Elmer Gantry Evolves

excerpts from Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

Son of a Preacher Man

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 while.

"I think I would. Anyway, no use discouraging these young people from entering the ministry. Somebody got to preach the gospel truth, ain't they!"

"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!"

"I would 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 minister!"

"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'!"

"I am, Hank."

"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.'

We're wonders.

We admit it.

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 unexplainable mysteries!

But I still claim that there are preachers who haven't our holiness.

Why is it that the clergy are so given to sex crimes?"


"I'm glad to hear you say that," marveled Eddie.

"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 on you.

Of course all Presbyterians are half-wits, too, but they have a standard doctrine, and they can trap you into a heresy trial.

But in the Baptist and Methodist churches, man!

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 keep repeating it."

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.

Brother 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 Malachi.

"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 think?"

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) Renali "Jesus," and Coe "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 the grasping gods.

Not for three months did Zechlin admit that he was an agnostic, and 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 satisfactory parable:

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 silk 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 enemy.

Yet he went on as a Baptist preacher, as a teacher of ministerial cubs.

And he did love to tread theological labyrinths.


"Oh, my God, it is so sweet - so sweet!" he sighed, as he fumbled for her hand and felt it slip confidently into his.

Suddenly he was ruthless, tearing it all down:

"To darn' sweet for me, I guess. Sharon, I'm a bum.

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 booze and 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 traveling man.

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 even that.

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 stenographer.

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 Sprugg!

Incidentally, this place isn't a quarter paid for.

I am Sharon Falconer now!

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!

Oh, you will serve me - won't you?"

"Forever!" And there was little said then.

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 destinations.

He jumped into bed and dropped toward sleep, too weary with fighting her résistance to lie thinking of possible tomorrows.

He heard a tiny scratching noise.

It seemed to him that it was the doorknob turning.

He sat up, throbbing.

The 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 film.

He held out his arms, desperately, and presently she stumbled against them.

"No! Please!"

Hers was the voice of a sleep-walker.

"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."

He was 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 Sharon -"

Suddenly, clutching his arm, she cried. "Come! It is The Call!"

He was 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.

She 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 priestess.

Her voice was under the spell of the sleep-walker once more as she sighed "Come! It is the chapel!"

She 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.

It was an altar of grotesque humor or of madness, draped with Chinese fabrics, crimson, apricot, emerald, gold.

There were two stages of pink marble.

Above the altar hung an immense crucifix with Jesus bleeding at nail-wounds and pierced side; and on the upper stage was plaster bust of the Virgin, Saint Theresa, Saint Catherine, a garish Sacred Heart, a dolorous simulacrum of the dying Saint Stephen.

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 -

"Hear my prayer.

"0 sublime April crescent-

"Hear my prayer.

"0 sword of undaunted steel most excellent -

"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 throne!"

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 roes.

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 love, 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 said, 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 logical young friend!

If we have that liberty, why aren't you willing to stay in the church?

Oh, Frank. Frank, you are such a fool!

I know that you long for righteousness.

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 Elmer Gantrys?"

"I know.

I've been thinking just that all these years.

That's why I'm still a preacher!

But I'm coming to believe that it's tommyrot.

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 accomplishing, really?

Why have a church at all?

"It has this, Frank:

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 Voltaire - Jesus is entirely different.

Anybody can interpret and 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 splendid.

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.

They've 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."

Frank 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 trained laboratory observers; 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 evangelists.

It worked edifyingly.

- Sinclair Lewis, from Elmer Gantry

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