Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 6

1

The state of Winnemac lies between Pittsburgh and Chicago, and in Winnemac, perhaps a hundred miles south of the city of Zenith, is Babylon, a town which suggests New England more than the Middle West. Large elms shade it, there are white pillars beyond lilac bushes, and round about the town is a serenity unknown on the gusty prairies.

Here is Mizpah Theological Seminary, of the Northern Baptists. (There is a Northern and Southern convention of this distinguished denomination, because before the Civil War the Northern Baptists proved by the Bible, unanswerably, that slavery was wrong; and the Southern Baptists proved by the Bible, irrefutably, that slavery was the will of God.)

The three buildings of the seminary are attractive; brick with white cupolas, green blinds at the small-paned wide windows. But within they are bare, with hand-rubbings along the plaster walls, with portraits of missionaries and ragged volumes of sermons.

The large structure is the dormitory, Elizabeth J. Schmutz Hall — known to the less reverent as Smut Hall.

Here lived Elmer Gantry, now ordained but completing the last year of work for his Bachelor of Divinity degree, a commodity of value in bargaining with the larger churches.

There were only sixteen left now of his original class of thirty-five. The others had dropped out, for rural preaching, life insurance, or a melancholy return to plowing. There was no one with whom he wanted to live, and he dwelt sulkily in a single room, with a cot, a Bible, a portrait of his mother, and with a copy of “What a Young Man Ought to Know,” concealed inside his one starched pulpit shirt.

He disliked most of his class. They were too rustic or too pious, too inquisitive about his monthly trips to the city of Monarch or simply too dull. Elmer liked the company of what he regarded as intellectual people. He never understood what they were saying, but to hear them saying it made him feel superior.

The group which he most frequented gathered in the room of Frank Shallard and Don Pickens, the large corner room on the second floor of Smut Hall.

It was not an esthetic room. Though Frank Shallard might have come to admire pictures, great music, civilized furniture, he had been trained to regard them as worldly, and to content himself with art which “presented a message,” to regard “Les Miserables” as superior because the bishop was a kind man, and “The Scarlet Letter” as a poor book because the heroine was sinful and the author didn’t mind.

The walls were of old plaster, cracked and turned deathly gray, marked with the blood of mosquitoes and bed-bugs slain in portentous battles long ago by theologians now gone forth to bestow their thus uplifted visions on a materialistic world. The bed was a skeleton of rusty iron bars, sagging in the center, with a comforter which was not too clean. Trunks were in the corners, and the wardrobe was a row of hooks behind a calico curtain. The grass matting was slowly dividing into separate strands, and under the study table it had been scuffed through to the cheap pine flooring.

The only pictures were Frank’s steel engraving of Roger Williams, his framed and pansy-painted copy of “Pippa Passes,” and Don Pickens’ favorite, a country church by winter moonlight, with tinsel snow, which sparkled delightfully. The only untheological books were Frank’s poets: Wordsworth, Longfellow, Tennyson, Browning, in standard volumes, fine-printed and dismal, and one really dangerous papist document, his “Imitation of Christ,” about which there was argument at least once a week.

In his room squatting on straight chairs, the trunks, and the bed, on a November evening in 1905, were five young men besides Elmer and Eddie Fislinger. Eddie did not really belong to the group, but he persisted in following Elmer, feeling that not even yet was everything quite right with the brother.

“A preacher has got to be just as husky and pack just as good a wallop as a prize-fighter. He ought to be able to throw out any roughneck that tries to interrupt his meetings, and still more, strength makes such a hit with the women in his congregation — of course I don’t mean it any wrong way,” said Wallace Umstead.

Wallace was a student-instructor, head of the minute seminary gymnasium and “director of physical culture”; a young man who had a military mustache and who did brisk things on horizontal bars. He was a state university B.A. and graduate of a physical-training school. He was going into Y.M.C.A. work when he should have a divinity degree, and he was fond of saying, “Oh, I’m still one of the boys, you know, even if I am a prof.”

“That’s right,” agreed Elmer Gantry. “Say, I had — I was holding a meeting at Grauten, Kansas, last summer, and there was a big boob that kept interrupting, so I just jumped down from the platform and went up to him, and he says, ‘Say, Parson,’ he says, ‘Can you tell us what the Almighty wants us to do about prohibition, considering he told Paul to take some wine for his stomach’s sake?’ ‘I don’t know as I can,’ I says, ‘but you want to remember he also commanded us to cast out devils!’ and I yanked that yahoo out of his seat and threw him out on his ear, and say, the whole crowd — well, there weren’t so awfully many there, but they certainly did give him the ha-ha! You bet. And to be husky makes a hit with the whole congregation, men’s well as women. But there’s more’n one high-toned preacher that got his pulpit because the deacons felt he could lick ’em. Of course praying and all that is all O.K., but you got to be practical! We’re here to do good, but first you have to cinch a job that you can do good in!”

“You’re commercial!” protested Eddie Fislinger, and Frank Shallard: “Good heavens, Gantry, is that all your religion means to you?”

“Besides,” said Horace Carp, “you have the wrong angle. It isn’t mere brute force that appeals to women — to congregations. It’s a beautiful voice. I don’t envy you your bulk, Elmer — besides, you’re going to get fat —”

“I am like hell!”

“— but what I could do with that voice of yours! I’d have ’em all weeping! I’d read ’em poetry from the pulpit!”

Horace Carp was the one High Churchman in the Seminary. He was a young man who resembled a water spaniel, who concealed Saints’ images, incense, and a long piece of scarlet brocade in his room, and who wore a purple velvet smoking-jacket. He was always raging because his father, a wholesale plumber and pious, had threatened to kick him out if he went to an Episcopal seminary instead of a Baptist fortress.

“Yes, you prob’ly would read ’em poetry!” said Elmer. “That’s the trouble with you high-falutin’ guys. You think you can get people by a lot of poetry and junk. What gets ’em and holds ’em and brings ’em to their pews every Sunday is the straight gospel — and it don’t hurt one bit to scare ’em into being righteous with the good old-fashioned Hell!”

“You bet — providing you encourage ’em to keep their bodies in swell shape, too,” condescended Wallace Umstead. “Well, I don’t want to talk as a prof — after all I’m glad I can still remain just one of the Boys — but you aren’t going to develop any very big horse-power in your praying tomorrow morning if you don’t get your sleep. And me to my little downy! G’night!”

At the closing of the door, Harry Zenz, the seminary iconoclast, yawned, “Wallace is probably the finest slice of tripe in my wide clerical experience. Thank God, he’s gone! Now we can be natural and talk dirty!”

“And yet,” complained Frank Shallard, “you encourage him to stay and talk about his pet methods of exercise! Don’t you ever tell the truth, Harry?”

“Never carelessly. Why, you idiot, I want Wallace to run and let the dean know what an earnest worker in the vineyard I am. Frank, you’re a poor innocent. I suspect you actually believe some of the dope they teach us here. And yet you’re a man of some reading. You’re the only person in Mizpah except myself who could appreciate a paragraph of Huxley. Lord, how I pity you when you get into the ministry! Of course, Fislinger here is a grocery clerk, Elmer is a ward politician, Horace is a dancing master —”

He was drowned beneath a surf of protests, not too jocose and friendly.

Harry Zenz was older than the others — thirty-two at least. He was plump, almost completely bald, and fond of sitting still; and he could look profoundly stupid. He was a man of ill-assorted but astonishing knowledge; and in the church ten miles from Mizpah which he had regularly supplied for two years he was considered a man of humorless learning and bloodless piety. He was a complete and cheerful atheist, but he admitted it only to Elmer Gantry and Horace Carp. Elmer regarded him as a sort of Jim Lefferts, but he was as different from Jim as pork fat from a crystal. He hid his giggling atheism — Jim flourished his; he despised women — Jim had a disillusioned pity for the Juanita Klauzels of the world; he had an intellect — Jim had only cynical guesses.

Zenz interrupted their protests:

“So you’re a bunch of Erasmuses! You ought to know. And there’s no hypocrisy in what we teach and preach! We’re a specially selected group of Parsifals — beautiful to the eye and stirring to the ear and overflowing with knowledge of what God said to the Holy Ghost in camera at 9:16 last Wednesday morning. We’re all just rarin’ to go out and preach the precious Baptist doctrine of ‘Get ducked or duck.’ We’re wonders. We admit it. And people actually sit and listen to us, and don’t choke! I suppose they’re overwhelmed by our nerve! And we have to have nerve, or we’d never dare to stand in a pulpit again. We’d quit, and pray God to forgive us for having stood up there and pretended that we represent God, and that we can explain what we ourselves say are the unexplainable mysteries! But I still claim that there are preachers who haven’t our holiness. Why is it that the clergy are so given to sex crimes?”

“That’s not true!” from Eddie Fislinger.

“Don’t talk that way!” Don Pickens begged. Don was Frank’s roommate: a slight youth, so gentle, so affectionate, that even that raging lion of righteousness, Dean Trosper, was moved to spare him.

Harry Zenz patted his arm. “Oh, you, Don — you’ll always be a monk. But if you don’t believe it, Fislinger, look at the statistics of the five thousand odd crimes committed by clergymen — that is those who got caught — since the eighties, and note the percentage of sex offenses — rape, incest, bigamy, enticing young girls — oh, a lovely record!”

Elmer was yawning, “Oh, God, I do get so sick of you fellows yammering and arguing and discussing. All perfectly simple — maybe we preachers aren’t perfect: don’t pretend to be; but we do a lot of good.”

“That’s right,” said Eddie. “But maybe it is true that — The snares of sex are so dreadful that even ministers of the gospel get trapped. And the perfectly simple solution is continence — just take it out in prayer and good hard exercise.”

“Oh, sure, Eddie, you bet; what a help you’re going to be to the young men in your church,” purred Harry Zenz.

Frank Shallard was meditating unhappily. “Just why are we going to be preachers, anyway? Why are you, Harry, if you think we’re all such liars?”

“Oh, not liars, Frank — just practical, as Elmer put it. Me, it’s easy. I’m not ambitious. I don’t want money enough to hustle for it. I like to sit and read. I like intellectual acrobatics and no work. And you can have all that in the ministry — unless you’re one of these chumps that get up big institutional outfits and work themselves to death for publicity.”

“You certainly have a fine high view of the ministry!” growled Elmer.

“Well, all right, what’s your fine high purpose in becoming a Man of God, Brother Gantry?”

“Well, I— Rats, it’s perfectly clear. Preacher can do a lot of good — give help and — And explain religion.”

“I wish you’d explain it to me! Especially I want to know to what extent are Christian symbols descended from indecent barbaric symbols?”

“Oh, you make me tired!”

Horace Carp fluttered, “Of course none of you consecrated windjammers ever think of the one raison d’être of the church, which is to add beauty to the barren lives of the common people!”

“Yeh! It certainly must make the common people feel awfully common to hear Brother Gantry spiel about the errors of supralapsarianism!”

“I never preach about any such a doggone thing!” Elmer protested. “I just give ’em a good helpful sermon, with some jokes sprinkled in to make it interesting and some stuff about the theater or something that’ll startle ’em a little and wake ’em up, and help ’em to lead better and fuller daily lives.”

“Oh, do you, dearie!” said Zenz. “My error. I thought you probably gave ’em a lot of helpful hints about the innascibilitas attribute and the res sacramenti. Well, Frank, why did you become a theologue?”

“I can’t tell you when you put it sneeringly. I believe there are mystic experiences which you can follow only if you are truly set apart.”

“Well, I know why I came here,” said Don Pickens. “My dad sent me!”

“So did mine!” complained Horace Carp. “But what I can’t understand is: Why are any of us in an ole Baptist school? Horrible denomination — all these moldy barns of churches, and people coughing illiterate hymns, and long-winded preachers always springing a bright new idea like ‘All the world needs to solve its problems is to get back to the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ The only church is the Episcopal! Music! Vestments! Stately prayers! Lovely architecture! Dignity! Authority! Believe me, as soon as I can make the break, I’m going to switch over to the Episcopalians. And then I’ll have a social position, and be able to marry a nice rich girl.”

“No, you’re wrong,” said Zenz. “The Baptist Church is the only denomination worth while, except possibly the Methodist.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” marveled Eddie.

“Because the Baptists and the Methodists have all the numbskulls — except those that belong to the Catholic Church and the henhouse sects — and so even you, Horace, can get away with being a prophet. There are some intelligent people in the Episcopal and Congregational Churches, and a few of the Campbellite flocks, and they check up on you. Of course all Presbyterians are half-wits, too, but they have a standard doctrine, and they can trap you into a heresy trial. But in the Baptist and Methodist Churches, man! There’s the berth for philosophers like me and hoot-owls like you, Eddie! All you have to do with Baptists and Methodists, as Father Carp suggests —”

“If you agree with me about anything, I withdraw it,” said Horace.

“All you have to do,” said Zenz, “is to get some sound and perfectly meaningless doctrine and keep repeating it. You won’t bore the laymen — in fact the only thing they resent is something that IS new, so they have to work their brains. Oh, no, Father Carp — the Episcopal pulpit for actors that aren’t good enough to get on the stage, but the good old Baptist fold for realists!”

“You make me tired, Harry!” complained Eddie. “You just want to show off, that’s all. You’re a lot better Baptist and a lot better Christian than you let on to be, and I can prove it. Folks wouldn’t go on listening to your sermons unless they carried conviction. No sir! You can fool folks once or twice with a lot of swell-sounding words but in the long run it’s sincerity they look for. And one thing that makes me know you’re on the right side is that you don’t practise open communion. Golly, I feel that everything we Baptists stand for is threatened by those darn’ so-called liberals that are beginning to practise open communion.”

“Rats!” grumbled Harry. “Of all the fool Baptist egotisms, close communion is the worst! Nobody but people WE consider saved to be allowed to take communion with us! Nobody can meet God unless we introduce ’em! Self-appointed guardians of the blood and body of Jesus Christ! Whew!”

“Absolutely,” from Horace Carp. “And there is absolutely no Scriptural basis for close communion.”

“There certainly is!” shrieked Eddie. “Frank, where’s your Bible?”

“Gee, I left it in O.T.E. Where’s yours, Don?”

“Well, I’ll be switched! I had the darn’ thing here just this evening,” lamented Don Pickens, after a search.

“Oh, I remember. I was killing a cockroach with it. It’s on top of your wardrobe,” said Elmer.

“Gee, honest, you hadn’t ought to kill cockroaches with a Bible!” mourned Eddie Fislinger. “Now here’s the Bible, good and straight, for close communion, Harry. It says in First Corinthians, 11:27 and 29: ‘Whoever shall eat this bread and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to himself.’ And how can there be a worthy Christian unless he’s been baptized by immersion?”

“I do wonder sometimes,” mused Frank Shallard, “if we aren’t rather impious, we Baptists, to set ourselves up as the keepers of the gates of God, deciding just who is righteous, who is worthy to commune.”

“But there’s nothing else we can do,” explained Eddie. “The Baptist Church, being the only pure Scriptural church, is the one real church of God, and we’re not setting ourselves up — we’re just following God’s ordinances.”

Horace Carp had also been reveling in the popular Mizpah sport of looking up Biblical texts to prove a preconceived opinion. “I don’t find anything here about Baptists,” he said.

“Nor about your doggoned ole Episcopalians, either — darn’ snobs! and the preachers wearing nightshirts!” from Eddie.

“You bet your life you find something — it talks about bishops, and that means Episcopal bishops — the papes and the Methodists are uncanonical bishops,” rejoiced Horace. “I’ll bet you two dollars and sixty-seven cents I wind up as an Episcopal bishop, and, believe me, I’ll be high-church as hell — all the candles I can get on the altar.”

Harry Zenz was speculating, “I suppose it’s unscientific to believe that because I happen to be a Baptist practitioner myself and see what word-splitting, text-twisting, applause-hungry, job-hunting, medieval-minded second-raters even the biggest Baptist leaders are, therefore the Baptist Church is the worst of the lot. I don’t suppose it’s really any worse than the Presbyterian or the Congregational or Disciples or Lutheran or any other. But — Say, you, Fislinger, ever occur to you how dangerous it is, this Bible-worship? You and I might have to quit preaching and go to work. You tell the muttonheads that the Bible contains absolutely everything necessary for salvation, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“Then what’s the use of having any preachers? Any church? Let people stay home and read the Bible!”

“Well — well — it says —”

The door was dashed open, and Brother Karkis entered.

Brother Karkis was no youthful student. He was forty-three, heavy-handed and big-footed, and his voice was the voice of a Great Dane. Born to the farm, he had been ordained a Baptist preacher, for twenty years now, and up and down through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Arkansas, he had bellowed in up-creek tabernacles.

His only formal education had been in country schools; and of all books save the Bible, revivalistic hymnals, a concordance handy for finding sermon-texts, and a manual of poultry-keeping, he was soundly ignorant. He had never met a woman of the world, never drunk a glass of wine, never heard a bar of great music, and his neck was not free from the dust of cornfields.

But it would have been a waste of pity to sigh over Brother Karkis as a plucky poor student. He had no longing for further knowledge; he was certain that he already had it all. He despised the faculty as book-adulterated wobblers in the faith — he could “out-pray and out-holler and out-save the whole lot of ’em.” He desired a Mizpah degree only because it would get him a better paid job — or, as he put it, with the 1850 vocabulary which he found adequate for 1905, because it would “lead him into a wider field of usefulness.”

“Say, don’t you fellers ever do anything but sit around and argue and discuss and bellyache?” he shouted. “My lands, I can hear your racket way down the hall! Be a lot better for you young fellers if you’d forget your smart-aleck arguin’ and spend the evening on your knees in prayer! Oh, you’re a fine lot of smart educated swells, but you’ll find where that rubbish gets you when you go out and have to wrestle with old Satan for unregenerate souls! What are you gasbags arguing about, anyway?”

“Harry says,” wailed Eddie Fislinger, “that there’s nothing in the Bible that says Christians have to have a church or preachers.”

“Huh! And him that thinks he’s so educated. Where’s a Bible?”

It was now in the hands of Elmer, who had been reading his favorite book, “The Song of Solomon.”

“Well, Brother Gantry, glad see there’s one galoot here that’s got sense enough to stick by the Old Book and get himself right with God, ‘stead of shooting off his face like some Pedo–Baptist. Now look here, Brother Zenz: It says here in Hebrews, ‘Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together.’ There, I guess that’ll hold you!”

“My dear brother in the Lord,” said Harry, “the only thing suggested there is an assembly like the Plymouth Brotherhood, with no regular paid preachers. As I was explaining to Brother Fislinger: Personally, I’m so ardent an admirer of the Bible that I’m thinking of starting a sect where we all just sing a hymn together, then sit and read our Bibles all day long, and not have any preachers getting between us and the all-sufficient Word of God. I expect you to join, Brother Karkis, unless you’re one of these dirty higher critics that want to break down the Bible.”

“Oh, you make me tired,” said Eddie.

“You make me tired — always twisting the plain commands of Scripture,” said Brother Karkis, shutting the door — weightily, and from the outside.

“You all make me tired. My God, how you fellows can argue!” said Elmer, chewing his Pittsburgh stogie.

The room was thick now with tobacco fumes. Though in Mizpah Seminary smoking was frowned on, practically forbidden by custom, all of the consecrated company save Eddie Fislinger were at it.

He rasped, “This air is something terrible! Why you fellows touch that vile weed — Worms and men are the only animals who indulge in tobacco! I’m going to get out of here.”

There was strangely little complaint.

Rid of Eddie, the others turned to their invariable topic: what they called “sex.”

Frank Shallard and Don Pickens were virgins, timid and fascinated, respectful and urgent; Horace Carp had had one fumbling little greensick experience; and all three listened with nervous eagerness to the experiences of Elmer and Harry Zenz. Tonight Elmer’s mind reeked with it, and he who had been almost silent during the ecclesiastical wrangling was voluble now. The youngsters panted as he chronicled his meetings with a willing choir-singer, this summer past.

“Tell me — tell me,” fretted Don. “Do girls, oh — nice girls — do they really ever — uh — go with a preacher? And aren’t you ashamed to face them afterwards, in church?”

“Huh!” observed Zenz, and “Ashamed? They worship you!” declared Elmer. “They stand by you the way no wife ever would — as long as they do fall for you. Why, this girl — Oh, well, she sang something elegant.”

He finished vaguely, reminiscently. Suddenly he was bored at treading the mysteries of sex with these mooncalves. He lunged up.

“Going?” said Frank.

Elmer posed at the door, smirking, his hands on his hips, “Oh, no. Not a-tall.” He looked at his watch. (It was a watch which reminded you of Elmer himself: large, thick, shiny, with a near-gold case.) “I merely have a date with a girl, that’s all!”

He was lying, but he had been roused by his own stories, and he would have given a year of life if his boast were true. He returned to his solitary room in a fever. “God, if Juanita were only here, or Agatha, or even that little chambermaid at Solomon Junction — what the dickens was her name now?” he longed.

He sat motionless on the edge of his bed. He clenched his fists. He groaned and gripped his knees. He sprang up, to race about the room, to return and sit dolorously entranced.

“Oh, God, I can’t STAND it!” he moaned.

He was inconceivably lonely.

He had no friends. He had never had a friend since Jim Lefferts. Harry Zenz despised his brains, Frank Shallard despised his manners, and the rest of them he himself despised. He was bored by the droning seminary professors all day, the school-boyish arguing all evening; and in the rash of prayer-meetings and chapel-meetings and special praise-meetings he was bored by hearing the same enthusiasts gambol in the same Scriptural rejoicings.

“Oh, yes, I want to go on and preach. Couldn’t go back to just business or the farm. Miss the hymns, the being boss. But — I can’t do it! God, I am so lonely! If Juanita was just here!”

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