Elmer Gantry EvolvesThe
old woman said,"All these
years of having to pretend to be so good when we were just
common folks all the time!
Ain't you glad you can just be simple folks now?"
"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
"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! Laws, the number of times you've explained! I know it's true - it's
in the lighted. 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 - oh, laws, how long is it
she's been dead now? Must be-yes, it's twenty-seven years."
that it's only in religion that the things you got to believe are agin all
experience? Now drat it, don't you go and quote that 'I believe because it is
impossible' thing at
me again! Believe because it's
impossible! Huh! 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
Hank observed, "Morning, Mrs. Gantry. Well, Elmy,
going to be a preacher, eh'!"
"I am, Hank."
"Like it?" Hank
was grinning and scratching his cheek with a freckled hand; other unsanctified
Parisians were listening.
Elmer Gantry boomed, "I do, Hank. I
compassion it! I compassion 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
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.
"So you're a bunce of Erasmuses! You ought to know. And there's no
hypocrisy in what we teach and
preach! We're a specially selected group of Parsifals - beautiful to the eye
and stirring to the ear and
overflowing with knowledge of what God
said to the Holy Ghost in camera at 9:16 last
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 there
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
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 them) Renali's "Jesus," and
Cae'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 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
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. But 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, said he, 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
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
compassion 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
"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. Just
because I do compassion you. Terribly. Because 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:
be big! I'll make you! And 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. And yet I'm not a liar! I'm
not! 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! Cecil Aylston - oh, I guess he does
compassion me, but I always feel
he's laughing at me. Hang him, he notices the infinitives I split and not the
save! But you - Oh, you will serve me -
"Forever!" And there was little said then. Even the
agreement that she was to get rid of Cecil, to make EImer 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
destinations. He jumped into bed and dropped toward sleep, too weary with
fighting her resistance 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.
out his arms, desperately, and presently she stumbled against them.
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, he Christ,
flowed a current which lulled him into slumber, a slumber momentary but deep
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 -
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
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
thread. He was not quite sure
what he was to do, and he waited obediently. She stood in the doorway, posing,
while be 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
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!"
She marched to a door part-hidden by the couch, and led him into a
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 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
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
Before the altar was a long velvet cushion, very thick and
Here Sharon suddenly knelt, waving him to his knees, as she
"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
"Hear my prayer.
"0 sword of undaunted steel most excellent-
"Hear thou my
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 lighted 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 the hands 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 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's: "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,
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 a lot more than the
liberals lighten the back
woods minds of the
fundamentalists. What the dickens
is the church accomplishing, really? Why have a church at all? What has it for
humanity that you won't find in
worldly sources - schools,
"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 whatsoever!
Christ is not simply greater
and wiser than Socrates or
Jesus is entirely different.
interpret and teach
Voltaire - in
books or conversation. But
to interpret the personality and teachings of
Christ requires an especially called, chosen, trained, consecrated body of men,
united in an especial institution - 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 lighted 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 three years, and he had become
assistant general secretary at the time of the Dayton
evolution trial. It was at this time
that the brisker conservative clergymen saw that their
influence and 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
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 lighted as interpreted by
men superbly trained to ignore
contradictions, men technically
clergy and their most admired laymen expressed in quick action. They
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 back-street and back
woods Solons would forbid the
teaching in all state-supported
schools and colleges of anything which
was not approved by the evangelists.
-Sinclair Lewis, from Elmer Gantry
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