Elmer Gantry EvolvesThe 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
"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!"
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
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."
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
We admit it.
And people actually
sit and listen to us, and don't choke!
I suppose they're overwhelmed by
And we have to have nerve, or we'd never dare to stand in a
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.
Why is it that the clergy are so
given to sex crimes?"
"I'm 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 on you.
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 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 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
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,
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 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
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 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
Sharon Falconer now!
I've made her - by prayer and by having a right to
And you're going to stop being poor Elmer Gantry of Paris,
You're going to be the Reverend Dr. Gantry, the great captain
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
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
He jumped into bed and dropped
toward sleep, too weary with fighting her résistance to lie thinking of
He heard a tiny scratching noise.
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
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,
momentary but deep with
With effort he said, "You too -
you need comforting, maybe you need bossing,
when I get over being scared of you."
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 Sharon -"
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
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!"
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
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
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
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
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
logical young friend!
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
Can't you see that you can get it best by staying in the church,
within, instead of running away and leaving the people to the ministrations
of the Elmer Gantrys?"
I've been thinking just
that all these years.
That's why I'm still a preacher!
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
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
what were the personality and the teachings of Christ?
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.
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."
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 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.
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
It worked edifyingly.
- Sinclair Lewis, from
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