Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 2

1

For years the state of sin in which dwelt Elmer Gantry and Jim Lefferts had produced fascinated despair in the Christian hearts of Terwillinger College. No revival but had flung its sulphur-soaked arrows at them — usually in their absence. No prayer at the Y.M.C.A. meetings but had worried over their staggering folly.

Elmer had been known to wince when President the Rev. Dr. Willoughby Quarles was especially gifted with messages at morning chapel, but Jim had held him firm in the faith of unfaith.

Now, Eddie Fislinger, like a prairie seraph, sped from room to room of the elect with the astounding news that Elmer had publicly professed religion, and that he had endured thirty-nine minutes of private adjuration on the train. Instantly started a holy plotting against the miserable sacrificial lamb, and all over Gritzmacher Springs, in the studies of ministerial professors, in the rooms of students, in the small prayer-meeting room behind the chapel auditorium, joyous souls conspired with the Lord against Elmer’s serene and zealous sinning. Everywhere, through the snowstorm, you could hear murmurs of “There is more rejoicing over one sinner who repenteth —”

Even collegians not particularly esteemed for their piety, suspected of playing cards and secret smoking, were stirred to ecstasy — or it may have been snickering. The football center, in unregenerate days a companion of Elmer and Jim but now engaged to marry a large and sanctified Swedish co-ed from Chanute, rose voluntarily in Y.M.C.A. and promised God to help him win Elmer’s favor.

The spirit waxed most fervent in the abode of Eddie Fislinger, who was now recognized as a future prophet, likely, some day, to have under his inspiration one of the larger Baptist churches in Wichita or even Kansas City.

He organized an all-day and all-night prayer-meeting on Elmer’s behalf, and it was attended by the more ardent, even at the risk of receiving cuts and uncivil remarks from instructors. On the bare floor of Eddie’s room, over Knute Halvorsted’s paint-shop, from three to sixteen young men knelt at a time, and no 1800 revival saw more successful wrestling with the harassed Satan. In fact one man, suspected of Holy Roller sympathies, managed to have the jerks, and while they felt that this was carrying things farther than the Lord and the Baptist association would care to see it, added excitement to praying at three o’clock in the morning, particularly as they were all of them extraordinarily drunk on coffee and eloquence.

By morning they felt sure that they had persuaded God to attend to Elmer, and though it is true that Elmer himself had slept quite soundly all night, unaware of the prayer-meeting or of divine influences, it was but an example of the patience of the heavenly powers. And immediately after those powers began to move.

To Elmer’s misery and Jim’s stilled fury, their sacred room was invaded by hordes of men with uncombed locks on their foreheads, ecstasy in their eyes, and Bibles under their arms. Elmer was safe nowhere. No sooner had he disposed of one disciple, by the use of spirited and blasphemous arguments patiently taught to him by Jim, than another would pop out from behind a tree and fall on him.

At his boarding-house — Mother Metzger’s, over on Beech Street — a Y.M.C.A. dervish crowed as he passed the bread to Elmer, “Jever study a kernel of wheat? Swonnerful! Think a wonnerful intricate thing like that created ITSELF? Somebody must have created it. Who? God! Anybody that don’t recognize God in Nature — and acknowledge him in repentance — is DUMM. That’s what he is!”

Instructors who had watched Elmer’s entrance to classrooms with nervous fury now smirked on him and with tenderness heard the statement that he wasn’t quite prepared to recite. The president himself stopped Elmer on the street and called him My Boy, and shook his hand with an affection which, Elmer anxiously assured himself, he certainly had done nothing to merit.

He kept assuring Jim that he was in no danger, but Jim was alarmed, and Elmer himself more alarmed with each hour, each new greeting of: “We need you with us, old boy — the world needs you!”

Jim did well to dread. Elmer had always been in danger of giving up his favorite diversions — not exactly giving them up, perhaps, but of sweating in agony after enjoying them. But for Jim and his remarks about co-eds who prayed in public and drew their hair back rebukingly from egg-like foreheads, one of these sirens of morality might have snared the easy-going pangynistic Elmer by proximity.

A dreadful young woman from Mexico, Missouri, used to coax Jim to “tell his funny ideas about religion,” and go off in neighs of pious laughter, while she choked, “Oh, you’re just too cute! You don’t mean a word you say. You simply want to show off!” She had a deceptive sidelong look which actually promised nothing whatever this side of the altar, and she might, but for Jim’s struggles, have led Elmer into an engagement.

The church and Sunday School at Elmer’s village, Paris, Kansas, a settlement of nine hundred evangelical Germans and Vermonters, had nurtured in him a fear of religious machinery which he could never lose, which restrained him from such reasonable acts as butchering Eddie Fislinger. That small pasty-white Baptist church had been the center of all his emotions, aside from hell-raising, hunger, sleepiness, and love. And even these emotions were represented in the House of the Lord, in the way of tacks in pew-cushions, Missionary suppers with chicken pie and angel’s-food cake, soporific sermons, and the proximity of flexible little girls in thin muslin. But the arts and the sentiments and the sentimentalities — they were for Elmer perpetually associated only with the church.

Except for circus bands, Fourth of July parades, and the singing of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” and “Jingle Bells” in school, all the music which the boy Elmer had ever heard was in church.

The church provided his only oratory, except for campaign speeches by politicians ardent about Jefferson and the price of binding-twine; it provided all his painting and sculpture, except for the portraits of Lincoln, Longfellow, and Emerson in the school-building, and the two china statuettes of pink ladies with gilt flower-baskets which stood on his mother’s bureau. From the church came all his profounder philosophy, except the teachers’ admonitions that little boys who let gartersnakes loose in school were certain to be licked now and hanged later, and his mother’s stream of opinions on hanging up his overcoat, wiping his feet, eating fried potatoes with his fingers, and taking the name of the Lord in vain.

If he had sources of literary inspiration outside the church — in McGuffey’s Reader he encountered the boy who stood on the burning deck, and he had a very pretty knowledge of the Nick Carter Series and the exploits of Cole Younger and the James Boys — yet here too the church had guided him. In Bible stories, in the words of the great hymns, in the anecdotes which the various preachers quoted, he had his only knowledge of literature —

The story of Little Lame Tom who shamed the wicked rich man that owned the handsome team of grays and the pot hat and led him to Jesus. The ship’s captain who in the storm took counsel with the orphaned but righteous child of missionaries in Zomballa. The Faithful Dog who saved his master during a terrific conflagration (only sometimes it was a snowstorm, or an attack by Indians) and roused him to give up horse-racing, rum, and playing the harmonica.

How familiar they were, how thrilling, how explanatory to Elmer of the purposes of life, how preparatory for his future usefulness and charm.

The church, the Sunday School, the evangelistic orgy, choir-practise, raising the mortgage, the delights of funerals, the snickers in back pews or in the other room at weddings — they were as natural, as inescapable a mold of manners to Elmer as Catholic processionals to a street gamin in Naples.

The Baptist Church of Paris, Kansas! A thousand blurred but indestructible pictures.

Hymns! Elmer’s voice was made for hymns. He rolled them out like a negro. The organ-thunder of “Nicæa”:

Holy, holy, holy! all the saints adore thee,

Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.

The splendid rumble of the Doxology. “Throw Out the Lifeline,” with its picture of a wreck pounded in the darkness by surf which the prairie child imagined as a hundred feet high. “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” to which you could without rebuke stamp your feet.

Sunday School picnics! Lemonade and four-legged races and the ride on the hay-rack singing “Seeing Nelly Home.”

Sunday School text cards! True, they were chiefly a medium of gambling, but as Elmer usually won the game (he was the first boy in Paris to own a genuine pair of loaded dice) he had plenty of them in his gallery, and they gave him a taste for gaudy robes, for marble columns and the purple-broidered palaces of kings, which was later to be of value in quickly habituating himself to the more decorative homes of vice. The three kings bearing caskets of ruby and sardonyx. King Zedekiah in gold and scarlet, kneeling on a carpet of sapphire-blue, while his men-at-arms came fleeing and blood-stained, red blood on glancing steel, with tidings of the bannered host of Nebuchadnezzar, great king of Babylon. And all his life Elmer remembered, in moments of ardor, during oratorios in huge churches, during sunset at sea, a black-bearded David standing against raw red cliffs — a figure heroic and summoning to ambition, to power, to domination.

Sunday School Christmas Eve! The exhilaration of staying up, and publicly, till nine-thirty. The tree, incredibly tall, also incredibly inflammable, flashing with silver cords, with silver stars, with cotton-batting snow. The two round stoves red-hot. Lights and lights and lights. Pails of candy, and for every child in the school a present — usually a book, very pleasant, with colored pictures of lambs and volcanoes. The Santa Claus — he couldn’t possibly be Lorenzo Nickerson, the house-painter, so bearded was he, and red-cheeked, and so witty in his comment on each child as it marched up for its present. The enchantment, sheer magic, of the Ladies’ Quartette singing of shepherds who watched their flocks by nights . . . brown secret hilltops under one vast star.

And the devastating morning when the preacher himself, the Rev. Wilson Hinckley Skaggs, caught Elmer matching for Sunday School contribution pennies on the front steps, and led him up the aisle for all to giggle at, with a sharp and not very clean ministerial thumb-nail gouging his ear-lobe.

And the other passing preachers; Brother Organdy, who got you to saw his wood free; Brother Blunt, who sneaked behind barns to catch you on Halloween; Brother Ingle, who was zealous but young and actually human, and who made whistles from willow branches for you.

And the morning when Elmer concealed an alarm clock behind the organ and it went off, magnificently, just as the superintendent (Dr. Prouty, the dentist) was whimpering, “Now let us all be par-TIC-ularly quiet as Sister Holbrick leads us in prayer.”

And always the three chairs that stood behind the pulpit, the intimidating stiff chairs of yellow plush and carved oak borders, which, he was uneasily sure, were waiting for the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

He had, in fact, got everything from the church and Sunday School, except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason.

2

Even had Elmer not known the church by habit, he would have been led to it by his mother. Aside from his friendship for Jim Lefferts, Elmer’s only authentic affection was for his mother, and she was owned by the church.

She was a small woman, energetic, nagging but kindly, once given to passionate caresses and now to passionate prayer, and she had unusual courage. Early left a widow by Logan Gantry, dealer in feed, flour, lumber, and agricultural implements, a large and agreeable man given to debts and whisky, she had supported herself and Elmer by sewing, trimming hats, baking bread, and selling milk. She had her own millinery and dressmaking shop now, narrow and dim but proudly set right on Main Street, and she was able to give Elmer the three hundred dollars a year which, with his summer earnings in harvest field and lumber-yard, was enough to support him — in Terwillinger, in 1902.

She had always wanted Elmer to be a preacher. She was jolly enough, and no fool about pennies in making change, but for a preacher standing up on a platform in a long-tailed coat she had gaping awe.

Elmer had since the age of sixteen been a member in good standing of the Baptist Church — he had been most satisfactorily immersed in the Kayooska River. Large though Elmer was, the evangelist had been a powerful man and had not only ducked him but, in sacred enthusiasm, held him under, so that he came up sputtering, in a state of grace and muddiness. He had also been saved several times, and once, when he had pneumonia, he had been esteemed by the pastor and all visiting ladies as rapidly growing in grace.

But he had resisted his mother’s desire that he become a preacher. He would have to give up his entertaining vices, and with wide-eyed and panting happiness he was discovering more of them every year. Equally he felt lumbering and shamed whenever he tried to stand up before his tittering gang in Paris and appear pious.

It was hard even in college days to withstand his mother. Though she came only to his shoulder, such was her bustling vigor, her swift shrewdness of tongue, such the gallantry of her long care for him, that he was afraid of her as he was afraid of Jim Leffert’s scorn. He never dared honestly to confess his infidelity, but he grumbled, “Oh, gee, Ma, I don’t know. Trouble is, fellow don’t make much money preaching. Gee, there’s no hurry. Don’t have to decide yet.”

And she knew now that he was likely to become a lawyer. Well, that wasn’t so bad, she felt; some day he might go to Congress and reform the whole nation into a pleasing likeness of Kansas. But if he could only have become part of the mysteries that hovered about the communion table —

She had talked him over with Eddie Fislinger. Eddie came from a town twelve miles from Paris. Though it might be years before he was finally ordained as a minister, Eddie had by his home congregation been given a License to Preach as early as his Sophomore year in Terwillinger, and for a month, one summer (while Elmer was out in the harvest fields or the swimming hole or robbing orchards), Eddie had earnestly supplied the Baptist pulpit in Paris.

Mrs. Gantry consulted him, and Eddie instructed her with the divinity of nineteen.

Oh, yes, Brother Elmer was a fine young man — so strong — they all admired him — a little too much tempted by the vain gauds of This World, but that was because he was young. Oh, yes, some day Elmer would settle down and be a fine Christian husband and father and business man. But as to the ministry — no. Mrs. Gantry must not too greatly meddle with these mysteries. It was up to God. A fellow had to have a Call before he felt his vocation for the ministry; a real overwhelming mysterious knock-down Call, such as Eddie himself had ecstatically experienced, one evening in a cabbage patch. No, not think of that. Their task now was to get Elmer into a real state of grace and that, Eddie assured her, looked to him like a good deal of a job.

Undoubtedly, Eddie explained, when Elmer had been baptized, at sixteen, he had felt conviction, he had felt the invitation, and the burden of his sins had been lifted. But he had not, Eddie doubted, entirely experienced salvation. He was not really in a state of grace. He might almost be called unconverted.

Eddie diagnosed the case completely, with all the proper pathological terms. Whatever difficulties he may have had with philosophy, Latin, and calculus, there had never been a time since the age of twelve when Eddie Fislinger had had difficulty in understanding what the Lord God Almighty wanted, and why, all through history, he had acted thus or thus.

“I should be the last to condemn athaletics,” said Eddie. “We must have strong bodies to endure the burden and the sweat of carrying the Gospel to the world. But at the same time, it seems to me that football tends to detract from religion. I’m a little afraid that just at PRESENT Elmer is not in a state of grace. But, oh, Sister, don’t let us worry and travail! Let us trust the Lord. I’ll go to Elmer myself, and see what I can do.”

That must have been the time — it certainly was during that vacation between their Sophomore and Junior years — when Eddie walked out to the farm where Elmer was working, and looked at Elmer, bulky and hayseedy in a sleeveless undershirt, and spoke reasonably of the weather, and walked back again . . . .

Whenever Elmer was at home, though he tried affectionately to live out his mother’s plan of life for him, though without very much grumbling he went to bed at nine-thirty, whitewashed the hen-house, and accompanied her to church, yet Mrs. Gantry suspected that sometimes he drank beer and doubted about Jonah, and uneasily Elmer heard her sobbing as she knelt by her high-swelling, white-counterpaned, old-fashioned bed.

3

With alarmed evangelistic zeal, Jim Lefferts struggled to keep Elmer true to the faith, after his exposure to religion in defending Eddie at Cato.

He was, on the whole, rather more zealous and fatiguing than Eddie.

Nights, when Elmer longed to go to sleep, Jim argued; mornings, when Elmer should have been preparing his history, Jim read aloud from Ingersoll and Thomas Paine.

“How you going to explain a thing like this — how you going to explain it?” begged Jim. “It says here in Deuteronomy that God chased these Yids around in the desert for forty years and their shoes didn’t even wear out. That’s what it SAYS, right in the Bible. You believe a thing like that? And do you believe that Samson lost all his strength just because his gal cut off his hair? Do you, eh? Think hair had anything to do with his strength?”

Jim raced up and down the stuffy room, kicking at chairs, his normally bland eyes feverish, his forefinger shaken in wrath, while Elmer sat humped on the edge of the bed, his forehead in his hands, rather enjoying having his soul fought for.

To prove that he was still a sound and freethinking stalwart, Elmer went out with Jim one evening and at considerable effort, they carried off a small outhouse and placed it on the steps of the Administration Building.

Elmer almost forgot to worry after the affair of Eddie and Dr. Lefferts.

Jim’s father was a medical practitioner in an adjoining village. He was a plump, bearded, bookish, merry man, very proud of his atheism. It was he who had trained Jim in the faith and in his choice of liquor; he had sent Jim to this denominational college partly because it was cheap and partly because it tickled his humor to watch his son stir up the fretful complacency of the saints. He dropped in and found Elmer and Jim agitatedly awaiting the arrival of Eddie.

“Eddie said,” wailed Elmer, “he said he was coming up to see me, and he’ll haul out some more of these proofs that I’m going straight to hell. Gosh, Doctor, I don’t know what’s got into me. You better examine me. I must have anemics or something. Why, one time, if Eddie Fislinger had smiled at me, damn him, think of HIM daring to smile at me! — if he’d said he was coming to my room, I’d of told him, ‘Like hell you will!’ and I’d of kicked him in the shins.”

Dr. Lefferts purred in his beard. His eyes were bright.

“I’ll give your friend Fislinger a run for his money. And for the inconsequential sake of the non-existent Heaven, Jim, try not to look surprised when you find your respectable father being pious.”

When Eddie arrived, he was introduced to a silkily cordial Dr. Lefferts, who shook his hand with that lengthiness and painfulness common to politicians, salesmen, and the godly. The doctor rejoiced:

“Brother Fislinger, my boy here and Elmer tell me that you’ve been trying to help them see the true Bible religion.”

“I’ve been seeking to.”

“It warms my soul to hear you say that, Brother Fislinger! You can’t know what a grief it is to an old man tottering to the grave, to one whose only solace now is prayer and Bible-reading”— Dr. Lefferts had sat up till four a.m., three nights ago, playing poker and discussing biology with his cronies, the probate judge and the English stock-breeder —“what a grief it is to him that his only son, James Blaine Lefferts, is not a believer. But perhaps you can do more than I can, Brother Fislinger. They think I’m a fanatical old fogy. Now let me see — You’re a real Bible believer?”

“Oh, yes!” Eddie looked triumphantly at Jim, who was leaning against the table, his hands in his pockets, as expressionless as wood. Elmer was curiously hunched up in the Morris chair, his hands over his mouth. The doctor said approvingly:

“That’s splendid. You believe every word of it, I hope, from cover to cover?”

“Oh, yes. What I always say is, ‘It’s better to have the whole Bible than a Bible full of holes.’”

“Why, that’s a real thought, Brother Fislinger. I must remember that, to tell any of these alleged higher critics, if I ever meet any! ‘Bible whole — not Bible full of holes.” Oh, that’s a fine thought, and cleverly expressed. You made it up?”

“Well, not exactly.”

“I see, I see. Well, that’s splendid. Now of course you believe in the premillennial coming — I mean the real, authentic, genuwine, immediate, bodily, premillennial coming of Jesus Christ?”

“Oh, yes, sure.”

“And the virgin birth?”

“Oh, you bet.”

“That’s splendid! Of course there are doctors who question whether the virgin birth is quite in accordance with their experience of obstetrics, but I tell those fellows, ‘Look here! How do I know it’s true? Because it says so in the Bible, and if it weren’t true, do you suppose it would say so in the Bible?’ That certainly shuts them up! They have precious little to say after that!”

By this time a really beautiful, bounteous fellowship was flowing between Eddie and the doctor, and they were looking with pity on the embarrassed faces of the two heretics left out in the cold. Dr. Lefferts tickled his beard and crooned:

“And of course, Brother Fislinger, you believe in infant damnation.”

Eddie explained, “No; that’s not a Baptist doctrine.”

“You — you —” The good doctor choked, tugged at his collar, panted and wailed:

“It’s not a Baptist doctrine? You don’t believe in infant damnation?”

“W-why, no —”

“Then God help the Baptist church and the Baptist doctrine! God help us all, in these unregenerate days, that we should be contaminated by such infidelity!” Eddie sweat, while the doctor patted his plump hands and agonized: “Look you here, my brother! It’s very simple. Are we not saved by being washed in the blood of the Lamb, and by that alone, by his blessed sacrifice alone?”

“W-why, yes, but —”

“Then either we ARE washed white, and saved, or else we are not washed, and we are not saved! That’s the simple truth, and all weakenings and explanations and hemming and hawing about this clear and beautiful truth are simply of the devil, brother! And at what moment does a human being, in all his inevitable sinfulness, become subject to baptism and salvation? At two months? At nine years? At sixteen? At forty-seven? At ninety-nine? No! The moment he is born! And so if he be not baptized, then he must burn in hell forever. What does it say in the Good Book? ‘For there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.’ It may seem a little hard of God to fry beautiful little babies, but then think of the beautiful women whom he loves to roast there for the edification of the saints! Oh, brother, brother, now I understand why Jimmy here, and poor Elmer, are lost to the faith! It’s because professed Christians like you give them this emasculated religion! Why, it’s fellows like you who break down the dike of true belief, and open a channel for higher criticism and sabellianism and nymphomania and agnosticism and heresy and Catholicism and Seventh-day Adventism and all those horrible German inventions! Once you begin to doubt, the wicked work is done! Oh, Jim, Elmer, I told you to listen to our friend here, but now that I find him practically a free-thinker —”

The doctor staggered to a chair. Eddie stood gaping.

It was the first time in his life that any one had accused him of feebleness in the faith, of under-strictness. He was smirkingly accustomed to being denounced as over-strict. He had almost as much satisfaction out of denouncing liquor as other collegians had out of drinking it. He had, partly from his teachers and partly right out of his own brain, any number of good answers to classmates who protested that he was old-fashioned in belaboring domino-playing, open communion, listening to waltz music, wearing a gown in the pulpit, taking a walk on Sunday, reading novels, trans-substantiation, and these new devices of the devil called moving — pictures. He could frighten almost any Laodicean. But to be called shaky himself, to be called heretic and slacker — for that inconceivable attack he had no retort.

He looked at the agonized doctor, he looked at Jim and Elmer, who were obviously distressed at his fall from spiritual leadership, and he fled to secret prayer.

He took his grief presently to President Quarles, who explained everything perfectly.

“But this doctor quoted Scripture to prove his point!” bleated Eddie.

“Don’t forget, Brother Fislinger, that ‘the devil can quote Scripture to his purpose.’”

Eddie thought that was a very nice thought and very nicely expressed, and though he was not altogether sure that it was from the Bible, he put it away for future use in sermons. But before he was sufficiently restored to go after Elmer again, Christmas vacation had arrived.

When Eddie had gone, Elmer laughed far more heartily than Jim or his father. It is true that he hadn’t quite understood what it was all about. Why, sure; Eddie had said it right; infant damnation WASN’T a Baptist doctrine; it belonged to some of the Presbyterians, and everybody knew the Presbyterians had a lot of funny beliefs. But the doctor certainly had done something to squelch Eddie, and Elmer felt safer than for many days.

He continued to feel safe up till Christmas vacation. Then —

Some one, presumably Eddie, had informed Elmer’s mother of his new and promising Christian status. He himself had been careful to keep such compromising rumors out of his weekly letters home. Through all the vacation he was conscious that his mother was hovering closer to him than usual, that she was waiting to snatch at his soul if he showed weakening. Their home pastor, the Reverend Mr. Aker — known in Paris as Reverend Aker — shook hands with him at the church door with approval as incriminating as the affection of his instructors at Terwillinger.

Unsupported by Jim, aware that at any moment Eddie might pop in from his neighboring town and be accepted as an ally by Mrs. Gantry, Elmer spent a vacation in which there was but little peace. To keep his morale up, he gave particularly earnest attention to bottle-pool and to the daughter of a nearby farmer. But he was in dread lest these be the last sad ashen days of his naturalness.

It seemed menacing that Eddie should be on the same train back to college. Eddie was with another exponent of piety, and he said nothing to Elmer about the delights of hell, but he and his companion secretly giggled with a confidence more than dismaying.

Jim Lefferts did not find in Elmer’s face the conscious probity and steadfastness which he had expected.

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