Johnny Ring: The Story of the Sword
Grace Baptist Church's fourth pastor, Russell H. Conwell, had been a captain in the Union army. During his lfetime, Conwell was also amazingly productive. He was a lawyer, real estate developer, newspaper man, prolific author, and well-known lecturer in the US. He actually traveled the globe giving his speeches. He gave his most famous speech, "Acres of Diamonds," more than 6000 times. It is estimated that Conwell earned an incredible sum over his lifetime for these lectures, but instead of keeping the funds for himself, he supported thousands in getting their college education. When asked what drove him to work so hard, he explained he worked for two. And shared the story of John Ring.
Before leaving for war, his beloved regiment honored him with a gold-sheathed sword, which Conwell promised to guard with his life. Many young men clamored to a part of the great effort of the war, including some far too young to serve. Johnny Ring was one of these young men; he approached Conwell twice before he agreed. He served as an aide to Conwell, and one of his duties was polishing and caring for the cherished sword.
Although Conwell had been raised in a devout Methodist home, his experience at Wilbraham Academy, and Yale College led him to question God's existence. In one of his classmates' books it shows his name with atheist by it. "I was known as a disbeliever in the bible and I used everything I could find to prove that it was untrue," he said.
When young Johnny Ring proceed to read his bible by candlelight in the tent that he shared with Conwell, Conwell was insistent that he stop. "John you can't do that in my tent. I don't believe in it, and everyone will laugh at me if I permit you to do that," Conwell ordered. The following night Ring sat with his bible again, and Conwell was angry, and let it be known. Thereafter, Johnny Ring read his bible in the orderly-sergeant's tent.
While Conwell was away from his encampment below Newbern, at the Newport River, in North Carolina, Pickett's celebrated corps drove the Union soldiers from their camp. The troops fled across the river and set the long trestle bridge on fire. John ran up to the orderly-sergeant, "Where is the Captain's sword?"
"He has it with him. Get out of the way."
But Johnny knew the captain did not take the gold-sheathed sword given to him in Springfield, Massachusetts. It always hung on the center-pole of the tent. He rushed back across the bridge in the midst of the enemy, grabbed the sword, and returned across the bridge that was now raging with fire.
"Tell the boy to jump into the river!" shouted a Confederate captain. "Jump on either side. We will save him!" But Johnny could not hear. When he reached the other side of the bridge, through the fire and smoke, his clothes were blazing high. He flung himself out on the end of the abutment of the bridge, and the sword fell from his hands to the bank of the river. He did not survive.
Johnny Ring and his devotion to God, and to God's word lingered in Conwell's mind. Six months later he found himself left for dead in a battlefield near Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia. The next day he was found and taken to a camp infirmary, where he called for a chaplain. The chaplain prayed, and Conwell had him read some of the passages John Ring read, including the 14th chapter of John, and the 12th chapter of Romans. During the night, Conwell had a sense of dying, and leaving life. He says he thought, "I am going to God if there is one; to the savior whom I have scoffed at and despised; going to meet John and his God. An awful sense of sinking came over me and I called upon the unknown God for forgiveness and asked him to reveal himself to me if there was any revelation possible. I cannot describe it--no one can--that instinctive need for the love of God, and that warming of the heart which came to me. But the sense of final forgiveness seemed to fill my soul with light.
Conwell felt a solemn obligation to repay the world for Ring's loss. "I keep the sword hanging on the wall, over the head of my bed, the sword that John saved. Every morning, before I kneel to pray, I say, 'Lord, if thou wilt help me today, I will do John Ring's work and my work.'
The sword is in Temple University's library, with other of Conwell's possessions. The YouTube video at the beginning of the blog shows some of these items.