Might Elmer Gantry Tell the Truth?

Elesha Coffman

In preparation for my paper on Billy Graham and media at the upcoming Wheaton conference, I have been reading Sinclair Lewis's satirical 1927 novel Elmer Gantry. And before you ask, no, I'm not about to do a hatchet job on Graham at his alma mater. Gantry, the quintessential phony preacher, comes up in my paper because Graham dropped his name in several of his press conferences. To find out why this was significant, you'll either have to join us in Wheaton or read the collected essays when they're published.

Anyway, I've been enjoying the novel quite a bit, though not in the way Lewis presumably intended. The book follows Elmer, a Kansas bumpkin, through Terwillinger College, Mizpah Seminary, and a short, disastrous pastorate before hooking him up with Sharon Falconer, a caricature of Aimee Semple McPherson. Throughout, the sound of Lewis grinding his ax against Christianity is nearly deafening--much what you would expect of a book dedicated, "with profound admiration," to H.L. Mencken. The tone of the novel, then, is familiar and gets rather tedious. Yet I keep learning things as I read it that I wish I had thought about while writing on The Christian Century and the early Protestant mainline.

For example, chapter 5 of the novel describes the ordination of Elmer and a fellow seminarian. It begins,
In the cottonwood grove by the muddy river, three miles west of Paris, Kansas, the godly were gathered with lunch-baskets, linen dusters, and moist unhappy babies for the all-day celebration. Brothers Elmer Gantry and Edward Fislinger had been licensed to preach before, but now they were to be ordained as full-fledged preachers, as Baptist ministers.
They had come home from distant Mizpah Theological Seminary for ordination by their own council of churches, the Kayooska River Baptist Association. Both of them had another year to go out of the three-year seminary course, but by the more devout and rural brethren it is considered well to ordain the clerics early, so that even before they attain infallible wisdom they may fill backwoods pulpits and during week-ends do good works with divine authority.
I knew from reading the autobiography of Century editor Charles Clayton Morrison that ministry frequently began before a preacher held terminal credentials. And I knew from numerous letters written by Century readers to Morrison in 1928 that making the transition from seminary to parish was difficult, that the pastorate could be lonely, and that clergy (especially rural clergy) often felt estranged from their congregations. But I never had such an evocative vision of these disjunctures, complete with "moist unhappy babies," before Elmer Gantry. I think I would have read some of my archival sources differently with such a vision in mind.

Two chapters later, Elmer sits down to dinner with the deacon of the small church his seminary dean has appointed him to for the benefits of ministerial experience and $10 a Sunday. Expecting that the young preacher wishes to have a spiritual conversation, the deacon asks,
"Say, Brother Gantry," said Mr. Bains, "what Baptist paper do you like best for home reading? I tried the Watchman-Examiner for a while, but don't seem to me it lambastes the Campbellites like it ought to, or gives the Catholics what-for, like a real earnest Christian sheet ought to. I've started taking the Word and Way. Now there's a mighty sound paper that don't mince matters none, and written real elegant--just suits me. It tells you straight out from the shoulder that if you don't believe in the virgin birth and the resurrection, atonement, and immersion, then it don't make no difference about your so-called good works and charity and all that, because you're doomed and bound to go straight to hell, and not no make-believe hell, either, but a real gosh-awful turble bed of sure-enough coals! Yes, sir!"
Again, I knew from reading old church papers, and from reading secondary literature about them, that they included quite a lot of theological pugilism. But I had assumed, based on the sheer volume of theological content in these papers and on the Century's persistent struggle to attract lay readership, that laypeople weren't all that interested in reading about doctrine. If they subscribed to their denominational papers, I figured they read for the uplifting fiction or the newsy notes about church programs. The majority of lay readers might have fit my description, but the possibility of a Mr. Bains shifts some of my thinking about the correlation of magazine content and readership. Articles that I read as limiting the Century's reach might actually have expanded it.

So, without commending Lewis's prejudices, I commend Elmer Gantry. In addition to offering students books they might enjoy reading, throwing such a novel into the teaching mix might help train their (and our) assumptions about religious history in ways that monographs and even primary sources don't. I have not yet seen the 1960 movie version, so I don't know if it would work just as well, but it does star a young Burt Lancaster, and that might be reason enough to check it out.


Chas S. Clifton said…
Do see the movie, but understand that it concentrates on the Sharon Falconer section of the book and truncates much of the rest.
Unknown said…
True fact: Elmer Gantry was based on the Rev. Bill Stidger and another Kansas City minister, a philanderer named Burchard. Although I've several times read books erroneously claiming he was based on Billy Sunday.

Wish I could hear your paper!

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