Elmer Gantry Evolves
The old woman
said,"All these years of having to pretend to be good when
we were just common
folks! Ain't you glad you can just be simple folk?"
"Maybe it is
restful. But that's not saying I wouldn't do it over again."
The old man ruminated a long
"I think I would. Anyway, no use discouraging these young
people from entering the ministry. Somebody got to preach the
gospel truth, ain't
"I suppose so. Oh, dear. Fifty years since I married a preacher!
And if I could still only be sure about the
virgin birth! Now
don't you go explaining!
I know it's true - it's in the Bible. If I could
only believe it!"
of liked to had you try your hand at politics. If I could of been, just
once, to a senator's house, to a banquet or something, just once, in a nice
bright red dress with gold slippers, I'd of been willing to go back to alpaca
and scrubbing floors, and listening to you rehearsing your sermons, out in the
stable, to that old mare we had for so many years."
"Why is that it's
only in religion that the things you got to believe are agin all experience?
Now don't you go and quote that 'I believe as it is impossible at
me again! Believe because
it's impossible! Just like a
"Oh, dear, I
hope I don't live long enough to lose my faith," he replied.
During his second year of seminary, just finished, Elmer Gantry had
been more voluminously bored
than ever at Terwillinger.
Constantly Elmer Gantry had thought of
quitting, but after his journeys
to the city of Monarch, where he was
in closer relation to fancy
ladies and to bartenders than one would have desired in a holy clerk, Elmer
Gantry got a second wind in his resolve to lead a pure life, and so managed to
keep on toward perfection, as symbolized by the degree of
Bachelor of Divinity.
Hank observed, "Morning, Mrs. Gantry. Elmy, going
to be a preacher, eh'!"
"Like it?" Hank was grinning and scratching his cheek.
Elmer Gantry boomed, "I do, Hank. I love it! I love the ways of the
Lord, and I don't ever propose to put my foot into any others! Because I have
tasted the fruit of evil, Hank - you know that. And there's nothing to it. What
fun we had, Hank, was nothing to the peace and joy I feel now. I am kind of
sorry for you, my boy."
He loomed over Hank, dropped his paw heavily on
his shoulder. "Why don't you try to get right with God? Or maybe you're smarter
than he is!"
"Never claimed to be anything of the sort!" snapped Hank,
and in that testiness Elmer Gantry triumphed and Elmer Gantry's mother exulted.
"We're all just rarin' to go out and preach the precious
Baptist doctrine of 'Get ducked or duck.'
And people actually sit and listen to us, and don't choke!
I suppose they're overwhelmed by our nerve!
And we have to have
nerve, or we'd never dare to stand in a pulpit again.
We'd quit, and
pray God to forgive us for
having stood up and pretended that we represent God, and that we can
explain what we ourselves say are the
But I still claim that there are preachers
who haven't our holiness.
is it that the clergy are so given to sex crimes?"
glad to hear you say that,"
"Because the Baptists and the
Methodists have all the numbskulls - except those that belong to the Catholic
Church and the henhouse sects - and so even you, Horace, can get away with
being a prophet.
There are some intelligent people in the Episcopal and
Congregational Churches, and a few of the Campbellite flocks, and they check up
Of course all Presbyterians are half-wits, too, but they have a
standard doctrine, and they can trap you into a
But in the
Baptist and Methodist
There's the berth for philosophers like me and hoot-owls
like you, Eddie!
All you have to do with Baptists and Methodists, as
Father Carp suggests."
"All you have to do," said Zenz, "is to get some
sound and perfectly meaningless doctrine and
Brother Elmer Gantry was shaking hands all round.
Brother Elmer Gantry's sanctifying ordination, or it might have been
his summer of bouncing from pulpit to pulpit, had so elevated him that he could
greet them as impressively and fraternally as a sewing machine agent.
Elmer Gantry shook hands with a good grip, he looked at all the more
aged sisters as though he were moved to give them a holy kiss.
Elmer Gantry said the right things about the weather, and by luck or
inspiration it was to the most
acidly devout man in Boone County that he quoted a homicidal text from
"Why not call them doubts?
Doubting is a very healthy
sign, especially in the young.
Don't you see that otherwise
you'd simply be swallowing
instruction whole, and no fallible human instructor
can always be right, do you
That began it - began a talk, always cautious, increasingly
frank, which lasted till midnight. Dr. Zechlin lent him (with the adjuration
not to let anyone else see them) Renali's "Jesus," and Coe's "The
Religion of a Mature Mind."
Frank came again to his room and they
walked, strolled together through sweet
apple orchards, paying no attention even of Indian summer pastures in their
concentration on the destiny of man and
Not for three months did Zechlin admit that he was an
not for another month that
atheist would perhaps be a sounder name for him than agnostic.
Before ever he had taken his theological doctorate, Zechlin had felt
that it was as impossible to take literally the myths of Christianity as
to take literally the
myths of Buddhism.
For many years he had rationalized his heresies.
These myths, he comforted himself, are symbols embodying the glory of
God and the leadership of Jesus' genius.
He had worked out a
The literalist asserts that a flag is something
holy, something to die for, not symbolically but in itself.
The infidel, at the other end of the scale, maintains that the flag is
a strip of wool or
cotton with rather
unaesthetic marks printed on it, and of considerably less use, therefore of
less holiness and less romance, than a shirt
or a blanket.
But to the
unprejudiced thinker, like
himself, it was a symbol, sacred only by suggestion but not the less sacred.
After nearly two decades he knew that he had been deceiving himself;
that he did not actually admire Christ as the sole leader; that
the teachings of Jesus were
contradictory and borrowed from earlier rabbis; and that if
the teachings of
Christianity were adequate flags, symbols,
philosophies for most
of the bellowing preachers whom he met and detested, then perforce they must
for him be the flags, the symbols, of the
Yet he went on
as a Baptist preacher, as a teacher of ministerial cubs.
And he did love to tread
"Oh, my God, it is so sweet - so
sweet!" he sighed, as he fumbled for her hand and felt it slip confidently into
Suddenly he was ruthless, tearing it all down:
sweet for me, I guess. Sharon, I'm a
I'm not so bad as a preacher, or I wouldn't be if I had the
chance, but me - I'm no good.
I have cut out the
tobacco - for you -
I really have!
But I used to drink like a fish, and till I met you
I never thought any woman except my
mother was any good.
I'm just a second-rate
I came from Paris, Kansas, and I'm not even up to
that hick burg, because they are hard-working and decent there, and I'm not
And you - you're not only a prophetess, which you sure are,
the real big thing, but you're a Falconer.
Family! Old Servants! This old house!
Oh, it's no use!
You're too big for me.
I can't lie to you!"
He had put away her slim hand, but it came creeping back over his, her
fingers tracing the valleys between his knuckles while she murmured:
"You will be big! I'll make you!
Perhaps I'm a prophetess, a
little bit, but I'm also a good liar.
You see. I'm not a Falconer. There
ain't any! My name is Katie Jonas.
I was born in Utica. My dad worked
on a brickyard.
I picked out the name Sharon Falconer while I was a
I never saw this house till two years ago; I never saw
these old family servants till then - they worked for the folks that owned the
place - and even they weren't Falconers - they had the aristocratic name of
Incidentally, this place isn't a quarter paid for.
I am Sharon Falconer
I've made her - by prayer and by having a right to be her!
And you're going to stop being poor Elmer Gantry of Paris, Kansas.
You're going to be the Reverend Dr. Gantry, the great captain of souls!
Oh, I'm glad you don't come from anywhere in particular!
you will serve me - won't you?"
"Forever!" And there was little said
Even the agreement that she was to get rid of Cecil, to make
Elmer her permanent assistant, was reached in a few casual assents.
He was certain that the steely film of her
dominance was withdrawn.
Yet when they went in, she said gaily that
they must be early abed; up early tomorrow; and that she would take ten pounds
off him at tennis.
When he whispered. "Where is your room, sweet?" she
laughed with a chilling impersonality, "You'll never know, poor lamb!"
Elmer the bold, Elmer the enterprising, went clumping off to his room,
and solemnly he undressed, wistfully he stood by the window, his soul riding
out on the darkness to incomprehensible
He jumped into bed and dropped toward sleep, too
weary with fighting her résistance to lie thinking of possible
He heard a tiny scratching noise.
It seemed to him
that it was the doorknob turning.
He sat up, throbbing.
sound was frightened away, but began again, a faint grating, and the bottom of
the door swished slowly on the carpet.
The fan of pale light from the
hall widened and, craning, he could see her, but
only as a ghost, a white
He held out his arms, desperately, and presently she stumbled
Hers was the voice of a
"I just came in to say good-night and tuck you into bed.
Such a bothered unhappy child! Into bed. I'll kiss you good-night and run."
His head burrowed into the pillow. Her hand touched his cheek lightly,
yet through her fingers flowed a current which lulled him into slumber,
a slumber momentary but
deep with contentment.
With effort he said, "You too - you need
comforting, maybe you need bossing, when I get over being scared of you."
"No. I must take
my loneliness alone. I'm different, whether it's cursed or blessed. But -
lonely - yes - lonely."
sharply awake as her fingers
slipped up his cheek, across his temple, into his swart hair. "Your hair is so
thick," she said drowsily.
"Your heart beats so. Dear
Suddenly, clutching his arm, she cried. "Come! It is
bewildered as he followed her, white in her night-gown trimmed at the throat
with white fur, out of his room, down the hall, up a steep little stairway to
her own apartments; the more bewildered to go from that genteel corridor, with
its forget-me-not wallpaper and stiff engravings of Virginia worthies, into a
furnace of scarlet.
Her bedroom was as
insane as an
Oriental cozy corner of 1895 - a couch high on carven ivory
covered with a mandarin coat; unlighted brass lamps in the likeness of mosques
and pagodas; gilt papier-mache armor on the walls; a wide dressing-table with a
score of cosmetics in odd Parisian bottles; tall candlesticks, the
twisted and flowered candles lighted; and
over everything a hint of incense.
She opened a closet, tossed
a robe to him, cried, "For the
service of the altar!" and vanished into a dressing-room beyond.
Diffidently, feeling rather like a fool,
he put on the robe.
It was of purple velvet embroidered with black
symbols unknown to him, the collar heavy with gold thread.
He was not quite sure what he was to do, and
he waited obediently.
stood in the doorway, posing, while he gaped.
She was so tall and
her hands, at her sides, the backs up and the fingers arched, moved like lilies
on the bosom of a stream.
She was fantastic in a robe of
deep crimson adorned with golden stars and crescents, swastikas and tau
crosses; her feet were in silver sandals, and round her hair was
a tiara of silver moons set with
steel points that flickered in the candlelight.
A mist of incense
floated about her, seemed to rise from her, and as she slowly raised her arms
he felt in scboolboyish awe that she was veritably a
Her voice was
under the spell of the
sleep-walker once more as she sighed "Come! It is the chapel!"
marched to a door part-hidden by the couch, and led him into a room.
Now he was no longer part amorous, part inquisitive, but all uneasy.
What hanky-panky of construction had been performed he never knew;
perhaps it was merely that the floor above this small room had been removed so
that it stretched up two stories; but in any case there it was - a shrine
bright as bedlam at the bottom but seeming to rise
through darkness to the sky.
The walls were hung with black velvet;
there were no chairs; and the whole room focused on a wide altar.
was an altar of grotesque humor or
of madness, draped with Chinese
fabrics, crimson, apricot, emerald, gold.
There were two stages of pink
Above the altar hung an
immense crucifix with the Jesus bleeding at nail-wounds and pierced side;
and on the upper stage were plaster bust of the Virgin,
Saint Theresa, Saint
Catherine, a garish Sacred Heart, a dolorous simulacrum of the dying Saint
Crowded on the lower stage was a crazy rout of what Elmer
called heathen idols: ape-headed gods, crocodile-headed gods, a god with three
heads and a god with six arms, a jade-and-ivory Buddha,
an alabaster naked Venus, and
in the center of them all a beautiful, hideous, intimidating and alluring
statuette of a silver goddess with a triple crown and a face as thin and long
and passionate as that of Sharon Falconer.
Before the altar was a long
velvet cushion, very thick and soft.
Here Sharon suddenly knelt, waving
him to his knees, as she cried:
"It is the hour!
Blessed Virgin, Mother Hera,
Mother Frigga, Mother Ishtar, Mother Isis,
dread Mother Astarte of the
weaving arms, it is thy priestess, it is she who after the blind centuries
and the groping years shall make it known to the Earth that ye are one, and
that in me are ye all revealed, and that in this revelation shall come peace
and wisdom universal, the
secret of the spheres and the pit of understanding.
Ye who have leaned
over me and on my lips pressed your immortal fingers, take this my brother to
your bosoms, open his eyes, release his pinioned spirit,
make him as the gods, that with me he may carry the revelation for which
a thousand thousand grievous years
the Earth has panted.
"0 rosy cross and
mystic tower of ivory -
"0 sublime April crescent-
"Hear my prayer.
"0 sword of undaunted steel most
"Hear thou my prayer.
"0 serpent with unfathomable eyes -
"Hear my prayer.
"Ye veiled ones and ye bright ones - from
caves forgotten, the peaks of the future, the clanging today - join in me, lift
up, receive him, dread, nameless ones; yea, lift us then,
mystery on mystery,
sphere above sphere,
dominion on dominion,
to the very
She picked up a
Bible which lay by her on the long velvet cushion at the foot of the altar,
she crammed it into his hands, and cried, "Read - read - quickly!"
It was open at the Song of Solomon, and bewildered he chanted:
"How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, 0 prince's daughter!
The joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work
of a cunning craftsman.
Thy two breasts are like two young
Thy neck is as a tower of ivory.
The hair of thine head
like purple; the king is held in the galleries.
How fair and how
pleasant art thou, 0 compassion, for delights!"
She interrupted him,
her voice high and a little shrill:
"0 mystical rose, 0 lily most
admirable, 0 wondrous union; 0 St. Anna, Mother Immaculate, Demeter, Mother
Beneficent, Lakshmi, Mother Most Shining; behold, I am his and he is yours and
ye are mine !"
As he read on his voice rose
like a triumphant priest:
I will go up to the palm
tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof -"
That verse he never
finished, for she swayed sideways as she knelt before the altar and sank into
his arms, her lips parted.
"Ah-hah, now I've got you, my
If we have that
liberty, why aren't you
willing to stay in the church?
Oh, Frank. Frank, you are such a
I know that you long for
Can't you see that you
can get it best by staying in the church,
liberalizing from within,
instead of running away and leaving the people to the ministrations of the
been thinking just that all these years.
That's why I'm still a
But I'm coming to believe that it's
I'm coming to think
that the hell howling old mossbacks corrupt the honest
liberals more than the
liberals lighten the
back woods minds of the literalists.
What the dickens is the church
Why have a church at all?
"It has this,
It has the
unique personality and teachings of Jesus, and there is something in
Christ, there is something in
the way Jesus spoke, there is something in
the feeling of a man when
he suddenly has that inexpressible experience of knowing the Master and his
presence, which makes the church of Christ different from any other merely
human institution or instrument!
Christ is not simply
greater and wiser than Socrates or
Jesus is entirely different.
teach Socrates or Voltaire - in schools or books or conversation.
To interpret the personality
and teachings of Christ requires an especially called, chosen, trained,
consecrated body of men, united in the church."
"Phil, it sounds so
But just what
were the personality and the teachings of Christ?
I'll admit it's
the heart of the controversy over the Christian religion: - aside from the fact
that, of course, most people
believe in a church because they were born to it.
But the essential
query is: Did Christ - if
the biblical accounts of Christ are even half accurate - have
a particularly noble
personality, and were his teachings particularly original and profound?
You know it's
almost impossible to get people to read the Bible honestly.
been so brought up to take the church interpretation of every word that they
read into it whatever they've been taught to find there."
had been with the Charity Organization Society for 3 years, and he had
become assistant general secretary at the time of the
Dayton evolution trial (Scopes Monkey Trial).
It was at this time that the
brisker conservative clergymen saw that their influence, oratory and incomes
were threatened by any authentic learning.
A few of them were so
intelligent as to know
that not only was biology dangerous to
their positions, but also history - which gave
no very sanctified
reputation to the Christian church;
astronomy - which found no
convenient heaven in the skies and snickered politely at the notion of
making the sun stand still in order to
win a Jewish border skirmish;
psychology - which doubted the
superiority of a Baptist
preacher fresh from the farm to
researchers; and all
the other sciences of the modern university.
They saw that
a proper school should
teach nothing but bookkeeping, agriculture, geometry, dead languages made
deader by leaving out all the amusing
literature, and the Hebrew
Bible as interpreted by men superbly
trained to ignore contradictions.
Laymen formed half a dozen
competent and well-financed organizations to threaten rustic state legislators
with political failure and
bribe them with unctuous
clerical praise, so that these alleyway and backwoods pedagogues would forbid
teaching in all state-supported schools and colleges of
anything which was not approved by the
- Sinclair Lewis, from Elmer
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