Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 23

1

He did not stand by the altar now, uplifted in a vow that he would be good and reverent. He was like the new general manager of a factory as he bustled for the first time through the Wellspring Methodist Church, Zenith, and his first comment was “The plant’s run down — have to buck it up.”

He was accompanied on his inspection by his staff: Miss Bundle, church secretary and personal secretary to himself, a decayed and plaintive lady distressingly free of seductiveness; Miss Weezeger, the deaconess, given to fat and good works; and A. F. Cherry, organist and musical director, engaged only on part time.

He was disappointed that the church could not give him a pastoral assistant or a director of religious education. He’d have them, soon enough — and boss them! Great!

He found an auditorium which would hold sixteen hundred people but which was offensively gloomy in its streaky windows, its brown plaster walls, its cast-iron pillars. The rear wall of the chancel was painted a lugubrious blue scattered with stars which had ceased to twinkle; and the pulpit was of dark oak, crowned with a foolish, tasseled, faded green velvet cushion. The whole auditorium was heavy and forbidding; the stretch of empty brown-grained pews stared at him dolorously.

“Certainly must have been a swell bunch of cheerful Christians that made this layout! I’ll have a new church here in five years — one with some pep to it, and Gothic fixin’s and an up-to-date educational and entertainment plant,” reflected the new priest.

The Sunday School rooms were spacious enough, but dingy, scattered with torn hymn books; the kitchen in the basement, for church suppers, had a rusty ancient stove and piles of chipped dishes. Elmer’s own study and office was airless, and looked out on the flivver-crowded yard of a garage. And Mr. Cherry said the organ was rather more than wheezy.

“Oh, well,” Elmer conferred with himself afterward, “what do I care! Anyway, there’s plenty of room for the crowds, and believe me, I’m the boy can drag ’em in! . . . God, what a frump that Bundle woman is! One of these days I’ll have a smart girl secretary — a good-looker. Well, hurray, ready for the big work! I’ll show this town what high-class preaching is!”

Not for three days did he chance to think that Cleo might also like to see the church.

2

Though there were nearly four hundred thousand people in Zenith and only nine hundred in Banjo Crossing, Elmer’s reception in the Zenith church-basement was remarkably like his reception in the Banjo basement. There were the same rugged, hard-handed brothers, the same ample sisters renowned for making doughnuts, the same brisk little men given to giggling and pious jests. There were the same homemade ice cream and homemade oratory. But there were five times as many people as at the Banjo reception, and Elmer was ever a lover of quantity. And among the transplanted rustics were several prosperous professional men, several well-gowned women, and some pretty girls who looked as though they went to dancing school, Discipline or not.

He felt cheerful and loving toward them — his, as he pointed out to them, “fellow crusaders marching on resolutely to achievement of the Kingdom of God on earth.”

It was easy to discover which of the members present from the Official Board of the church were most worth his attentions. Mr. Ernest Apfelmus, one of the stewards, was the owner of the Gem of the Ocean Pie and Cake Corporation. He looked like a puffy and bewildered urchin suddenly blown up to vast size; he was very rich, Miss Bundle whispered; and he did not know how to spend his money except on his wife’s diamonds and the cause of the Lord. Elmer paid court to Mr. Apfelmus and his wife, who spoke quite a little English.

Not so rich but even more important, Elmer guessed, was T. J. Rigg, the famous criminal lawyer, a trustee of Wellspring Church.

Mr. Rigg was small, deep-wrinkled, with amused and knowing eyes. He would be, Elmer felt instantly, a good man with whom to drink. His wife’s face was that of a girl, round and smooth and blue-eyed, though she was fifty and more, and her laughter was lively.

“Those are folks I can shoot straight with,” decided Elmer, and he kept near them.

Rigg hinted, “Say, Reverend, why don’t you and your good lady come up to my house after this, and we can loosen up and have a good laugh and get over this sewing-circle business.”

“I’d certainly like to.” As he spoke Elmer was considering that if he was really to loosen up, he could not have Cleo about. “Only, I’m afraid my wife has a headache, poor girl. We’ll just send her along home and I’ll come with you.”

“After you shake hands a few thousand more times!”

“Exactly!”

Elmer was edified to find that Mr. Rigg had a limousine with a chauffeur — one of the few in which Elmer had yet ridden. He did like to have his Christian brethren well heeled. But the sight of the limousine made him less chummy with the Riggses, more respectful and unctuous, and when they had dropped Cleo at the hotel, Elmer leaned gracefully back on the velvet seat, waved his large hand poetically, and breathed, “Such a welcome the dear people gave me! I am so grateful! What a real outpouring of the spirit!”

“Look here,” sniffed Rigg, “you don’t have to be pious with us! Ma and I are a couple of old dragoons. We like religion; like the good old hymns — takes us back to the hick town we came from; and we believe religion is a fine thing to keep people in order — they think of higher things instead of all these strikes and big wages and the kind of hell-raising that’s throwing the industrial system all out of kilter. And I like a fine upstanding preacher that can give a good show. So I’m willing to be a trustee. But we ain’t pious. And any time you want to let down — and I reckon there must be times when a big cuss like you must get pretty sick of listening to the sniveling sisterhood! — you just come to us, and if you want to smoke or even throw in a little jolt of liquor, as I’ve been known to do, why we’ll understand. How about it, Ma?”

“You bet!” said Mrs. Rigg. “And I’ll go down to the kitchen, if cook isn’t there, and fry you a couple of eggs, and if you don’t tell the rest of the brethren, there’s always a couple of bottles of beer on the ice. Like one?”

“WOULD I!” cheered Elmer. “You bet I would! Only — I cut out drinking and smoking quite a few years ago. Oh, I had my share before that! But I stopped, absolute, and I’d hate to break my record. But you go right ahead. And I want to say that it’ll be a mighty big relief to have some folks in the church that I can talk to without shocking ’em half to death. Some of these holier-than-thou birds — Lord, they won’t let a preacher be a human being!”

The Rigg house was large, rather faded, full of books which had been read — history, biography, travels. The smaller sitting-room, with its log fire and large padded chairs, looked comfortable, but Mrs. Rigg shouted, “Oh, let’s go out to the kitchen and shake up a welsh rabbit! I love to cook, and I don’t dast till after the servants go to bed.”

So his first conference with T. J. Rigg, who became the only authentic friend Elmer had known since Jim Lefferts, was held at the shiny white-enamel-topped table in the huge kitchen, with Mrs. Rigg stalking about, bringing them welsh rabbit, with celery, cold chicken, whatever she found in the ice box.

“I want your advice, Brother Rigg,” said Elmer. “I want to make my first sermon here something sen — well, something that’ll make ’em sit up and listen. I don’t have to get the subject in for the church ads till tomorrow. Now what do you think of some pacifism?”

“Eh?”

“I know what you think. Of course during the war I was just as patriotic as anybody — Four–Minute Man, and in another month I’d of been in uniform. But honest, some of the churches are getting a lot of kick out of hollering pacifism now the war’s all safely over — some of the biggest preachers in the country. But far’s I’ve heard, nobody’s started it here in Zenith yet, and it might make a big sensation.”

“Yes, that’s so, and course it’s perfectly all right to adopt pacifism as long as there’s no chance for another war.”

“Or do you think — you know the congregation here — do you think a more dignified and kind of you might say poetic expository sermon would impress ’em more? Or what about a good, vigorous, right-out-from-the-shoulder attack on vice? You know, booze and immorality — like short skirts — by golly, girls’ skirts getting shorter every year!”

“Now that’s what I’d vote for,” said Rigg. “That’s what gets ’em. Nothing like a good juicy vice sermon to bring in the crowds. Yes, sir! Fearless attack on all this drinking and this awful sex immorality that’s getting so prevalent.” Mr. Rigg meditatively mixed a highball, keeping it light because next morning in court he had to defend a lady accused of running a badger game. “You bet. Some folks say sermons like that are just sensational, but I always tell ’em: once the preacher gets the folks into the church that way — and mighty few appreciate how hard it is to do a good vice sermon; jolt ’em enough and yet not make it too dirty — once you get in the folks, then you can give ’em some good, solid, old-time religion and show ’em salvation and teach ’em to observe the laws and do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, ‘stead of clock-watching like my doggone clerks do! Yep, if you ask me, try the vice. . . . Oh, say, Ma, do you think the Reverend would be shocked by that story about the chambermaid and the traveling man that Mark was telling us?”

Elmer was not shocked. In fact he had another droll tale himself.

He went home at one.

“I’ll have a good time with those folks,” he reflected, in the luxury of a taxicab. “Only, better be careful with old Rigg. He’s a shrewd bird, and he’s onto me. . . . Now what do you mean?” indignantly. “What do you mean by ‘onto me’? There’s nothing to be onto! I refused a drink and a cigar, didn’t I? I never cuss except when I lose my temper, do I? I’m leading an absolutely Christian life. And I’m bringing a whale of a lot more souls into churches than any of these pussy-footing tin saints that’re afraid to laugh and jolly people. ‘Onto me’ nothing!”

3

On Saturday morning, on the page of religious advertisements in the Zenith newspapers, Elmer’s first sermon was announced in a two-column spread as dealing with the promising problem: “Can Strangers Find Haunts of Vice in Zenith?”

They could, and with gratifying ease, said Elmer in his sermon. He said it before at least four hundred people, as against the hundred who had normally been attending.

He himself was a stranger in Zenith, and he had gone forth and he had been “appalled — aghast — bowed in shocked horror” at the amount of vice, and such interesting and attractive vice. He had investigated Braun’s Island, a rackety beach and dance floor and restaurant at South Zenith, and he had found mixed bathing. He described the ladies’ legs; he described the two amiable young women who had picked him up. He told of the waiter who, though he denied that Braun’s restaurant itself sold liquor, had been willing to let him know where to get it, and where to find an all-night game of poker —“and, mind you, playing poker for keeps, you understand,” Elmer explained.

On Washington Avenue, North, he had found two movies in which “the dreadful painted purveyors of putrescent vice”— he meant the movie actors — had on the screen danced “suggestive steps which would bring the blush of shame to the cheeks of any decent woman,” and in which the same purveyors had taken drinks which he assumed to be the deadly cocktails. On his way to his hotel after these movies three ladies of the night had accosted him, right under the White Way of lights. Street-corner loafers — he had apparently been very chummy with them — had told him of blind pigs, of dope-peddlers, of strange lecheries.

“That,” he shouted, “is what one stranger was able to find in your city — now MY city, and well beloved! But could he find virtue so easily, could he, could he? Or just a lot of easygoing churches, lollygagging along, while the just God threatens this city with the fire and devouring brimstone that destroyed proud Sodom and Gomorrah in their abominations! Listen! With the help of God Almighty, let us raise here in this church a standard of virtue that no stranger can help seeing! We’re lazy. We’re not burning with a fever of righteousness. On your knees, you slothful, and pray God to forgive you and to aid you and me to form a brotherhood of helpful, joyous, fiercely righteous followers of every commandment of the Lord Our God!”

The newspapers carried almost all of it. . . . It had just happened that there were reporters present — it had just happened that Elmer had been calling up the Advocate–Times on Saturday — it had just happened that he remembered he had met Bill Kingdom, the Advocate reporter, in Sparta — it had just happened that to help out good old Bill he had let him know there would be something stirring in the church, come Sunday.

The next Saturday Elmer advertised “Is There a Real Devil Sneaking Around with Horns and Hoofs?” On Sunday there were seven hundred present. Within two months Elmer was preaching, ever more confidently and dramatically, to larger crowds than were drawn by any other church in Zenith except four or five.

But, “Oh, he’s just a new sensation — he can’t last out — hasn’t got the learning and staying-power. Besides, Old Town is shot to pieces,” said Elmer’s fellow vinters — particularly his annoyed fellow Methodists.

4

Cleo and he had found a gracious old house in Old Town, to be had cheap because of the ragged neighborhood. He had hinted to her that since he was making such a spiritual sacrifice as to take a lower salary in coming to Zenith, her father, as a zealous Christian, ought to help them out; and if she should be unable to make her father perceive this, Elmer would regretfully have to be angry with her.

She came back from a visit to Banjo Crossing with two thousand dollars.

Cleo had an instinct for agreeable furniture. For the old house, with its white mahogany paneling, she got reproductions of early New England chairs and commodes and tables. There was a white-framed fireplace and a fine old crystal chandelier in the living — room.

“Some class! We can entertain the bon ton here, and, believe me, I’ll soon be having a lot of ’em coming to church! . . . Sometimes I do wish, though, I’d gone out for the Episcopal Church. Lots more class there, and they don’t beef if a minister takes a little drink,” he said to Cleo.

“Oh, Elmer, how CAN you! When Methodism stands for —”

“Oh, God, I do wish that just once you wouldn’t deliberately misunderstand me! Here I was just carrying on a philosophical discussion, and not speaking personal, and you go and —”

His house in order, he gave attention to clothes. He dressed as calculatingly as an actor. For the pulpit, he continued to wear morning clothes. For his church study, he chose offensively inoffensive lounge suits, gray and brown and striped blue, with linen collars and quiet blue ties. For addresses before slightly boisterous lunch-clubs, he went in for manly tweeds and manly soft collars, along with his manly voice and manly jesting.

He combed his thick hair back from his strong, square face, and permitted it to hang, mane-like, just a bit over his collar. But it was still too black to be altogether prophetic.

The two thousand was gone before they had been in Zenith a month.

“But it’s all a good investment,” he said. “When I meet the Big Bugs, they’ll see I may have a dump of a church in a bum section but I can put up as good a front as if I were preaching on Chickasaw Road.”

5

If in Banjo Crossing Elmer had been bored by inactivity, in Zenith he was almost exhausted by the demands.

Wellspring Church had been carrying on a score of institutional affairs, and Elmer doubled them, for nothing brought in more sympathy, publicity, and contributions. Rich old hyenas who never went to church would ooze out a hundred dollars or even five hundred when you described the shawled mothers coming tearfully to the milk station.

There were classes in manual training, in domestic science, in gymnastics, in bird study, for the poor boys and girls of Old Town. There were troops of Boy Scouts, of Camp Fire Girls. There were Ladies’ Aid meetings, Women’s Missionary Society meetings, regular church suppers before prayer-meeting, a Bible Training School for Sunday School teachers, a sewing society, nursing and free food for the sick and poor, half a dozen clubs of young men and women, half a dozen circles of matrons, and a Men’s Club with monthly dinners, for which the pastor had to snare prominent speakers without payment. The Sunday School was like a small university. And every day there were dozens of callers who asked the pastor for comfort, for advice, for money — young men in temptation, widows wanting jobs, old widows wanting assurance of immortality, hoboes wanting hand-outs, and eloquent book-agents. Where in Banjo the villagers had been shy to expose their cancerous sorrows, in the city there were always lonely people who reveled in being a little twisted, a little curious, a little shameful; who yearned to talk about themselves and who expected the pastor to be forever interested.

Elmer scarce had time to prepare his sermons, though he really did yearn now to make them original and eloquent. He was no longer satisfied to depend on his barrel. He wanted to increase his vocabulary; he was even willing to have new ideas, lifted out of biology and biography and political editorials.

He was out of the house daily at eight in the morning — usually after a breakfast in which he desired to know of Cleo why the deuce she couldn’t keep Nat and Bunny quiet while he read the paper — and he did not return till six, burning with weariness. He had to study in the evening. . . . He was always testy. . . . His children were afraid of him, even when he boisterously decided to enact the Kind Parent for one evening and to ride them pickaback, whether or no they wanted to be ridden pickaback. They feared God properly and kept his commandments, did Nat and Bunny, because their father so admirably prefigured God.

When Cleo was busy with meetings and clubs at the church, Elmer blamed her for neglecting the house; when she slackened her church work, he was able equally to blame her for not helping him professionally. And obviously it was because she had so badly arranged the home routine that he never had time for morning Family Worship. . . . But he made up for it by the violence of his Grace before Meat, during which he glared at the children if they stirred in their chairs.

And always the telephone was ringing — not only in his office but at home in the evening.

What should Miss Weezeger, the deaconess, do about this old Miss Mally, who wanted a new nightgown? Could the Reverend Gantry give a short talk on “Advertising and the Church” to the Ad Club next Tuesday noon? Could he address the Letitia Music and Literary Club on “Religion and Poetry” next Thursday at four — just when he had a meeting with the Official Board. The church janitor wanted to start the furnace, but the coal hadn’t been delivered. What advice would the Reverend Mr. Gantry give to a young man who wanted to go to college and had no money? From what book was that quotation about “Cato learned Greek at eighty Sophocles” which he had used in last Sunday’s sermon? Would Mr. Gantry be so kind and address the Lincoln School next Friday morning at nine-fifteen — the dear children would be so glad of any Message he had to give them, and the regular speaker couldn’t show up. Would it be all right for the Girls’ Basket Ball team to use the basement tonight? Could the Reverend come out, right now, to the house of Ben T. Evers, 2616 Appleby Street — five miles away — because grandmother was very ill and needed consolation. What the dickens did the Reverend mean by saying, last Sunday, that hell-fire might be merely spiritual and figurative — didn’t he know that that was agin Matthew V: 29: “Thy whole body should be cast into hell.” Could he get the proof of the church bulletin back to the printers right away? Could the officers of the Southwest Circle of Women meet in Mr. Gantry’s study tomorrow? Would Reverend Gantry speak at the Old Town Improvement Association Banquet? Did the Reverend want to buy a secondhand motor car in A-1 shape? Could the Reverend —

“God!” said the Reverend; and, “Huh? Why, no, of course you couldn’t answer ’em for me, Cleo. But at least you might try to keep from humming when I’m simply killing myself trying to take care of all these blame’ fools and sacrificing myself and everything!”

And the letters.

In response to every sermon he had messages informing him that he was the bright hope of evangelicism and that he was a cloven-hoofed fiend; that he was a rousing orator and a human saxophone. One sermon on the delights of Heaven, which he pictured as a perpetual summer afternoon at a lake resort, brought in the same mail four comments:

i have got an idea for you verry important since hearing yrs of last Sunday evening why do’nt you hold services every evning to tell people & etc about heven and danger of hell we must hurry hurry hurry, the church in a bad way and is up to us who have many and infaliable proofs of heven and hell to hasten yes we must rescew the parishing, make everywhere the call of the lord, fill the churches and empty these damable theatre.

Yrs for his coming, James C. Wickes, 2113 A, McGrew Street.

The writer is an honest and unwavering Christian and I want to tell you, Gantry, that the only decent and helpful and enjoyable thing about your sermon last Sunday A.M. was your finally saying “Let us pray,” only YOU should have said “Let me prey.” By your wibbly-wabbly emphasis on Heaven and your fear to emphasize the horrors of Hell, you get people into an easy-going, self-satisfied frame of mind where they slip easily into sin, and while pretending to be an earnest and literal believer in every word of the Scriptures, you are an atheist in sheep’s clothing. I am a minister of the gospel and know whereof I speak.

Yours, ALMON JEWINGS STRAFE.

I heard your rotten old-fashioned sermon last Sunday. You pretend to be liberal, but you are just a hide-bound conservative. Nobody believes in a material heaven or hell any more, and you make yourself ridiculous by talking about them. Wake up and study some modern dope.

A student.

Dear Brother, your lovely sermon last Sunday about Heaven was the finest I have ever heard. I am quite an old lady and not awful well and in my ills and griefs, especially about my grandson who drinks, your wonderful words give me such a comfort I cannot describe to you.

Yours admiringly, MRS. R. R. GOMMERIE.

And he was expected, save with the virulent anonymous letters, to answer all of them . . . in his stuffy office, facing a shelf of black-bound books, dictating to the plaintive Miss Bundle, who never caught an address, who always single-spaced the letters which should have been double-spaced, and who had a speed which seemed adequate until you discovered that she attained it by leaving out most of the verbs and adjectives.

6

Whether or not he was irritable on week days, Sundays were to his nervous family a hell of keeping out of his way, and for himself they had the strain of a theatrical first night.

He was up at seven, looking over his sermon notes, preparing his talk to the Sunday School, and snarling at Cleo, “Good Lord, you might have breakfast on time today, at least, and why in heaven’s name you can’t get that furnace-man here so I won’t have to freeze while I’m doing my studying —”

He was at Sunday School at a quarter to ten, and often he had to take the huge Men’s Bible Class and instruct it in the more occult meanings of the Bible, out of his knowledge of the original Hebrew and Greek as denied to the laity.

Morning church services began at eleven. Now that he often had as many as a thousand in the audience, as he peeped out at them from the study he had stage-fright. Could he hold them? What the deuce had he intended to say about communion? He couldn’t remember a word of it.

It was not easy to keep on urging the unsaved to come forward as though he really thought they would and as though he cared a hang whether they did or not. It was not easy, on communion Sundays, when they knelt round the altar rail, to keep from laughing at the sanctimonious eyes and prim mouths of brethren whom he knew to be crooks in private business.

It was not easy to go on saying with proper conviction that whosoever looked on a woman to lust after her would go booming down to hell when there was a pretty and admiring girl in the front row. And it was hardest of all, when he had done his public job, when he was tired and wanted to let down, to stand about after the sermon and be hand-shaken by aged spinster saints who expected him to listen without grinning while they quavered that he was a silver-plated angel and that they were just like him.

To have to think up a new, bright, pious quip for each of them! To see large sporting males regarding him the while as though he were an old woman in trousers!

By the time he came home for Sunday lunch he was looking for a chance to feel injured and unappreciated and pestered and put upon, and usually he found the chance.

There were still ahead of him, for the rest of the day, the Sunday evening service, often the Epworth League, sometimes special meetings at four. Whenever the children disturbed his Sunday afternoon nap, Elmer gave an impersonation of the prophets. Why! All he asked of Nat and Bunny was that, as a Methodist minister’s children, they should not be seen on the streets or in the parks on the blessed Sabbath afternoon, and that they should not be heard about the house. He told them, often, that they were committing an unexampled sin by causing him to fall into bad tempers unbecoming a Man of God.

But through all these labors and this lack of domestic sympathy he struggled successfully.

7

Elmer was as friendly as ever with Bishop Toomis.

He had conferred early with the bishop and with the canny lawyer-trustee, T. J. Rigg, as to what fellow-clergymen in Zenith it would be worth his while to know.

Among the ministers outside the Methodist Church, they recommended Dr. G. Prosper Edwards, the highly cultured pastor of the Pilgrim Congregational Church, Dr. John Jennison Drew, the active but sanctified leader of the Chatham Road Presbyterian Church, that solid Baptist, the Reverend Hosea Jessup, and Willis Fortune Tate, who, though he was an Episcopalian and very shaky as regards liquor and hell, had one of the suavest and most expensive flocks in town. And if one could endure the Christian Scientists’ smirking conviction that they alone had the truth, there was the celebrated leader of the First Christian Science Church, Mr. Irving Tillish.

The Methodist ministers of Zenith Elmer met and studied at their regular Monday morning meetings, in the funeral and wedding chapel of Central Church. They looked like a group of prosperous and active business men. Only two of them ever wore clerical waistcoats, and of these only one compromised with the Papacy and the errors of Canterbury by turning his collar around. A few resembled farmers, a few stone-masons, but most of them looked like retail shops. The Reverend Mr. Chatterton Weeks indulged in claret-colored “fancy socks,” silk handkerchiefs, and an enormous emerald ring, and gave a pleasant suggestion of vaudeville. Nor were they too sanctimonious. They slapped one another’s backs, they used first names, they shouted, “I hear you’re grabbing off all the crowds in town, you old cuss!” and for the manlier and more successful of them it was quite the thing to use now and then a daring “damn.”

It would, to an innocent layman, have been startling to see them sitting in rows like schoolboys; to hear them listening not to addresses on credit and the routing of hardware but to short helpful talks on Faith. The balance was kept, however, by an adequate number of papers on trade subjects — the sort of pews most soothing to the back; the value of sending postcards reading “Where were you last Sunday, old scout? We sure did miss you at the Men’s Bible Class”; the comparative values of a giant imitation thermometer, a giant clock, and a giant automobile speedometer, as a register of the money coming in during special drives; the question of gold and silver stars as rewards for Sunday School attendance; the effectiveness of giving the children savings-banks in the likeness of a jolly little church to encourage them to save their pennies for Christian work; and the morality of violin solos.

Nor were the assembled clergy too inhumanly unboastful in their reports of increased attendance and collections.

Elmer saw that the Zenith district superintendent, one Fred Orr, could be neglected as a creeping and silent fellow who was all right at prayer and who seemed to lead an almost irritatingly pure life, but who had no useful notions about increasing collections.

The Methodist preachers whom he had to take seriously as rivals were four.

There was Chester Brown, the ritualist, of the new and ultra-Gothic Asbury Church. He was almost as bad, they said, as an Episcopalian. He wore a clerical waistcoat buttoned up to his collar; he had a robed choir and the processional; he was rumored once to have had candles on what was practically an altar. He was, to Elmer, distressingly literary and dramatic. It was said that he had literary gifts; his articles appeared not only in the Advocate but in the Christian Century and the New Republic — rather whimsical essays, safely Christian but frank about the church’s sloth and wealth and blindness. He had been Professor of English Literature and Church History in Luccock College, and he did such sermons on books as Elmer, with his exhausting knowledge of Longfellow and George Eliot, could never touch.

Dr. Otto Hickenlooper of Central Church was an even more distressing rival. His was the most active institutional church of the whole state. He had not only manual training and gymnastics but sacred pageants, classes in painting (never from the nude), classes in French and batik-making and sex hygiene and bookkeeping and short-story writing. He had clubs for railroad men, for stenographers, for bell-boys; and after the church suppers the young people were encouraged to sit about in booths to which the newspapers referred flippantly as “courting corners.”

Dr. Hickenlooper had come out hard for Social Service. He was in sympathy with the American Federation of Labor, the I. W. W., the Socialists, the Communists, and the Non-partisan League, which was more than they were with one another. He held Sunday evening lectures on the Folly of War, the Minimum Wage, the need of clean milk; and once a month he had an open forum, to which were invited the most dangerous radical speakers, who were allowed to say absolutely anything they liked, provided they did not curse, refer to adultery, or criticize the leadership of Christ.

Dr. Mahlon Potts, of the First Methodist Church, seemed to Elmer at first glance less difficult to oust. He was fat, pompous, full of heavy rumbles of piety. He was a stage parson. “Ah, my dear Brother!” he boomed; and “How are we this morning, my dear Doctor, and how is the lovely little wife?” But Dr. Potts had the largest congregation of any church of any denomination in Zenith. He was so respectable. He was so safe. People knew where they were, with him. He was adequately flowery of speech — he could do up a mountain, a sunset, a burning of the martyrs, a reception of the same by the saints in heaven, as well as any preacher in town. But he never doubted nor let any one else doubt that by attending the Methodist Church regularly, and observing the rules of repentance, salvation, baptism, communion, and liberal giving, every one would have a minimum of cancer and tuberculosis and sin, and unquestionably arrive in heaven.

These three Elmer envied but respected; one man he envied and loathed.

That was Philip McGarry of the Arbor Methodist Church.

Philip McGarry, Ph. D. of Chicago University in economics and philosophy — only everybody who liked him, layman or fellow-parson, seemed to call him “Phil”— was at the age of thirty-five known through the whole American Methodist Church as an enfant terrible. The various sectional editions of the Advocate admired him but clucked like doting and alarmed hens over his frequent improprieties. He was accused of every heresy. He never denied them, and the only dogma he was known to give out positively was the leadership of Jesus — as to whose divinity he was indefinite.

He was a stocky, smiling man, fond of boxing, and even at a funeral incapable of breathing, “Ah, Sister!”

He criticized everything. He criticized even bishops — for being too fat, for being too ambitious, for gassing about Charity during a knock-down-and-drag-out strike. He criticized, but amiably, the social and institutional and generally philanthropic Dr. Otto Hickenlooper, with his clubs for the study of Karl Marx and his Sunday afternoon reception for lonely traveling-men.

“You’re a good lad, Otto,” said Dr. McGarry — and openly, in the preachers’ Monday meetings: “You mean well, but you’re one of these darned philanthropists.”

“Nice word to use publicly —‘darned’!” meditated the Reverend Elmer Gantry.

“All your stuff at Central, Otto,” said Dr. McGarry, “is paternalistic. You hand out rations to the dear pee-pul and keep ’em obedient. You talk about socialism and pacifism, and say a lot of nice things about ’em, but you always explain that reforms must come in due time, which means never, and then only through the kind supervision of Rockefeller and Henry Ford. And I always suspect that your activities have behind ’em the sneaking purpose of luring the poor chumps into religion — even into Methodism!”

The whole ministerial meeting broke into yelps.

“Well, of course, that’s the purpose —”

“Well, if you’ll kindly tell me why you stay in the Methodist Church when you think it’s so unimportant to —”

“Just what are you, a minister of the gospel, seeking EXCEPT religion —”

The meeting, on such a morning, was certain to stray from the consideration of using egg-coal in church furnaces to the question as to what, when they weren’t before their congregations and on record, they really believed about the whole thing.

That was a very dangerous and silly thing, reflected Elmer Gantry. No telling where you’d get to, if you went blatting around about a lot of these fool problems. Preach the straight Bible gospel and make folks good, he demanded, and leave all these ticklish questions of theology and social service to the profs!

Philip McGarry wound up his cheerful attack on Dr. Hickenlooper, the first morning when Elmer disgustedly encountered him, by insisting, “You see, Otto, your reforms couldn’t mean anything, or you wouldn’t be able to hold onto as many prosperous money-grabbing parishioners as you do. No risk of the working-men in your church turning dangerous as long as you’ve got that tight-fisted Joe Hanley as one of your trustees! Thank Heaven, I haven’t got a respectable person in my whole blooming flock!”

(“Yeh, and there’s where you gave yourself away, McGarry,” Elmer chuckled inwardly. “That’s the first thing you’ve said that’s true!”)

Philip McGarry’s church was in a part of the city incomparably more run-down than Elmer’s Old Town. It was called “The Arbor”; it had in pioneer days been the vineyard-sheltered village, along the Chaloosa River, from which had grown the modern Zenith. Now it was all dives, brothels, wretched tenements, cheap-jack shops. Yet here McGarry lived, a bachelor, seemingly well content, counseling pickpockets and scrubwomen, and giving on Friday evenings a series of lectures packed by eager Jewish girl students, radical workmen, old cranks, and wistful rich girls coming in limousines down from the spacious gardens of Royal Ridge.

“I’ll have trouble with that McGarry if we both stay in this town. Him and I will never get along together,” thought Elmer. “Well, I’ll keep away from him; I’ll treat him with some of this Christian charity that he talks so darn’ much about and can’t understand the real meaning of! We’ll just dismiss him — and most of these other birds. But the big three — how’ll I handle them?”

He could not, even if he should have a new church, outdo Chester Brown in ecclesiastical elegance or literary messages. He could never touch Otto Hickenlooper in institutions and social service. He could never beat Mahlon Potts in appealing to the well-to-do respectables.

Yet he could beat them all together!

Planning it delightedly, at the ministers’ meeting, on his way home, by the fireplace at night, he saw that each of these stars was so specialized that he neglected the good publicity-bringing features of the others. Elmer would combine them; be almost as elevating as Chester Brown, almost as solidly safe and moral as Mahlon Potts. And all three of them, in fact every preacher in town except one Presbyterian, were neglecting the — well, some people called it sensational, but that was just envy; the proper word, considered Elmer, was POWERFUL, or perhaps FEARLESS, or STIMULATING— all of them were neglecting a powerful, fearless, or stimulating, and devil-challenging concentration on vice. Booze. Legs. Society bridge. You bet!

Not overdo it, of course, but the town would come to know that in the sermons of the Reverend Elmer Gantry there would always be something spicy and yet improving.

“Oh, I can put it over the whole bunch!” Elmer stretched his big arms in joyous vigor. “I’ll build a new church. I’ll take the crowds away from all of ’em. I’ll be the one big preacher in Zenith. And then — Chicago? New York? Bishopric? Whatever I want! Whee!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lewis/sinclair/elmer/chapter23.html

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