Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 5

1

In the cottonwood grove by the muddy river, three miles west of Paris, Kansas, the godly were gathered with lunch-baskets, linen dusters, and moist unhappy babies for the all-day celebration. Brothers Elmer Gantry and Edward Fislinger had been licensed to preach before, but now they were to be ordained as full-fledged preachers, as Baptist ministers.

They had come home from distant Mizpah Theological Seminary for ordination by their own council of churches, the Kayooska River Baptist Association. Both of them had another year to go out of the three-year seminary course, but by the more devout and rural brethren it is considered well to ordain the clerics early, so that even before they attain infallible wisdom they may fill backwoods pulpits and during week-ends do good works with divine authority.

His vacation after college Elmer had spent on a farm; during vacation after his first year in seminary he had been supervisor in a boys’ camp; now, after ordination, he was to supply at the smaller churches in his corner of Kansas.

During his second year of seminary, just finished, he had been more voluminously bored than ever at Terwillinger. Constantly he had thought of quitting, but after his journeys to the city of Monarch, where he was in closer relation to fancy ladies and to bartenders than one would have desired in a holy clerk, he got a second wind in his resolve to lead a pure life, and so managed to keep on toward perfection, as symbolized by the degree of Bachelor of Divinity.

But if he had been bored, he had acquired professional training.

He was able now to face any audience and to discourse authoritatively on any subject whatever, for any given time to the second, without trembling and without any errors of speech beyond an infrequent “ain’t” or “he don’t.” He had an elegant vocabulary. He knew eighteen synonyms for sin, half of them very long and impressive, and the others very short and explosive and minatory — minatory being one of his own best words, constantly useful in terrifying the as yet imaginary horde of sinners gathered before him.

He was no longer embarrassed by using the most intimate language about God; without grinning he could ask a seven-year-old-boy, “Don’t you want to give up your vices?” and without flinching, he could look a tobacco salesman in the eye and demand, “Have you ever knelt before the throne of grace?”

Whatever worldly expressions he might use in sub rosa conversations with the less sanctified theological students, such as Harry Zenz, who was the most confirmed atheist in the school, in public he never so much as said “doggone” and he had on tap, for immediate and skilled use, a number of such phrases as “Brother, I am willing to help you find religion,” “My whole life is a testimonial to my faith,” “To the inner eye there is no trouble in comprehending the threefold nature of divinity,” “We don’t want any long-faced Christians in this church — the fellow that’s been washed in the blood of the Lamb is just so happy he goes ‘round singing and hollering hallelujah all day long,” and “Come on now, all get together, and let’s make this the biggest collection this church has ever seen.” He could explain foreordination thoroughly, and he used the words “baptizo” and “Athanasian.”

He would, perhaps, be less orchestral, less Palladian, when he had been in practise for a year or two after graduation and discovered that the hearts of men are vile, their habits low, and that they are unwilling to hand the control of all those habits over to the parson. But he would recover again, and he was a promise of what he might be in twenty years, as a ten-thousand-dollar seer.

He had grown broader, his glossy hair, longer than at Terwillinger, was brushed back from his heavy white brow, his nails were oftener clean, and his speech was Jovian. It was more sonorous, more measured and pontifical; he could, and did, reveal his interested knowledge of your secret moral diabetes merely by saying, “How are we today, Brother?”

And though he had almost flunked in Greek, his thesis on “Sixteen Ways of Paying a Church Debt” had won the ten-dollar prize in Practical Theology.

2

He walked among the Kayooska Valley communicants, beside his mother. She was a small-town business woman; she was not unduly wrinkled or shabby; indeed she wore a good little black hat and a new brown silk frock with a long gold chain; but she was inconspicuous beside his bulk and sober magnificence.

He wore for the ceremony a new double-breasted suit of black broadcloth, and new black shoes. So did Eddie Fislinger, along with a funereal tie and a black wide felt hat, like a Texas congressman’s. But Elmer was more daring. Had he not understood that he must show dignity, he would have indulged himself in the gaudiness for which he had a talent. He had compromised by buying a beautiful light gray felt hat in Chicago, on his way home, and he had ventured on a red-bordered gray silk handkerchief, which gave a pleasing touch of color to his sober chest.

But he had left off, for the day, the large opal ring surrounded by almost gold serpents for which he had lusted and to which he had yielded when in liquor, in the city of Monarch.

He walked as an army with banners, he spoke like a trombone, he gestured widely with his large blanched thick hand; and his mother, on his arm, looked up in ecstasy. He wafted her among the crowd, affable as a candidate for probate judgeship, and she was covered with the fringes of his glory.

For the ordination, perhaps two hundred Baptist laymen and laywomen and at least two hundred babies had come in from neighboring congregations by buckboard, democrat wagon, and buggy. (It was 1905; there was as yet no Ford nearer than Fort Scott.) They were honest, kindly, solid folk; farmers and blacksmiths and cobblers; men with tanned deep-lined faces, wearing creased “best suits”; the women, deep bosomed or work-shriveled, in clean gingham. There was one village banker, very chatty and democratic, in a new crash suit. They milled like cattle, in dust up to their shoe laces, and dust veiled them, in the still heat, under the dusty branches of the cottonwoods from which floated shreds to catch and glisten on the rough fabric of their clothes.

Six preachers had combined to assist the Paris parson in his ceremony, and one of them was no less than the Rev. Dr. Ingle, come all the way from St. Joe, where he was said to have a Sunday School of six hundred. As a young man — very thin and eloquent in a frock coat — Dr. Ingle had for six months preached in Paris, and Mrs. Gantry remembered him as her favorite minister. He had been so kind to her when she was ill; had come in to read “Ben Hur” aloud, and tell stories to a chunky little Elmer given to hiding behind furniture and heaving vegetables at visitors.

“Well, well, Brother, so this is the little tad I used to know as a shaver! Well, you always were a good little mannie, and they tell me that now you’re a consecrated young man — that you’re destined to do a great work for the Lord,” Dr. Ingle greeted Elmer.

“Thank you, Doctor. Pray for me. It’s an honor to have you come from your great church,” said Elmer.

“Not a bit of trouble. On my way to Colorado — I’ve taken a cabin way up in the mountains there — glorious view — sunsets — painted by the Lord himself. My congregation have been so good as to give me two months’ vacation. Wish you could pop up there for a while, Brother Elmer.”

“I wish I could, Doctor, but I have to try in my humble way to keep the fires burning around here.”

Mrs. Gantry was panting. To have her little boy discoursing with Dr. Ingle as though they were equals! To hear him talking like a preacher — just as NATURAL! And some day — Elmer with a famous church; with a cottage in Colorado for the summer; married to a dear pious little woman, with half a dozen children; and herself invited to join them for the summer; all of them kneeling in family prayers, led by Elmer . . . though it was true Elmer declined to hold family prayers just now; said he’d had too much of it in seminary all year . . . too bad, but she’d keep on coaxing . . . and if he just WOULD stop smoking, as she had begged and besought him to do . . . well, perhaps if he didn’t have a few naughtinesses left, he wouldn’t hardly be her little boy any more. . . . How she’d had to scold once upon a time to get him to wash his hands and put on the nice red woolen wristlets she’d knitted for him!

No less satisfying to her was the way in which Elmer impressed all their neighbors. Charley Watley, the house-painter, commander of the Ezra P. Nickerson Post of the G.A.R. of Paris, who had always pulled his white mustache and grunted when she had tried to explain Elmer’s hidden powers of holiness, took her aside to admit: “You were right, Sister; he makes a find upstanding young man of God.”

They encountered that town problem, Hank McVittle, the druggist. Elmer and he had been mates; together they had stolen sugar-corn, drunk hard cider, and indulged in haymow venery. Hank was a small red man, with a lascivious and knowing eye. It was certain that he had come today only to laugh at Elmer.

They met face on, and Hank observed, “Morning, Mrs. Gantry. Well, Elmy, going to be a preacher, eh?”

“I am, Hank.”

“Like it?” Hank was grinning and scratching his cheek with a freckled hand; other unsanctified Parisians were listening.

Elmer boomed, “I do, Hank. I love it! I love the ways of the Lord, and I don’t ever propose to put my foot into any others! Because I’ve tasted the fruit of evil, Hank — you know that. And there’s nothing to it. What fun we had, Hank, was nothing to the peace and joy I feel now. I’m kind of sorry for you, my boy.” He loomed over Hank, dropped his paw heavily on his shoulder. “Why don’t you try to get right with God? Or maybe you’re smarter than he is!”

“Never claimed to be anything of the sort!” snapped Hank, and in that testiness Elmer triumphed, his mother exulted.

She was sorry to see how few were congratulating Eddie Fislinger, who was also milling, but motherless, inconspicuous, meek to the presiding clergy.

Old Jewkins, humble, gentle old farmer, inched up to murmur, “Like to shake your hand, Brother Elmer. Mighty fine to see you chosen thus and put aside for the work of the Lord. Jiggity! T’think I remember you as knee-high to a grasshopper! I suppose you study a lot of awful learned books now.”

“They make us work good and hard, Brother Jewkins. They give us pretty deep stuff: hermeneutics, chrestomathy, pericopes, exegesis, homiletics, liturgies, isagogics, Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic, hymnology, apologetics — oh, a good deal.”

“Well! I should SAY so!” worshiped old Jewkins, while Mrs. Gantry marveled to find Elmer even more profound than she had thought, and Elmer reflected proudly that he really did know what all but a couple of the words meant.

“My!” sighed his mother. “You’re getting so educated, I declare t’ goodness pretty soon I won’t hardly dare to talk to you!”

“Oh, no. There’ll never come a time when you and I won’t be the best of pals, or when I won’t need the inspiration of your prayers!” said Elmer Gantry melodiously, with refined but manly laughter.

3

They were assembling on benches, wagon-seats and boxes for the ceremony of ordination.

The pulpit was a wooden table with a huge Bible and a pitcher of lemonade. Behind it were seven rocking chairs for the clergy, and just in front, two hard wooden chairs for the candidates.

The present local pastor, Brother Dinger, was a meager man, slow of speech and given to long prayers. He rapped on the table. “We will, uh, we will now begin.”

. . . Elmer, looking handsome on a kitchen chair in front of the rows of flushed hot faces. He stopped fretting that his shiny new black shoes were dust-gray. His heart pounded. He was in for it! No escape! He was going to be a pastor! Last chance for Jim Lefferts, and Lord knew where Jim was. He couldn’t — His shoulder muscles were rigid. Then they relaxed wearily, as though he had struggled to satiety, while Brother Dinger went on:

“Well, we’ll start with the usual, uh, examination of our young brothers, and the brethren have, uh, they’ve been good enough, uh, to let me, uh, in whose charge one, uh, one of these fine young brothers has always lived and made his home — to let me, uh, let me ask the questions. Now, Brother Gantry, do you believe fully and whole-heartedly in baptism by immersion?”

Elmer was thinking, “What a rotten pulpit voice the poor duck has,” but aloud he was rumbling:

“I believe, Brother, and I’ve been taught, that possibly a man MIGHT be saved if he’d just been baptized by sprinkling or pouring, but only if he were ignorant of the truth. Of course immersion is the only Scriptural way — if we’re really going to be like Christ, we must be buried with him in baptism.”

“That’s fine, Brother Gantry. Praise God! Now, Brother Fislinger, do you believe in the final perseverance of the saints?”

Eddie’s eager but cracked voice explaining — on — on — somniferous as the locusts in the blazing fields across the Kayooska River. As there is no hierarchy in the Baptist Church, but only a free association of like-minded local churches, so are there no canonical forms of procedure, but only customs. The ceremony of ordination is not a definite rite; it may vary as the local associations will, and ordination is conferred not by any bishop but by the general approval of the churches in an association.

The questions were followed by the “charge to the candidates,” a tremendous discourse by the great Dr. Ingle, in which he commended study, light meals, and helping the sick by going and reading texts to them. Every one joined then in a tremendous basket-lunch on long plank tables by the cool river . . . banana layer cake, doughnuts, fried chicken, chocolate layer cake, scalloped potatoes, hermit cookies, cocoa-nut layer cake, pickled tomato preserves, on plates which skidded about the table, with coffee poured into saucerless cups from a vast tin pot, inevitably scalding at least one child, who howled. There were hearty shouts of “Pass the lemon pie, Sister Skiff,” and “That was a fine discourse of Brother Ingle’s,” and “Oh, dear, I dropped my spoon and an ant got on it — well, I’ll just wipe it on my apron — that was fine, the way Brother Gantry explained how the Baptist Church has existed ever since Bible days.” . . . Boys bathing, shrieking, splashing one another. . . . Boys getting into the poison ivy. . . . Boys becoming so infected with the poison ivy that they would turn spotty and begin to swell within seven hours. . . . Dr. Ingle enthusiastically telling the other clergy of his trip to the Holy Land. . . . Elmer lying about his fondness for the faculty of his theological seminary.

Reassembled after lunch, Brother Tusker, minister of the largest congregation in the association, gave the “charge to the churches.” This was always the juiciest and most scandalous and delightful part of the ordination ceremony. In it the clergy had a chance to get back at the parishioners who, as large contributors, as guaranteed saints, had all year been nagging them.

Here were these fine young men going into the ministry, said Brother Tusker. Well, it was up to them to help. Brother Gantry and Brother Fislinger were leaping with the joy of sacrifice and learning. Then let the churches give ’em a chance, and not make’ em spend all the time hot-footing it around, as some older preachers had to do, raising their own salaries! Let folks quit criticizing; let ’em appreciate godly lives and the quickening word once in a while, instead of ham-ham-hammering their preachers all day long!

And certain of the parties who criticized the preachers’ wives for idleness — funny the way some of THEM seemed to have so much time to gad around and notice things and spread scandal! T’wa’n’t only the menfolks that the Savior was thinking of when he talked about them that were without sin being the only folks that were qualified to heave any rocks!

The other preachers leaned back in their chairs and tried to look casual, and hoped that Brother Tusker was going to bear down even a lee-tle heavier on that matter of raising salaries.

In his sermon and the concluding ordination prayer Brother Knoblaugh (of Barkinsville) summed up, for the benefit of Elmer Gantry, Eddie Fislinger, and God, the history of the Baptists, the importance of missions, and the peril of not reading the Bible before breakfast daily.

Through this long prayer, the visiting pastors stood with their hands on the heads of Elmer and Eddie.

There was a grotesque hitch at first. Most of the ministers were little men who could no more than reach up to Elmer’s head. They stood strained and awkward and unecclesiastical, these shabby good men, before the restless audience. There was a giggle. Elmer had a dramatic flash. He knelt abruptly, and Eddie, peering and awkward, followed him.

In the powdery gray dust Elmer knelt, ignoring it. On his head were the worn hands of three veteran preachers, and suddenly he was humble, for a moment he was veritably being ordained to the priestly service of God.

He had been only impatient till this instant. In the chapels at Mizpah and Terwillinger he had heard too many famous visiting pulpiteers to be impressed by the rustic eloquence of the Kayooska Association. But he felt now their diffident tenderness, their unlettered fervor — these poverty-twisted parsons who believed, patient in their bare and baking tabernacles, that they were saving the world, and who wistfully welcomed the youths that they themselves had been.

For the first time in weeks Elmer prayed not as an exhibition but sincerely, passionately, savoring righteousness:

“Dear God — I’ll get down to it — not show off but just think of thee — do good — God help me!”

Coolness fluttered the heavy dust-caked leaves, and as the sighing crowd creaked up from their benches, Elmer Gantry stood confident . . . ordained minister of the gospel.

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