Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 21

1

With women Elmer had always considered himself what he called a “quick worker,” but the properties of the ministry, the delighted suspicion with which the gossips watched a preacher who went courting, hindered his progress with Cleo. He could not, like the young blades in town, walk with Cleo up the railroad tracks or through the willow-shaded pasture by Banjo River. He could hear ten thousand Methodist elders croaking, “Avoid the vurry APPEARANCE of evil.”

He knew that she was in love with him — had been ever since she had first seen him, a devout yet manly leader, standing by the pulpit in the late light of summer afternoon. He was certain that she would surrender to him whenever he should demand it. He was certain that she had every desirable quality. And yet —

Oh, somehow, she did not stir him. Was he afraid of being married and settled and monogamic? Was it simply that she needed awakening? How could he awaken her when her father was always in the way?

Whenever he called on her, old Benham insisted on staying in the parlor. He was, strictly outside of business hours, an amateur of religion, fond of talking about it. Just as Elmer, shielded by the piano, was ready to press Cleo’s hand, Benham would lumber up and twang, “What do you think, Brother? Do you believe salvation comes by faith or works?”

Elmer made it all clear — muttering to himself, “Well, you, you old devil, with that cut-throat store of yours, you better get into Heaven on faith, for God knows you’ll never do it on works!”

And when Elmer was about to slip out to the kitchen with her to make lemonade, Benham held him by demanding, “What do you think of John Wesley’s doctrine of perfection?”

“Oh, it’s absolutely sound and proven,” admitted Elmer, wondering what the devil Mr. Wesley’s doctrine of perfection might be.

It is possible that the presence of the elder Benhams, preventing too close a communion with Cleo, kept Elmer from understanding what it meant that he should not greatly have longed to embrace her. He translated his lack of urgency into virtue; and went about assuring himself that he was indeed a reformed and perfected character . . . and so went home and hung about the kitchen, chattering with little Jane Clark in pastoral jokiness.

Even when he was alone with Cleo, when she drove him in the proud Benham motor for calls in the country, even while he was volubly telling himself how handsome she was, he was never quite natural with her.

2

He called on an evening of late November, and both her parents were out, attending Eastern Star. She looked dreary and red-eyed. He crowed benevolently while they stood at the parlor door, “Why, Sister Cleo, what’s the matter? You look kind of sad.”

“Oh, it’s nothing —”

“Come on now! Tell me! I’ll pray for you, or beat somebody up, whichever you prefer!”

“Oh, I don’t think you ought to joke about — Anyway, it’s really nothing.”

She was staring at the floor. He felt buoyant and dominating, so delightfully stronger than she. He lifted her chin with his forefinger, demanding, “Look up at me now!”

In her naked eyes there was such shameful, shameless longing for him that he was drawn. He could not but slip his arm around her, and she dropped her head on his shoulder, weeping, all her pride gone from her. He was so exalted by the realization of his own power that he took it for passion, and suddenly he was kissing her, conscious of the pale fineness of her skin, her flattering yielding to him; suddenly he was blurting, “I’ve loved you, oh, terrible, ever since the first second I saw you!”

As she sat on his knee, as she drooped against him unresisting, he was certain that she was very beautiful, altogether desirable.

The Benhams came home — Mrs. Benham to cry happily over the engagement, and Mr. Benham to indulge in a deal of cordial back-slapping, and such jests as, “Well, by golly, now I’m going to have a real live preacher in the family, guess I’ll have to be so doggone honest that the store won’t hardly pay!”

3

His mother came on from Kansas for the wedding, in January. Her happiness in seeing him in his pulpit, in seeing the beauty and purity of Cleo — and the prosperity of Cleo’s father — was such that she forgot her long dragging sorrow in his many disloyalties to the God she had given him, in his having deserted the Baptist sanctuary for the dubious, the almost agnostic liberalisms of the Methodists.

With his mother present, with Cleo going about roused to a rosy excitement, with Mrs. Benham mothering everybody and frantically cooking, with Mr. Benham taking him out to the back-porch and presenting him with a check for five thousand dollars, Elmer had the feeling of possessing a family, of being rooted and solid and secure.

For the wedding there were scores of cocoanut cakes and hundreds of orange blossoms, roses from a real city florist in Sparta, new photographs for the family album, a tub of strictly temperance punch and beautiful but modest lingerie for Cleo. It was tremendous. But Elmer was a little saddened by the fact that there was no one whom he wanted for best man; no one who had been his friend since Jim Lefferts.

He asked Ray Faucett, butter-maker at the creamery and choir-singer in the church, and the village was flattered that out of the hundreds of intimates Elmer must have in the great world outside, he should have chosen one of their own boys.

They were married, during a half blizzard, by the district superintendent. They took the train for Zenith, to stop overnight on their way to Chicago.

Not till he was on the train, the shouting and the rice-showers over, did Elmer gasp to himself, looking at Cleo’s rather unchanging smile, “Oh, good God, I’ve gone and tied myself up, and I never can have any fun again!”

But he was very manly, gentlemanly in fact; he concealed his distaste for her and entertained her with an account of the beauties of Longfellow.

4

Cleo looked tired, and toward the end of the journey, in the winter evening, with the gale desolate, she seemed scarce to be listening to his observations on graded Sunday School lessons, the treatment of corns, his triumphs at Sister Falconer’s meetings, and the inferiority of the Reverend Clyde Tippey.

“Well, you might pay a LITTLE attention to me, anyway!” he snarled.

“Oh, I’m sorry! I really was paying attention. I’m just tired — all the preparations for the wedding and everything.”

She looked at him beseechingly. “Oh, Elmer, you must take care of me! I’m giving myself to you entirely — oh, completely.”

“Huh! So you look at it as a SACRIFICE to marry me, do you!”

“Oh, no, I didn’t mean it that way —”

“And I suppose you think I don’t intend to take care of you! Sure! Prob’ly I stay out late nights and play cards and gamble and drink and run around after women! Of course! I’m not a minister of the gospel — I’m a saloon-keeper!”

“Oh, dear, dear, dear, oh, my dearest, I didn’t mean to hurt you! I just meant — You’re so strong, and big, and I’m — oh, of course I’m not a tiny little thing, but I haven’t got your strength.”

He enjoyed feeling injured, but he was warning himself, “Shut up, you chump! You’ll never educate her to make love if you go bawling her out.”

He magnanimously comforted her: “Oh, I know. Of course, you poor dear. Fool thing anyway, your mother having this big wedding, and all the eats and the relatives coming in and everything.”

And with all this, she still seemed distressed.

But he patted her hand, and talked about the cottage they were going to furnish in Banjo Crossing; and as he thought of the approaching Zenith, of their room at the O’Hearn House (there was no necessity for a whole suite, as formerly, when he had had to impress his Prosperity pupils), he became more ardent, whispered to her that she was beautiful, stroked her arm till she trembled.

5

The bell-boy had scarcely closed the door of their room, with its double bed, when he had seized her, torn off her overcoat, with its snow-wet collar, and hurled it on the floor. He kissed her throat. When he had loosened his clasp, she retreated, the back of her hand fearfully at her lips, her voice terrified as she begged, “Oh, don’t! Not now! I’m afraid!”

“That’s damned nonsense!” he raged, stalking her as she backed away.

“Oh, no, please!”

“Say, what the devil do you think marriage is?”

“Oh, I’ve never heard you curse before!”

“My God, I wouldn’t, if you didn’t act so’s it’d try the patience of a saint on a monument!” He controlled himself. “Now, now, now! I’m sorry! Guess I’m kind of tired, too. There, there, little girl. Didn’t mean to scare you. Excuse me. Just showed I was crazy in love with you, don’t you see?”

To his broad and apostolic smirk she responded with a weak smile, and he seized her again, laid his thick hand on her breast. Between his long embraces, though his anger at her limpness was growing, he sought to encourage her by shouting, “Come on now, Clee, show some spunk!”

She did not forbid him again; she was merely a pale acquiescence — pale save when she flushed unhappily as he made fun of the old-fashioned, long-sleeved nightgown which she timidly put on in the indifferent privacy of the bathroom.

“Gee, you might as well wear a gunny-sack!” he roared, holding out his arms. She tried to look confident as she slowly moved toward him. She did not succeed.

“Fellow OUGHT to be brutal, for her own sake,” he told himself, and seized her shoulders.

When he awoke beside her and found her crying, he really did have to speak up to her.

“You look here now! The fact you’re a preacher’s wife doesn’t keep you from being human! You’re a fine one to teach brats in Sunday School!” he said, and many other strong spirited things, while she wept, her hair disordered round her meek face, which he hated.

6

The discovery that Cleo would never be a lively lover threw him the more into ambition when they had returned to Banjo Crossing.

Cleo, though she was unceasingly bewildered by his furies, found something of happiness in furnishing their small house, arranging his books, adoring his pulpit eloquence, and in receiving, as the Pastor’s Wife, homage even from her old friends. He was able to forget her, and all his thought went to his holy climbing. He was eager for the Annual Conference, in spring; he had to get on, to a larger town, a larger church.

He was bored by Banjo Crossing. The life of a small-town preacher, prevented from engaging even in the bucolic pleasures, is rather duller than that of a watchman at a railroad-crossing.

Elmer hadn’t actually, enough to do. Though later, in “institutional churches” he was to be as hustling as any other business man, now he had not over twenty hours a week of real activity. There were four meetings every Sunday, if he attended Sunday School and Epworth League as well as church; there was prayer-meeting on Wednesday evening, choir practise on Friday, the Ladies’ Aid and the Missionary Society every fortnight or so, and perhaps once a fortnight a wedding, a funeral. Pastoral calls took not over six hours a week. With the aid of his reference books, he could prepare his two sermons in five hours — and on weeks when he felt lazy, or the fishing was good, that was three hours more than he actually took.

In the austerities of the library Elmer was indolent, but he did like to rush about, meet people, make a show of accomplishment. It wasn’t possible to accomplish much in Banjo. The good villagers were content with Sunday and Wednesday-evening piety.

But he did begin to write advertisements for his weekly services — the inception of that salesmanship of salvation which was to make him known and respected in every advertising club and forward-looking church in the country. The readers of notices to the effect that services would be held, as usual, at the Banjo Valley Pioneer were startled to find among the Presbyterian Church, the Disciples Church, the United Brethren Church, the Baptist Church, this advertisement:

WAKE UP, MR. DEVIL!

If old Satan were as lazy as some would-be Christians in this burg, we’d all be safe. But he isn’t! Come out next Sunday, 10:30 A.M. and hear a red-blooded sermon by Rev. Gantry on

WOULD JESUS PLAY POKER?
M. E. Church

He improved his typewriting, and that was a fine thing to do. The Reverend Elmer Gantry’s powerful nature had been cramped by the slow use of a pen; it needed the gallop of the keys; and from his typewriter were increasingly to come floods of new moral and social gospels.

In February he held two weeks’ of intensive evangelistic meetings. He had in a traveling missioner, who wept, and his wife, who sang. Neither of them, Elmer chuckled privily, could compare with himself, who had worked with Sharon Falconer. But they were new to Banjo Crossing, and he saw to it that it was himself who at the climax of hysteria charged down into the frightened mob and warned them that unless they came up and knelt in subjection, they might be snatched to hell before breakfast.

There were twelve additions to the church, and five renewals of faith on the part of backsliders, and Elmer was able to have published in the Western Christian Advocate a note which carried his credit through all the circles of the saints:

The church at Banjo Crossing has had a remarkable and stirring revival under Brother T. R. Feesels and Sister Feesels, the singing evangelist, assisted by the local pastor, Reverend Gantry, who was himself formerly in evangelistic work as assistant to the late Sharon Falconer. A great outpouring of the spirit and far-reaching results are announced, with many uniting with the church.

He also, after letting the town know how much it added to his burdens, revived and every week for two weeks personally supervised a Junior Epworth League — the juvenile department of that admirable association of young people whose purpose is, it has itself announced, to “take the WRECK out of recreation and make it re-creation.”

He had a note from Bishop Toomis hinting that the bishop had most gratifying reports from the district superintendent about Elmer’s “diligent and genuinely creative efforts” and hinting that at the coming Annual Conference, Elmer would be shifted to a considerably larger church.

“Fine!” glowed Elmer. “Gosh, I’ll be glad to get away. These rubes here get about as much out of high-class religion, like I give them, as a fleet of mules!”

7

Ishuah Rogers was dead, and they were holding his funeral at the Methodist Church. As farmer, as store-keeper, as post-master, he had lived all his seventy-nine years in Banjo Crossing.

Old J. F. Whittlesey was shaken by Ishuah’s death. They had been boys together, young men together, neighbors on the farm, and in his last years, when Ishuah was nearly blind and living with his daughter Jenny, J. F. Whittlesey had come into town every day to spend hours sitting with him on the porch, wrangling over Blaine and Grover Cleveland. Whittlesey hadn’t another friend left alive. To drive past Jenny’s now and not see old Ishuah made the world empty.

He was in the front row at the church; he could see his friend’s face in the open coffin. All of Ishuah’s meanness and fussiness and care was wiped out; there was only the dumb nobility with which he had faced blizzard and August heat, labor and sorrow; only the heroic thing Whittlesey had loved in him.

And he would not see Ishuah again, ever.

He listened to Elmer, who, his eyes almost filled at the drama of the church full of people mourning their old friend, lulled them with Revelation’s triumphant song:

These are they that come out of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God; and they serve him day and night in his temple; and he that sitteth on the throne shall spread his tabernacle over them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun strike upon them, nor any heat; for the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them unto fountains of waters of life: and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes.

They sang, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and Elmer led the singing, while old Whittlesey tried to pipe up with them.

They filed past the coffin. When Whittlesey had this last moment’s glimpse of Ishuah’s sunken face, his dry eyes were blind, and he staggered.

Elmer caught him with his great arms, and whispered, “He has gone to his glory, to his great reward! Don’t let’s sorrow for him!”

In Elmer’s confident strength old Whittlesey found reassurance. He clung to him, muttering, “God bless you, Brother,” before he hobbled out.

8

“You were wonderful at the funeral today! I’ve never seen you so sure of immortality,” worshiped Cleo, as they walked home.

“Yuh, but they don’t appreciate it — not even when I said about how this old fellow was a sure-enough hero. We got to get on to some burg where I’ll have a chance.”

“Don’t you think God’s in Banjo Crossing as much as in a city?”

“Oh, now, Cleo, don’t go and get religious on me! You simply can’t understand how it takes it out of a fellow to do a funeral right and send ’em all home solaced. You may find God here, but you don’t find the salaries!”

He was not angry with Cleo now, nor bullying. In these two months he had become indifferent to her; indifferent enough to stop hating her and to admire her conduct of the Sunday School, her tactful handling of the good sisters of the church when they came snooping to the parsonage.

“I think I’ll take a little walk,” he muttered when they reached home.

He came to the Widow Clark’s house, where he had lived as bachelor.

Jane was out in the yard, the March breeze molding her skirt about her; rosy face darker and eyes more soft as she saw the pastor hailing her, magnificently raising his hat.

She fluttered toward him.

“You folks ever miss me? Guess you’re glad to get rid of the poor old preacher that was always cluttering up the house!”

“We miss you awfully!”

He felt his whole body yearning toward her. Hurriedly he left her and wished he hadn’t left her, and hastened to get himself far from the danger to his respectability. He hated Cleo again now, in an injured, puzzled way.

“I think I’ll sneak up to Sparta this week,” he fumed, then: “No! Conference coming in ten days; can’t take any chances till after that.”

9

The Annual Conference, held in Sparta, late in March. The high time of the year, when the Methodist preachers of half a dozen districts met together for prayer and rejoicing, to hear of the progress of the Kingdom and incidentally to learn whether they were to have better jobs this coming year.

The bishop presiding — Wesley R. Toomis, himself — with his district superintendents, grave and bustling.

The preachers, trying to look as though prospective higher salaries were unworthy their attention.

Between meetings they milled about in the large auditorium of the Preston Memorial Methodist Church: visiting laymen and nearly three hundred ministers.

Veteran country parsons, whiskered and spectacled, rusty-coated and stooped, still serving two country churches, or three or four; driving their fifty miles a week; content for reading with the Scriptures and the weekly Advocate.

New-fledged country preachers, their large hands still calloused from plow-handle and reins, content for learning with two years of high school, content with the Old Testament for history and geology.

The preachers of the larger towns; most of them hard to recognize as clerics, in their neat business suits and modest four-inhands; frightfully cordial one to another; perhaps a quarter of them known as modernists and given to reading popular manuals of biology and psychology; the other three-quarters still devoted to banging the pulpit apropos of Genesis.

But moving through these masses, easily noticeable, the inevitable successes: the district superintendents, the pastors of large city congregations, the conceivable candidates for college presidencies, mission-boards, boards of publication, bishoprics.

They were not all of them leonine and actor-like, these staff officers. No few were gaunt, or small, wiry, spectacled, and earnest; but they were all admirable politicians, long in memory of names, quick to find flattering answers. They believed that the Lord rules everything, but that it was only friendly to help him out; and that the enrollment of political allies helped almost as much as prayer in becoming known as suitable material for lucrative pastorates.

Among these leaders were the Savonarolas, gloomy fellows, viewing the progress of machine civilization with biliousness; capable of drawing thousands of auditors by their spicy but chaste denunciations of burglary, dancing, and show-windows filled with lingerie.

Then the renowned liberals, preachers who filled city tabernacles or churches in university towns by showing that skipping whatever seemed unreasonable in the Bible did not interfere with considering it all divinely inspired, and that there are large moral lessons in the paintings of Landseer and Rosa Bonheur.

Most notable among the aristocrats were a certain number of large, suave, deep-voiced, inescapably cordial clerical gentlemen who would have looked well in Shakespearean productions or as floor-walkers. And with them was presently to be found the Reverend Elmer Gantry.

He was a new-comer, he was merely hoping to have the Conference recognize his credentials and accept him as a member, and he had only a tiny church, yet from somewhere crept the rumor that he was a man to be watched, to be enrolled in one’s own political machine; and he was called “Brother” by a pastor whose sacred rating was said to be not less than ten thousand a year. They observed him; they conversed with him not only on the sacraments but on automobiles and the use of pledge envelopes; and as they felt the warmth of his handshake, as they heard the amiable bim-bom of his voice, saw his manly eyes, untroubled by doubts or scruples, and noted that he wore his morning clothes as well as any spiritual magnate among them, they greeted him and sought him out and recognized him as a future captain of the hosts of the Almighty.

Cleo’s graciousness added to his prestige.

For three whole days before bringing her up to the Conference, Elmer had gone out of his way to soothe her, flatter her, assure her that whatever misunderstandings they might have had, all was now a warm snugness of domestic bliss, so that she was eager, gently deferential to the wives of older pastors as she met them at receptions at hotels.

Her obvious admiration of Elmer convinced the better clerical politicians of his domestic safeness.

And they knew that he had been sent for by the bishop — oh, they knew it! Nothing that the bishop did in these critical days was not known. There were many among the middle-aged ministers who had become worried over prolonged stays in small towns, and who wanted to whisper to the bishop how well they would suit larger opportunities. (The list of appointments had already been made out by the bishop and his council, yet surely it could be changed a little — just the least bit.) But they could not get near him. Most of the time the bishop was kept hidden from them at the house of the president of Winnemac Wesleyan University.

But he sent for Elmer, and even called him by his first name.

“You see, Brother Elmer, I was right! The Methodist Church just suits you,” said the bishop, his eyes bright under his formidable brows. “I am able to give you a larger church already. It wouldn’t be cricket, as the English say — ah, England! how you will enjoy going there some time; you will find such a fruitful source of the broader type of sermons in travel; I know that you and your lovely bride — I’ve had the pleasure of having her pointed out to me — you will both know the joy and romance of travel one of these days. But as I was saying: I can give you a rather larger town this time, though it wouldn’t be proper to tell you which one till I read the list of appointments to the Conference. And in the near future, if you continue as you have in your studies and attention to the needs of our flock and in your excellence of daily living, which the district superintendent has noted, why, you’ll be due for a MUCH larger field of service. God bless you!”

10

Elmer was examined by the Conference and readily admitted to membership.

Among the questions, from the Discipline, which he was able to answer with a hearty “yes” were these:

Are you going on to perfection?

Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?

Are you earnestly striving after it?

Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?

Have you considered the Rules for a Preacher, especially those relating to Diligence, to Punctuality, and to Doing the Work to which you are assigned?

Will you recommend fasting or diligence, both by precept and example?


It was, the Conference members said, one to another, a pleasure to examine a candidate who could answer the questions with such ringing certainty.


Celebrating his renunciation of all fleshy devices and pleasures by wolfing a steak, fried onions, fried potatoes, corn, three cups of coffee, and two slices of apple pie with ice cream, Elmer condescended to Cleo, “I went through a-whooping! Liked to of seen any of those poor boobs I was with in the seminary answer up like I did!”

11

They listened to reports on collections for missions, on the creation of new schools and churches; they heard ever so many prayers; they were polite during what were known as “inspirational addresses” by the bishop and the Rev. Dr. S. Palmer Shootz. But they were waiting for the moment when the bishop should read the list of appointments.

They looked as blank as they could, but their nails creased their palms as the bishop rose. They tried to be loyal to their army, but this lean parson thought of the boy who was going to college, this worried-faced youngster thought of the operation for his wife, this aged campaigner whose voice had been failing wondered whether he would be kept on in his well-padded church.

The bishop’s snappy voice popped:

Sparta District:
Albee Center, W. A. Vance
Ardmore, Abraham Mundon —

And Elmer listened with them, suddenly terrified.

What did the bishop mean by a “rather larger town”? Some horrible hole with twelve hundred people?

Then he startled and glowed, and his fellow priests nodded to him in congratulation, as the bishop read out “Rudd Center, Elmer Gantry.”

For there were forty-one hundred people in Rudd Center; it was noted for good works and a large pop factory; and he was on his way to greatness, to inspiring the world and becoming a bishop.

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