Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 4

1

President Quarles urged him.

Elmer would, perhaps, affect the whole world if he became a minister. What glory for Old Terwillinger and all the shrines of Gritzmacher Springs!

Eddie Fislinger urged him.

“Jiminy! You’d go way beyond me! I can see you president of the Baptist convention!” Elmer still did not like Eddie, but he was making much now of ignoring Jim Lefferts (they met on the street and bowed ferociously), and he had to have some one to play valet to his virtues.

The ex-minister dean of the college urged him.

Where could Elmer find a profession with a better social position than the ministry — thousands listening to him — invited to banquets and everything. So much easier than — Well, not exactly easier; all ministers worked arduously — great sacrifices — constant demands on their sympathy — heroic struggle against vice — but same time, elegant and superior work, surrounded by books, high thoughts, and the finest ladies in the city or country as the case might be. And cheaper professional training than law. With scholarships and outside preaching, Elmer could get through the three years of Mizpah Theological Seminary on almost nothing a year. What other plans HAD he for a career? Nothing definite? Why, looked like divine intervention; certainly did; let’s call it settled. Perhaps he could get Elmer a scholarship the very first year —

His mother urged him.

She wrote, daily, that she was longing, praying, sobbing —

Elmer urged himself.

He had no prospects except the chance of reading law in the dingy office of a cousin in Toluca, Kansas. The only things he had against the ministry, now that he was delivered from Jim, were the low salaries and the fact that if ministers were caught drinking or flirting, it was often very hard on them. The salaries weren’t so bad — he’d go to the top, of course, and maybe make eight or ten thousand. But the diversions — He thought about it so much that he made a hasty trip to Cato, and came back temporarily cured forever of any desire for wickedness.

The greatest urge was his memory of holding his audience, playing on them. To move people — Golly! He wanted to be addressing somebody on something right now, and being applauded!

By this time he was so rehearsed in his rôle of candidate for righteousness that it didn’t bother him (so long as no snickering Jim was present) to use the most embarrassing theological and moral terms in the presence of Eddie or the president; and without one grin he rolled out dramatic speeches about “the duty of every man to lead every other man to Christ,” and “the historic position of the Baptists as the one true Scriptural Church, practising immersion, as taught by Christ himself.”

He was persuaded. He saw himself as a white-browed and star-eyed young evangel, wearing a new frock coat, standing up in a pulpit and causing hundreds of beautiful women to weep with conviction and rush down to clasp his hand.

But there was one barrier, extremely serious. They all informed him that select though he was as sacred material, before he decided he must have a mystic experience known as a Call. God himself must appear and call him to service, and conscious though Elmer was now of his own powers and the excellence of the church, he saw no more of God about the place than in his worst days of unregeneracy.

He asked the president and the dean if they had had a Call. Oh, yes, certainly; but they were vague about practical tips as to how to invite a Call and recognize it when it came. He was reluctant to ask Eddie — Eddie would be only too profuse with tips, and want to kneel down and pray with him, and generally be rather damp and excitable and messy.

The Call did not come, not for weeks, with Easter past and no decision as to what he was going to do next year.

2

Spring on the prairie, high spring. Lilacs masked the speckled brick and stucco of the college buildings, spiræa made a flashing wall, and from the Kansas fields came soft airs and the whistle of meadow larks.

Students loafed at their windows, calling down to friends; they played catch on the campus; they went bareheaded and wrote a great deal of poetry; and the Terwillinger baseball team defeated Fogelquist College.

Still Elmer did not receive his divine Call.

By day, playing catch, kicking up his heels, belaboring his acquaintances, singing “The happiest days that ever were, we knew at old Terwillinger” on a fence fondly believed to resemble the Yale fence, or tramping by himself through the minute forest of cottonwood and willow by Tunker Creek, he expanded with the expanding year and knew happiness.

The nights were unadulterated hell.

He felt guilty that he had no Call, and he went to the president about it in mid-May.

Dr. Quarles was thoughtful, and announced;

“Brother Elmer, the last thing I’d ever want to do, in fairness to the spirit of the ministry, would be to create an illusion of a Call when there was none present. That would be like the pagan hallucinations worked on the poor suffering followers of Roman Catholicism. Whatever else he may be, a Baptist preacher must be free from illusions; he must found his work on good hard scientific FACTS— the proven facts of the Bible, and substitutionary atonement, which even pragmatically we know to be true, because it works. No, no! But at the same time I feel sure the voice of God is calling you, if you can but hear it, and I want to help you lift the veil of worldliness which still, no doubt, deafens your inner ear. Will you come to my house tomorrow evening? We’ll take the matter to the Lord in prayer.”

It was all rather dreadful.

That kindly spring evening, with a breeze fresh in the branches of the sycamores, President Quarles had shut the windows and drawn the blinds in his living-room, an apartment filled with crayon portraits of Baptist worthies, red-plush chairs, and leaded-glass unit bookcases containing the lay writings of the more poetic clergy. The president had gathered as assistants in prayer the more aged and fundamentalist ex-pastors on the faculty and the more milky and elocutionary of the Y.M.C.A. leaders, headed by Eddie Fislinger.

When Elmer entered, they were on their knees, their arms on the seats of reversed chairs, their heads bowed, all praying aloud and together. They looked up at him like old women surveying the bride. He wanted to bolt. Then the president nabbed him, and had him down on his knees, suffering and embarrassed and wondering what the devil to pray about.

They took turns at telling God what he ought to do in the case of “our so ardently and earnestly seeking brother.”

“Now will you lift your voice in prayer, Brother Elmer? Just let yourself go. Remember we’re all with you, all loving and helping you,” grated the president.

They crowded near him. The president put his stiff old arm about Elmer’s shoulder. It felt like a dry bone, and the president smelled of kerosene. Eddie crowded up on the other side and nuzzled against him. The others crept in, patting him. It was horribly hot in that room, and they were so close — he felt as if he were tied down in a hospital ward. He looked up and saw the long shaven face, the thin tight lips, of a minister . . . whom he was now to emulate.

He prickled with horror, but he tried to pray. He wailed, “O blessed Lord, help me to — help me to —”

He had an enormous idea. He sprang up. He cried, “Say, I think the spirit is beginning to work and maybe if I just went out and took a short walk and kinda prayed by myself, while you stayed here and prayed for me, it might help.”

“I don’t think that would be the way,” began the president, but the most aged faculty-member suggested, “Maybe it’s the Lord’s guidance. We hadn’t ought to interfere with the Lord’s guidance, Brother Quarles.”

“That’s so, that’s so,” the president announced. “You have your walk, Brother Elmer, and pray hard, and we’ll stay here and besiege the throne of grace for you.”

Elmer blundered out into the fresh clean air.

Whatever happened, he was never going back! How he hated their soft, crawly, wet hands!

He had notions of catching the last train to Cato and getting solacingly drunk. No. He’d lose his degree, just a month off now, and be cramped later in appearing as a real, high-class, college-educated lawyer.

Lose it, then! Anything but go back to their crawling creepy hands, their aged breathing by his ear —

He’d get hold of somebody and say he felt sick and send him back to tell Prexy and sneak off to bed. Cinch! He just wouldn’t get his Call, just pass it up, by Jiminy, and not have to go into the ministry.

But to lose the chance to stand before thousands and stir them by telling about divine love and the evening and morning star — If he could just stand it till he got through theological seminary and was on the job — Then, if any Eddie Fislinger tried to come into his study and breathe down his neck — throw him out, by golly!

He was conscious that he was leaning against a tree, tearing down twigs, and that facing him under a street-lamp was Jim Lefferts.

“You look sick, Hell-cat,” said Jim.

Elmer strove for dignity, then broke, with a moaning, “Oh, I am! What did I ever get into this religious fix for?”

“What they doing to you? Never mind; don’t tell me. You need a drink.”

“By God, I do!”

“I’ve got a quart of first-rate corn whisky from a moonshiner I’ve dug up out here in the country, and my room’s right in this block. Come along.”

Through his first drink, Elmer was quiet, bewildered, vaguely leaning on the Jim who would guide him away from this horror.

But he was out of practice in drinking, and the whisky took hold with speed. By the middle of the second glass he was boasting of his ecclesiastical eloquence, he was permitting Jim to know that never in Terwillinger College had there appeared so promising an orator, that right now they were there praying for him, waiting for him, the president and the whole outfit!

“But,” with a slight return of apology, “I suppose prob’ly you think maybe I hadn’t ought to go back to ’em.”

Jim was standing by the open window, saying slowly, “No. I think now — You’d better go back. I’ve got some peppermints. They’ll fix your breath, more or less. Good-by, Hell-cat.”

He had won even over old Jim!

He was master of the world, and only a very little bit drunk.

He stepped out high and happy. Everything was extremely beautiful. How high the trees were! What a wonderful drugstore window, with all those glossy new magazine covers! That distant piano — magic. What exquisite young women the co-eds! What lovable and sturdy men the students! He was at peace with everything. What a really good fellow he was! He’d lost all his meannesses. How kind he’d been to that poor lonely sinner, Jim Lefferts. Others might despair of Jim’s soul — he never would.

Poor old Jim. His room had looked terrible — that narrow little room with a cot, all in disorder, a pair of shoes and a corncob pipe lying on a pile of books. Poor Jim. He’d forgive him. Go around and clean up the room for him.

(Not that Elmer had ever cleaned up their former room.)

Gee, what a lovely spring night! How corking those old boys were, Prexy and everybody, to give up an evening and pray for him!

Why was it he felt so fine? Of course! The Call had come! God had come to him, though just spiritually, not corporeally, so far as he remembered. It had come! He could go ahead and rule the world!

He dashed into the president’s house; he shouted from the door, erect, while they knelt and looked up at him mousily, “It’s come! I feel it in everything! God just opened my eyes and made me feel what a wonderful ole world it is, and it was just like I could hear his voice saying, ‘Don’t you want to love everybody and help them to be happy? Do you want to just go along being selfish, or have you got a longing to — to help everybody?’”

He stopped. They had listened silently, with interested grunts of “Amen, Brother.”

“Honest, it was awful’ impressive. Somehow, something has made me feel so much better than when I went away from here. I’m sure it was a real Call. Don’t you think so, President?”

“Oh, I’m sure of it!” the president ejaculated, getting up hastily and rubbing his knees.

“I feel that all is right with our brother; that he has now, this sacred moment, heard the voice of God, and is entering upon the highest calling in the sight of God,” the president observed to the dean. “Don’t you feel so?”

“God be praised,” said the dean, and looked at his watch.

3

On their way home, they two alone, the oldest faculty-member said to the dean, “Yes, it was a fine gratifying moment. And — herumph! — slightly surprising. I’d hardly thought that young Gantry would go on being content with the mild blisses of salvation. Herumph! Curious smell of peppermint he had about him.”

“I suppose he stopped at the drug-store during his walk and had a soft drink of some kind. Don’t know, Brother,” said the dean, “that I approve of these soft drinks. Innocent in themselves, but they might lead to carelessness in beverages. A man who drinks ginger ale — how are you going to impress on him the terrible danger of drinking ALE?”

“Yes, yes,” said the oldest faculty-member (he was sixty-eight, to the dean’s boyish sixty). “Say, Brother, how do you feel about young Gantry? About his entering the ministry? I know you did well in the pulpit before you came here, as I more or less did myself, but if you were a boy of twenty-one or — two, do you think you’d become a preacher now, way things are?”

“Why, Brother!” grieved the dean. “Certainly I would! What a question! What would become of all our work at Terwillinger, all our ideals in opposition to the heathenish large universities, if the ministry weren’t the highest ideal —”

“I know. I know. I just wonder sometimes — All the new vocations that are coming up. Medicine. Advertising. World just going it! I tell you, Dean, in another forty years, by 1943, men will be up in the air in flying machines, going maybe a hundred miles an hour!”

“My dear fellow, if the Lord had meant men to fly, he’d have given us wings.”

“But there are prophecies in the Book —”

“Those refer purely to spiritual and symbolic flying. No, no! Never does to oppose the clear purpose of the Bible, and I could dig you out a hundred texts that show unquestionably that the Lord intends us to stay right here on earth till that day when we shall be upraised in the body with him.”

“Herumph! Maybe. Well, here’s my corner. Good night, Brother.”

The dean came into his house. It was a small house.

“How’d it go?” asked his wife.

“Splendid. Young Gantry seemed to feel an unmistakable divine call. Something struck him that just uplifted him. He’s got a lot of power. Only —”

The dean irritably sat down in a cane-seated rocker, jerked off his shoes, grunted, drew on his slippers.

“Only, hang it, I simply can’t get myself to like him! Emma, tell me: If I were his age now, do you think I’d go into the ministry, as things are today?”

“Why, Henry! What in the world ever makes you say a thing like that? Of course you would! Why, if that weren’t the case — What would our whole lives mean, all we’ve given up and everything?”

“Oh, I know. I just get to thinking. Sometimes I wonder if we’ve given up so much. Don’t hurt even a preacher to face himself! After all, those two years when I was in the carpet business, before I went to the seminary, I didn’t do very well. Maybe I wouldn’t have made any more than I do now. But if I could — Suppose I could’ve been a great chemist? Wouldn’t that (mind you, I’m just speculating, as a student of psychology)— wouldn’t that conceivably be better than year after year of students with the same confounded problems over and over again — and always so pleased and surprised and important about them! — or year after year again of standing in the pulpit and knowing your congregation don’t remember what you’ve said seven minutes after you’ve said it?”

“Why, Henry, I don’t know what’s gotten into you! I think you better do a little praying yourself instead of picking on this poor young Gantry! Neither you nor I could ever have been happy except in a Baptist church or a real cover-to-cover Baptist college.”

The dean’s wife finished darning the towels and went up to say good-night to her parents.

They had lived with her since her father’s retirement, at seventy-five, from his country pastorate. He had been a missionary in Missouri before the Civil War.

Her lips had been moving, her eyebrows working, as she darned the towels; her eyebrows were still creased as she came into their room and shrieked at her father’s deafness:

“Time to go to bed, Papa. And you, Mama.”

They were nodding on either side of a radiator unheated for months.

“All right, Emmy,” piped the ancient.

“Say Papa — Tell me: I’ve been thinking: If you were just a young man today, would you go into the ministry?”

“Course I would! What an idea! Most glorious vocation young man could have. Idea! G’night, Emmy!”

But as his ancient wife sighingly removed her corsets, she complained, “Don’t know as you would or not — if I was married to you — which ain’t any too certain, a second time — and if I had anything to say about it.”

“Which IS certain! Don’t be foolish. Course I would.”

“I don’t know. Fifty years I had of it, and I never did get so I wa’n’t just mad clear through when the ladies of the church came poking around, criticizing me for every little tidy I put on the chairs, and talking something terrible if I had a bonnet or a shawl that was the least mite tasty. ‘‘Twa’n’t suitable for a minister’s wife.’ Drat ’em! And I always did like a bonnet with some nice bright colors. Oh, I’ve done a right smart of thinking about it. You always were a powerful preacher, but’s I’ve told you —”

“You have!”

“— I never could make out how, if when you were in the pulpit you really knew so much about all these high and mighty and mysterious things, how it was when you got home you never knew enough, and you never could learn enough, to find the hammer or make a nice piece of corn-bread or add up a column of figures twice alike or find Oberammergau on the map of Austria!”

“Germany, woman! I’m sleepy!”

“And all these years of having to pretend to be so good when we were just common folks all the time! Ain’t you glad you can just be simple folks now?”

“Maybe it is restful. But that’s not saying I wouldn’t do it over again.” The old man ruminated a long while. “I think I would. Anyway, no use discouraging these young people from entering the ministry. Somebody got to preach the gospel truth, ain’t they?”

“I suppose so. Oh, dear. Fifty years since I married a preacher! And if I could still only be sure about the virgin birth! Now don’t you go explaining! Laws, the number of times you’ve explained! I know it’s true — it’s in the Bible. If I could only BELIEVE it! But —

“I would of liked to had you try your hand at politics. If I could of been, just once, to a senator’s house, to a banquet or something, just once, in a nice bright red dress with gold slippers, I’d of been willing to go back to alpaca and scrubbing floors, and listening to you rehearsing your sermons, out in the stable, to that old mare we had for so many years — oh, laws, how long is it she’s been dead now? Must be — yes, it’s twenty-seven years —

“Why is that it’s only in religion that the things you got to believe are agin all experience? Now drat it, don’t you go and quote that ‘I believe because it IS impossible’ thing at me again! Believe because it’s impossible! Huh! Just like a minister!

“Oh, dear, I hope I don’t live long enough to lose my faith. Seems like the older I get, the less I’m excited over all these preachers that talk about hell only they never saw it.

“Twenty-seven years! And we had that old hoss so long before that. My how she could kick — Busted that buggy —”

They were both asleep.

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