go back to Conwell's earliest recorded version of this tale (as presented in its original appearance in Acres of Diamonds), we find that even his telling of it is substantially different than the version now most commonly presented online.
Conwell did start out by describing a little girl (not identified by name) who was turned away from a Sunday school because there was no room for her there:
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 room ... [I] asked her why it was that she was crying, and she sobbingly replied that it was because they could not let her into the Sunday-school ... I said to her that I would take her in, and I did so, and I said to her that we should some day have a room big enough for all who should come.
So far, so good. But what happened next? Unbeknownst to Conwell, the little girl went home and told her parents that she wanted to save money to build a larger church, and they indulged her by letting her run errands for pennies that she saved in a little bank. And then:
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.
Conwell said nothing in his account his having been asked to handle the little girl's "final arrangements," he made no mention of a worn and crumpled purse with a note explaining the purpose of the girl's savings, and he explained that the little girl had passed away a "few weeks" (not "two years") after he first encountered her outside the church. In fact, there was no note of any kind nor any "cracked, red pocketbook" for him to "carry to the pulpit" and use to "challenge his deacons." In his version, what occurred next was somewhat more prosaic — Conwell's mention of the little girl's donation prompted church trustees to finally starting looking for land on which to build a new church:
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 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.
The immediate result of Conwell's tale of the little girl and her fifty-seven cents? Advice on a piece of property from one of the church trustees, which Conwell followed up on:
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!
Conwell made no mention of a newspaper article's publicizing the little girl's story, nor of a generous realtor who offered a "parcel of land worth many thousands" and then dropped the price to fifty-seven cents when told "the church could not pay so much." Rather, he described a direct deal between himself and a property owner to buy a piece of land for $10,000 under some rather generous terms: a low down payment (i.e., 57¢)
and a low interest rate on the mortgage.
As things turned out, the church soon came to own the land free and clear, not because "church members [collectively] 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. But because Dr. Conwell was akin to what today would be termed a "motivational speaker," he altered and embellished his tales (including this one) at will to better suit his audience and get across the lessons he wanted to impart.