Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 13

1

Not till December did Sharon Falconer take Elmer on as assistant.

When she discharged Cecil Aylston, he said, in a small cold voice, “This is the last time, my dear prophet and peddler, that I shall ever try to be decent.” But it is known that for several months he tried to conduct a rescue mission in Buffalo, and if he was examined for insanity, it was because he was seen to sit for hours staring. He was killed in a gambling den in Juarez, and when she heard of it Sharon was very sorry — she spoke of going to fetch his body, but she was too busy with holy work.

Elmer joined her at the beginning of the meetings in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He opened the meetings for her, made announcements, offered prayer, preached when she was too weary, and led the singing when Adelbert Shoop, the musical director, was indisposed. He developed a dozen sound sermons out of encyclopedias of exegesis, handbooks for evangelists, and manuals of sermon outlines. He had a powerful discourse, used in the For Men Only service, on the strength and joy of complete chastity; he told how Jim Leffingwell saw the folly of pleasure at the death-bed of his daughter; and he had an uplifting address, suitable to all occasions, on Love as the Morning and the Evening Star.

He helped Sharon where Cecil had held her back — or so she said. While she kept her vocabulary of poetic terms, Elmer managed her in just the soap-box denunciation of sin which had made Cecil shudder. Also he spoke of Cecil as “Osric,” which she found very funny indeed, and as “Percy,” and “Algernon.” He urged her to tackle the biggest towns, the most polite or rowdy audiences, and to advertise herself not in the wet-kitten high-church phrases approved by Cecil but in a manner befitting a circus, an Elks’ convention, or a new messiah.

Under Elmer’s urging she ventured for the first time into the larger cities. She descended on Minneapolis and, with the support only of such sects as the Full Gospel Assembly, the Nazarenes, the Church of God, and the Wesleyan Methodists, she risked her savings in hiring an armory and inserting two-column six-inch advertisements of herself.

Minneapolis was quite as enlivened as smaller places by Sharon’s voice and eyes, by her Grecian robes, by her gold-and-white pyramidal altar, and the profits were gratifying. Thereafter she sandwiched Indianapolis, Rochester, Atlanta, Seattle, the two Portlands, Pittsburgh, in between smaller cities.

For two years life was a whirlwind to Elmer Gantry.

It was so frantic that he could never remember which town was which. Everything was a blur of hot sermons, writhing converts, appeals for contributions, trains, denunciation of lazy personal workers, denunciations of Adelbert Shoop for getting drunk, firing of Adelbert Shoop, taking back of Adelbert Shoop when no other tenor so unctuously pious was to be found.

Of one duty he was never weary: of standing around and being impressive and very male for the benefit of lady seekers. How tenderly he would take their hands and moan, “Won’t you hear the dear Savior’s voice calling, Sister?” and all of them, spinsters with pathetic dried girlishness, misunderstood wives, held fast to his hand and were added to the carefully kept total of saved souls. Sharon saw to it that he dressed the part — double-breasted dark blue with a dashing tie in winter, and in summer white suits with white shoes.

But however loudly the skirts rustled about him, so great was Sharon’s intimidating charm that he was true to her.

If he was a dervish figure those two years, she was a shooting star; inspired in her preaching, passionate with him, then a naughty child who laughed and refused to be serious even at the sermon hour; gallantly generous, then a tight-fisted virago squabbling over ten cents for stamps. Always, in every high-colored mood, she was his religion and his reason for being.

2

When she attacked the larger towns and asked for the support of the richer churches, Sharon had to create several new methods in the trade of evangelism. The churches were suspicious of women evangelists — women might do very well in visiting the sick, knitting for the heathen, and giving strawberry festivals, but they couldn’t shout loud enough to scare the devil out of sinners. Indeed all evangelists, men and women, were under attack. Sound churchmen here and there were asking whether there was any peculiar spiritual value in frightening people into groveling maniacs. They were publishing statistics which asserted that not ten per cent of the converts at emotional revival meetings remained church-members. They were even so commercial as to inquire why a pastor with a salary of two thousand dollars a year — when he got it — should agonize over helping an evangelist to make ten thousand, forty thousand.

All these doubters had to be answered. Elmer persuaded Sharon to discharge her former advance-agent — he had been a minister and contributor to the religious press, till the unfortunate affair of the oil stock — and hire a real press-agent, trained in newspaper work, circus advertising, and real-estate promoting. It was Elmer and the press-agent who worked up the new technique of risky but impressive defiance.

Where the former advance-man had begged the ministers and wealthy laymen of a town to which Sharon wanted to be invited to appreciate her spirituality, and had sat nervously about hotels, the new salesman of salvation was brusque:

“I can’t waste my time and the Lord’s time waiting for you people to make up your minds. Sister Falconer is especially interested in this city because she has been informed that there is a subterranean quickening here such as would simply jam your churches, with a grand new outpouring of the spirit, provided some real expert like her came to set the fuse alight. But there are so many other towns begging for her services that if you can’t make up your minds immediately, we’ll have to accept their appeals and pass you up. Sorry. Can only wait till midnight. Tonight. Reserved my Pullman already.”

There were ever so many ecclesiastical bodies who answered that they didn’t see why he waited even till midnight, but if they were thus intimidated into signing the contract (an excellent contract, drawn up by a devout Christian Scientist lawyer named Finkelstein) they were the more prepared to give spiritual and financial support to Sharon’s labors when she did arrive.

The new press-agent was finally so impressed by the beauties of evangelism, as contrasted with his former circuses and real estate, that he was himself converted, and sometimes when he was in town with the troupe, he sang in the choir and spoke to Y.M.C.A. classes in journalism. But even Elmer’s arguments could never get him to give up a sturdy, plodding devotion to poker.

3

The contract signed, the advance-man remembered his former newspaper labors, and for a few days became touchingly friendly with all the reporters in town. There were late parties at his hotel; there was much sending of bell-boys for more bottles of Wilson and White Horse and Green River. The press-agent admitted that he really did think that Miss Falconer was the greatest woman since Sarah Bernhardt, and he let the boys have stories, guaranteed held exclusive, of her beauty, the glories of her family, her miraculous power of fetching sinners or rain by prayer, and the rather vaguely dated time when, as a young girl, she had been recognized by Dwight Moody as his successor.

South of the Mason and Dixon line her grandfather was merely Mr. Falconer, a bellicose and pious man, but far enough north he was General Falconer of Ole Virginny — preferably spelled that way — who had been the adviser and solace of General Robert E. Lee. The press-agent also wrote the posters for the Ministerial Alliance, giving Satan a generous warning as to what was to happen to him.

So when Sharon and the troupe arrived, the newspapers were eager, the walls and shop-windows were scarlet with placards, and the town was breathless. Sometimes a thousand people gathered at the station for her arrival.

There were always a few infidels, particularly among the reporters, who had doubted her talents, but when they saw her in the train vestibule, in a long white coat, when she had stood there a second with her eyes closed, lost in prayer for this new community, when slowly she held out her white nervous hands in greeting — then the advance-agent’s work was two-thirds done here and he could go on to whiten new fields for the harvest.

But there was still plenty of discussion before Sharon was rid of the forces of selfishness and able to get down to the job of spreading light.

Local committees were always stubborn, local committees were always jealous, local committees were always lazy, and local committees were always told these facts, with vigor. The heat of the arguments was money.

Sharon was one of the first evangelists to depend for all her profit not on a share of the contributions nor on a weekly offering, but on one night devoted entirely to a voluntary “thank offering,” for her and her crew alone. It sounded unselfish and it brought in more; every devotee saved up for that occasion; and it proved easier to get one fifty-dollar donation than a dozen of a dollar each. But to work up this lone offering to suitably thankful proportions, a great deal of loving and efficient preparation was needed — reminders given by the chief pastors, bankers, and other holy persons of the town, the distribution of envelopes over which devotees were supposed to brood for the whole six weeks of the meetings, and innumerable newspaper paragraphs about the self-sacrifice and heavy expenses of the evangelists.

It was over these innocent necessary precautions that the local committees always showed their meanness. They liked giving over only one contribution to the evangelist, but they wanted nothing said about it till they themselves had been taken care of — till the rent of the hall or the cost of building a tabernacle, the heat, the lights, the advertising, and other expenses had been paid.

Sharon would meet the committee — a score of clergymen, a score of their most respectable deacons, a few angular Sunday School superintendents, a few disapproving wives — in a church parlor, and for the occasion she always wore the gray suit and an air of metropolitan firmness, and swung a pair of pince-nez with lenses made of window-glass. While in familiar words the local chairman was explaining to her that their expenses were heavy, she would smile as though she knew something they could not guess, then let fly at them breathlessly:

“I’m afraid there is some error here! I wonder if you are quite in the mood to forget all material things and really throw yourselves into the self-abnegating glory of a hot campaign for souls? I know all you have to say — as a matter of fact, you’ve forgotten to mention your expenses for watchmen, extra hymn books, and hiring camp-chairs!

“But you haven’t the experience to appreciate MY expenses! I have to maintain almost as great a staff — not only workers and musicians but all my other representatives, whom you never see — as though I had a factory. Besides them, I have my charities. There is, for example, the Old Ladies’ Home, which I keep up entirely — oh, I shan’t say anything about it, but if you could see those poor aged women turning to me with such anxious faces —!”

(Where that Old Ladies’ Home was, Elmer never learned.)

“We come here without any guarantee, we depend wholly upon the free-will offering of the last day; and I’m afraid you’re going to stress the local expenses so that people will not feel like giving on the last day even enough to pay the salaries of my assistants. I’m taking — if it were not that I abominate the pitiful and character-destroying vice of gambling, I’d say that I’m taking such a terrible gamble that it frightens me! But there it is, and —”

While she was talking, Sharon was sizing up this new assortment of clergy: the cranks, the testy male old maids, the advertising and pushing demagogues, the commonplace pulpit-job-holders, the straddling young liberals; the real mystics, the kindly fathers of their flocks, the lovers of righteousness. She had picked out as her advocate the most sympathetic, and she launched her peroration straight at him:

“Do you want to ruin me, so that never again shall I be able to carry the message, to carry salvation, to the desperate souls who are everywhere waiting for me, crying for my help? Is that your purpose — you, the elect, the people chosen to help me in the service of the dear Lord Jesus himself? Is that your purpose? Is it? Is it?”

She began sobbing, which was Elmer’s cue to jump up and have a wonderful idea.

He knew, did Elmer, that the dear brethren and sisters had no such purpose. They just wanted to be practical. Well, why wouldn’t it be a good notion for the committee to go to the well-to-do church members and explain the unparalleled situation; tell them that this was the Lord’s work, and that aside from the unquestioned spiritual benefits, the revival would do so much good that crime would cease, and taxes thus be lessened; that workmen would turn from agitation to higher things, and work more loyally at the same wages. If they got enough pledges from the rich for current expenses, those expenses would not have to be stressed at the meetings, and people could properly be coaxed to save up for the final “thank offering”; not have to be nagged to give more than small coins at the nightly collections.

There were other annoyances to discuss with the local committee. Why, Elmer would demand, hadn’t they provided enough dressing-rooms in the tabernacle? Sister Falconer needed privacy. Sometimes just before the meeting she and he had to have important conferences. Why hadn’t they provided more volunteer ushers? He must have them at once, to train them, for it was the ushers, when properly coached, who would ease struggling souls up to the altar for the skilled finishing touches by the experts.

Had they planned to invite big delegations from the local institutions — from Smith Brothers’ Catsup Factory, from the car-shops, from the packing house? Oh, yes, they must plan to stir up these institutions; an evening would be dedicated to each of them, the representatives would be seated together, and they’d have such a happy time singing their favorite hymns.

By this time, a little dazed, the local committee were granting everything; and they looked almost convinced when Sharon wound up with a glad ringing:

“All of you must look forward, and joyfully, to a sacrifice of time and money in these meetings. We have come here at a great sacrifice, and we are here only to help you.”

4

The afternoon and evening sermons — those were the high points of the meetings, when Sharon cried in a loud voice, her arms out to them, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not,” and “All our righteousness is as filthy rags,” and “We have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” and “Oh, for the man to arise in me, that the man I am may cease to be,” and “Get right with God,” and “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation.”

But before even these guaranteed appeals could reach wicked hearts, the audience had to be prepared for emotion, and to accomplish this there was as much labor behind Sharon’s eloquence as there is of wardrobes and scene-shifters and box offices behind the frenzy of Lady Macbeth. Of this preparation Elmer had a great part.

He took charge, as soon as she had trained him, of the men personal workers, leaving the girls to the Director of Personal Work, a young woman who liked dancing and glass jewelry but who was admirable at listening to the confessions of spinsters. His workers were bank-tellers, bookkeepers in wholesale groceries, shoe clerks, teachers of manual training. They canvassed shops, wholesale warehouses, and factories, and held noon meetings in offices, where they explained that the most proficient use of shorthand did not save one from the probability of hell. For Elmer explained that prospects were more likely to be converted if they came to the meetings with a fair amount of fear.

When they were permitted, the workers were to go from desk to desk, talking to each victim about the secret sins he was comfortably certain to have. And both men and women workers were to visit the humbler homes and offer to kneel and pray with the floury and embarrassed wife, the pipe-wreathed and shoeless husband.

All the statistics of the personal work — so many souls invited to come to the altar, so many addresses to workmen over their lunch-pails, so many cottage prayers, with the length of each — were rather imaginatively entered by Elmer and the Director of Personal Work on the balance-sheet which Sharon used as a report after the meetings and as a talking-point for the sale of future meetings.

Elmer met daily with Adelbert Shoop, that yearning and innocent tenor who was in charge of music, to select hymns. There were times when the audiences had to be lulled into confidence by “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” times when they were made to feel brotherly and rustic with “It’s the Old-time Religion”—

It was good for Paul and Silas

And it’s good enough for me —

and times when they had to be stirred by “At the Cross” or “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Adelbert had ideas about what he called “worship by melody,” but Elmer saw that the real purpose of singing was to lead the audience to a state of mind where they would do as they were told.

He learned to pick out letters on the typewriter with two fingers, and he answered Sharon’s mail — all of it that she let him see. He kept books for her, in a ragged sufficient manner, on check-book stubs. He wrote the nightly story of her sermons, which the newspapers cut down and tucked in among stories of remarkable conversions. He talked to local church-pillars so rich and moral that their own pastors were afraid of them. And he invented an aid to salvation which to this day is used in the more evangelistic meetings, though it is credited to Adelbert Shoop.

Adelbert was up to most of the current diversions. He urged the men and the women to sing against each other. At the tense moment when Sharon was calling for converts, Adelbert would skip down the aisle, fat but nimble, pink with coy smiles, tapping people on the shoulder, singing the chorus of a song right among them, and often returning with three or four prisoners of the sword of the Lord, flapping his plump arms and caroling “They’re coming — they’re coming,” which somehow started a stampede to the altar.

Adelbert was, in his girlish enthusiasm, almost as good as Sharon or Elmer at announcing, “Tonight, you are all of you to be evangelists. Every one of you now! Shake hands with the person to your right and ask ’em if they’re saved.”

He gloated over their embarrassment.

He really was a man of parts. Nevertheless, it was Elmer, not Adelbert, who invented the “Hallelujah Yell.”

Remembering his college cheers, remembering how greatly it had encouraged him in kneeing the opposing tackle or jabbing the rival center’s knee, Elmer observed to himself, “Why shouldn’t we have yells in this game, too?”

He himself wrote the first one known in history.

Hallelujah, praise God, hal, hal, hal!

Hallelujah, praise God, hal, hal, hal!

All together, I feel better,

Hal, hal, hal,

For salvation of the nation —

Aaaaaaaaaaa — MEN!

That was a thing to hear, when Elmer led them; when he danced before them, swinging his big arms and bellowing, “Now again! Two yards to gain! Two yards for the Savior! Come on, boys and girls, it’s our team! Going to let ’em down? Not on your life! Come on then, you chipmunks, and lemme hear you knock the ole roof off! Hal, hal, hal!”

Many a hesitating boy, a little sickened by the intense brooding femininity of Sharon’s appeal, was thus brought up to the platform to shake hands with Elmer and learn the benefits of religion.

5

The gospel crew could never consider their converts as human beings, like waiters or manicurists or brakemen, but they had in them such a professional interest as surgeons take in patients, critics in an author, fishermen in trout.

They were obsessed by the gaffer in Terre Haute who got converted every single night during the meetings. He may have been insane and he may have been a plain drunk, but every evening he came in looking adenoidal and thoroughly backslidden; every evening he slowly woke to his higher needs during the sermon; and when the call for converts came, he leaped up, shouted “Hallelujah, I’ve found it!” and galloped forward, elbowing real and valuable prospects out of the aisle. The crew waited for him as campers for a mosquito.

In Scranton, they had unusually exasperating patients. Scranton had been saved by a number of other evangelists before their arrival, and had become almost anesthetic. Ten nights they sweated over the audience without a single sinner coming forward, and Elmer had to go out and hire half a dozen convincing converts.

He found them in a mission near the river, and explained that by giving a good example to the slothful, they would be doing the work of God, and that if the example was good enough, he would give them five dollars apiece. The missioner himself came in during the conference and offered to get converted for ten, but he was so well known that Elmer had to give him the ten to stay away.

His gang of converts was very impressive, but thereafter no member of the evangelistic troupe was safe. The professional Christians besieged the tent night and day. They wanted to be saved again. When they were refused, they offered to produce new converts at five dollars apiece — three dollars apiece — fifty cents and a square meal. By this time enough authentic and free enthusiasts were appearing, and though they were fervent, they did not relish being saved in company with hoboes who smelled. When the half dozen cappers were thrown out, bodily, by Elmer and Art Nichols, they took to coming to the meetings and catcalling, so that for the rest of the series they had to be paid a dollar a night each to stay away.

No, Elmer could not consider the converts human. Sometimes when he was out in the audience, playing the bullying hero that Judson Roberts had once played with him, he looked up at the platform, where a row of men under conviction knelt with their arms on chairs and their broad butts toward the crowd, and he wanted to snicker and wield a small plank. But five minutes after he would be up there, kneeling with a sewing-machine agent with the day-after shakes, his arm round the client’s shoulder, pleading in the tones of a mother cow, “Can’t you surrender to Christ, Brother? Don’t you want to give up all the dreadful habits that are ruining you — keeping you back from success? Listen! God’ll help you make good! And when you’re lonely, old man, remember he’s there, waiting to talk to you!”

6

They generally, before the end of the meetings, worked up gratifying feeling. Often young women knelt panting, their eyes blank, their lips wide with ecstasy. Sometimes, when Sharon was particularly fired, they actually had the phenomena of the great revivals of 1800. People twitched and jumped with the holy jerks, old people under pentecostal inspiration spoke in unknown tongues — completely unknown; women stretched out senseless, their tongues dripping; and once occurred what connoisseurs regard as the highest example of religious inspiration. Four men and two women crawled about a pillar, barking like dogs, “barking the devil out of the tree.”

Sharon relished these miracles. They showed her talent; they were sound manifestations of Divine Power. But sometimes they got the meetings a bad name, and cynics prostrated her by talking of “Holy Rollers.” Because of this maliciousness and because of the excitement which she found in meetings so favored by the Holy Ghost, Elmer had particularly to comfort her after them.

7

All the members of the evangelistic crew planned effects to throw a brighter limelight on Sharon. There was feverish discussions of her costumes. Adelbert had planned the girdled white robe in which she appeared as priestess, and he wanted her to wear it always. “You are so queeeeenly,” he whimpered. But Elmer insisted on changes, on keeping the robe for crucial meetings, and Sharon went out for embroidered golden velvet frocks, and, at meetings for business women, smart white flannel suits.

They assisted her also in the preparation of new sermons.

Her “message” was delivered under a hypnotism of emotion, without connection with her actual life. Now Portia, now Ophelia, now Francesca, she drew men to her, did with them as she would. Or again she saw herself as veritably the scourge of God. But however richly she could pour out passion, however flamingly she used the most exotic words and the most complex sentiments when some one had taught them to her, it was impossible for her to originate any sentiment more profound than “I’m unhappy.”

She read nothing, after Cecil Aylston’s going, but the Bible and the advertisements of rival evangelists in the bulletin of the Moody Bible Institute.

Lacking Cecil, it was a desperate and cooperative affair to furnish Sharon with fresh sermons as she grew tired of acting the old ones. Adelbert Shoop provided the poetry. He was fond of poetry. He read Ella Wheeler Wilcox, James Whitcomb Riley, and Thomas Moore. He was also a student of philosophy: he could understand Ralph Waldo Trine perfectly, and he furnished for Sharon’s sermons both the couplets about Home and Little Ones, and the philosophical points about will-power, Thoughts are Things, and Love is Beauty, Beauty is Love, Love is All.

The Lady Director of Personal Work had unexpected talent in making up anecdotes about the death-beds of drunkards and agnostics; Lily Anderson, the pretty though anemic pianist, had once been a school teacher and had read a couple of books about scientists, so she was able to furnish data with which Sharon absolutely confuted the rising fad of evolution; and Art Nichols, the cornetist, provided rude but moral Maine humor, stories about horse-trading, cabbages, and hard cider, very handy for cajoling skeptical business men. But Elmer, being trained theologically, had to weave all the elements — dogma, poetry to the effect that God’s palette held the sunsets or ever the world began, confessions of the dismally damned, and stories of Maine barn-dances — into one ringing whole.

And meanwhile, besides the Reverend Sister Falconer and the Reverend Mr. Gantry, thus cooperative, there were Sharon and Elmer and a crew of quite human people with grievances, traveling together, living together, not always in a state of happy innocence.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38