Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 14


Sedate as a long married couple, intimate and secure, were Elmer and Sharon on most days, and always he was devoted. It was Sharon who was incalculable. Sometimes she was a priestess and a looming disaster, sometimes she was intimidating in grasping passion, sometimes she was thin and writhing and anguished with chagrined doubt of herself, sometimes she was pale and nun-like and still, sometimes she was a chilly business woman, and sometimes she was a little girl. In the last, quite authentic rôle, Elmer loved her fondly — except when she assumed it just as she was due to go out and hypnotize three thousand people.

He would beg her, “Oh, come on now, Shara, please be good! Please stop pouting, and go out and lambaste ’em.”

She would stamp her foot, while her face changed to a round childishness. “No! Don’t want to evangel. Want to be bad. Bad! Want to throw things. Want to go out and spank a bald man on the head. Tired of souls. Want to tell ’em all to go to hell!”

“Oh, gee, please, Shara! Gosh all fishhooks! They’re waiting for you! Adelbert has sung that verse twice now.”

“I don’t care! Sing it again! Sing songs, losh songs! Going to be bad! Going out and and drop mice down Adelbert’s fat neck — fat neck — fat hooooooly neck!”

But suddenly: “I wish I could. I wish they’d let me BE bad. Oh, I get so tired — all of them reaching for me, sucking my blood, wanting me to give them the courage they’re too flabby to get for themselves!”

And a minute later she was standing before the audience, rejoicing, “Oh, my beloved, the dear Lord has a message for you tonight!”

And in two hours, as they rode in a taxi to the hotel, she was sobbing on his breast: “Hold me close! I’m so lonely and afraid and cold.”


Among his various relations to her, Elmer was Sharon’s employee. And he resented the fact that she was making five times more than he of that money for which he had a reverent admiration.

When they had first made plans, she had suggested:

“Dear, if it all works out properly, in three or four years I want you to share the offerings with me. But first I must save a lot. I’ve got some vague plans to build a big center for our work, maybe with a magazine and a training-school for evangelists. When that’s paid for, you and I can make an agreement. But just now — How much have you been making as a traveling man?”

“Oh, about three hundred a month — about thirty-five hundred a year.” He was really fond of her; he was lying to the extent of only five hundred.

“Then I’ll start you in at thirty-eight hundred, and in four or five years I hope it’ll be ten thousand, and maybe twice as much.”

And she never, month after month, discussed salary again. It irritated him. He knew that she was making more than twenty thousand a year, and that before long she would probably make fifty thousand. But he loved her so completely that he scarce thought of it oftener than three or four times a month.


Sharon continued to house her troupe in hotels, for independence. But an unfortunate misunderstanding came up. Elmer had stayed late in her room, engaged in a business conference, so late that he accidentally fell asleep across the foot of her bed. So tired were they both that neither of them awoke till nine in the morning, when they were aroused by Adelbert Shoop knocking and innocently skipping in.

Sharon raised her head, to see Adelbert giggling.

“How DARE you come into my room without knocking, you sausage!” she raged. “Have you no sense of modesty or decency? Beat it! Potato!”

When Adelbert had gone simpering out, cheeping, “HONEST, I won’t say ANYTHING,” then Elmer fretted, “Golly, do you think he’ll blackmail us?”

“Oh, no, Adelbert adores me. Us girls must stick together. But it does bother me. Suppose it’d been some other guest of the hotel! People misunderstand and criticize so. Tell you what let’s do. Hereafter, in each town, let’s hire a big house, furnished, for the whole crew. Still be independent, but nobody around to talk about us. And prob’ly we can get a dandy house quite cheap from some church-member. That would be lovely! When we get sick of working so hard all the time, we could have a party just for ourselves, and have a dance. I love to dance. Oh, of course I roast dancing in my sermons, but I mean — when it’s with people like us, that understand, it’s not like with worldly people, where it would lead to evil. A party! Though Art Nichols WOULD get drunk. Oh, let him! He works so hard. Now you skip. Wait! Aren’t you going to kiss me good morning?”

They made sure of Adelbert’s loyalty by flattering him, and the press-agent had orders to find a spacious furnished house in the city to which they were going next.


The renting of furnished houses for the Falconer Evangelistic Party was a ripe cause for new quarrels with local committees, particularly after the party had left town.

There were protests by the infuriated owners that the sacred workers must have been, as one deacon-undertaker put it, “simply raising the very devil.” He asserted that the furniture had been burned with cigarette stubs, that whisky had been spilled on rugs, that chairs had been broken. He claimed damages from the local committee; the local committee sent the claims on to Sharon; there was a deal of fervent correspondence; and the claims were never paid.

Though usually it did not come out till the series of meetings was finished, so that there was no interference with saving the world, these arguments about the private affairs of the evangelistic crew started most regrettable rumors. The ungodly emitted loud scoffings. Sweet repressed old maids wondered and wondered what might really have happened, and speculated together in delightful horror as to whether — uh — there could have been anything — uh — worse than drinking going on.

But always a majority of the faithful argued logically that Sister Falconer and Brother Gantry were righteous, therefore they could not do anything unrighteous, therefore the rumors were inspired by the devil and spread by saloon-keepers and infidels, and in face of this persecution of the godly, the adherents were the more lyric in support of the Falconer Party.

Elmer learned from the discussions of damages a pleasant way of reducing expenses. At the end of their stay, they simply did not pay the rent for their house. They informed the local committee, after they had gone, that the committee had promised to provide living quarters, and that was all there was to it. . . . There was a lot of correspondence.


One of Sharon’s chief troubles was getting her crew to bed. Like most actors, they were high-strung after the show. Some of them were too nervous to sleep till they had read the Saturday Evening Post; others never could eat till after the meetings, and till one o’clock they fried eggs and scrambled eggs and burnt toast and quarreled over the dish-washing. Despite their enlightened public stand against the Demon Rum, some of the performers had to brace up their nerves with an occasional quart of whisky, and there was dancing and assorted glee.

Though sometimes she exploded all over them, usually Sharon was amiably blind, and she had too many conferences with Elmer to give much heed to the parties.

Lily Anderson, the pale pianist, protested. They ought all, she said, to go to bed early so they could be up early. They ought, she said, to go oftener to the cottage prayer meetings. The others insisted that this was too much to expect of people exhausted by their daily three hours of work, but she reminded them that they were doing the work of the Lord, and they ought to be willing to wear themselves out in such service. They were, said they; but not tonight.

After days when Art Nichols, the cornetist, and Adolph Klebs, the violinist, had such heads at ten in the morning that they had to take pick-me-ups, would come days when all of them, even Art and Adolph, were hysterically religious; when quite privately they prayed and repented, and raised their voices in ululating quavers of divine rapture, till Sharon said furiously that she didn’t know whether she preferred to be waked up by hell-raising or hallelujahs. Yet once she bought a traveling phonograph for them, and many records, half hectic dances and half hymns.


Though her presence nearly took away his need of other stimulants, of tobacco and alcohol and most of his cursing, it was a year before Elmer was altogether secure from the thought of them. But gradually he saw himself certain of future power and applause as a clergyman. His ambition became more important than the titillation of alcohol, and he felt very virtuous and pleased.

Those were big days, rejoicing days, sunny days. He had everything: his girl, his work, his fame, his power over people. When they held meetings in Topeka, his mother came from Paris to hear them, and as she watched her son addressing two thousand people, all the heavy graveyard doubts which had rotted her after his exit from Mizpah Seminary vanished.

He felt now that he belonged. The gospel crew had accepted him as their assistant foreman, as bolder and stronger and trickier than any save Sharon, and they followed him like family dogs. He imagined a day when he would marry Sharon, supersede her as leader — letting her preach now and then as a feature — and become one of the great evangelists of the land. He belonged. When he encountered fellow evangelists, no matter how celebrated, he was pleased, but not awed.

Didn’t Sharon and he meet no less an evangelist than Dr. Howard Bancock Binch, the great Baptist defender of the literal interpretation of the Bible, president of the True Gospel Training School for Religious Workers, editor of The Keeper of the Vineyard, and author of “Fools Errors of So–Called Science”? Didn’t Dr. Binch treat Elmer like a son?

Dr. Binch happened to be in Joliet, on his way to receive his sixth D. D. degree (from Abner College) during Sharon’s meetings there. He lunched with Sharon and Elmer.

“Which hymns do you find the most effective when you make your appeal for converts, Dr. Binch?” asked Elmer.

“Well, I’ll tell you, Brother Gantry,” said the authority. “I think ‘Just as I Am’ and ‘Jesus, I Am Coming Home’ hit real folksy hearts like nothing else.”

“Oh, I’m afraid I don’t agree with you,” protested Sharon. “It seems to me — of course you have far more experience and talent than I, Dr. Binch —”

“Not at all, my dear sister,” said Dr. Binch, with a leer which sickened Elmer with jealousy. “You are young, but all of us recognize your genius.”

“Thank you very much. But I mean: They’re not lively enough. I feel we ought to use hymns with a swing to ’em, hymns that make you dance right up to the mourners’ bench.”

Dr. Binch stopped gulping his fried pork chops and held up a flabby, white, holy hand. “Oh, Sister Falconer, I hate to have you use the word ‘dance’ regarding an evangelistic meeting! What is the dance? It is the gateway to hell! How many innocent girls have found in the dance-hall the allurement which leads to every nameless vice!”

Two minutes of information about dancing — given in the same words that Sharon herself often used — and Dr. Binch wound up with a hearty: “So I beg of you not to speak of ‘dancing to the mourners’ bench!’”

“I know, Dr. Binch, I know, but I mean in its sacred sense, as of David dancing before the Lord.”

“But I feel there was a different meaning to that. If you only knew the original Hebrew — the word should not be translated ‘danced’ but ‘was moved by the spirit.’”

“Really? I didn’t know that. I’ll use that.”

They all looked learned.

“What methods, Dr. Binch,” asked Elmer, “do you find the most successful in forcing people to come to the altar when they resist the Holy Ghost?”

“I always begin by asking those interested in being prayed for to hold up their hands.”

“Oh, I believe in having them stand up if they want prayer. Once you get a fellow to his feet, it’s so much easier to coax him out into the aisle and down to the front. If he just holds up his hand, he may pull it down before you can spot him. We’ve trained our ushers to jump right in the minute anybody gets up, and say ‘Now Brother, won’t you come down front and shake hands with Sister Falconer and make your stand for Jesus?’”

“No,” said Dr. Binch, “my experience is that there are many timid people who have to be led gradually. To ask them to stand up is too big a step. But actually, we’re probably both right. My motto as a soul-saver, if I may venture to apply such a lofty title to myself, is that one should use every method that, in the vernacular, will sell the goods.”

“I guess that’s right,” said Elmer. “Say, tell me, Dr. Binch, what do you do with converts after they come to the altar?”

“I always try to have a separate room for ’em. That gives you a real chance to deepen and richen their new experience. They can’t escape, if you close the door. And there’s no crowd to stare and embarrass them.”

“I can’t see that,” said Sharon. “I believe that if the people who come forward are making a stand for Christ, they ought to be willing to face the crowd. And it makes such an impression on the whole bunch of the unsaved to see a lot of seekers at the mourners’ bench. You must admit, Brother Binch — Dr. Binch, I should say — that lots of people who just come to a revival for a good time are moved to conviction epidemically, by seeing others shaken.”

“No, I can’t agree that that’s so important as making a deeper impression on each convert, so that each goes out as an agent for you, as it were. But every one to his own methods. I mean so long as the Lord is with us and behind us.”

“Say, Dr. Binch,” said Elmer, “how do you count your converts? Some of the preachers in this last town accused us of lying about the number. On what basis do you count them?”

“Why, I count every one (and we use a recording machine) that comes down to the front and shakes hands with me. What if some of them ARE merely old church members warmed over? Isn’t it worth just as much to give new spiritual life to those who’ve had it and lost it?”

“Of course it is. That’s what we think. And then we got criticized there in that fool town! We tried — that is, Sister Falconer here tried — a stunt that was new for us. We opened up on some of the worst dives and blind tigers by name. We even gave street numbers. The attack created a howling sensation; people just jammed in, hoping we’d attack other places. I believe that’s a good policy. We’re going to try it here next week. It puts the fear of God into the wicked, and slams over the revival.”

“There’s danger in that sort of thing, though,” said Dr. Binch. “I don’t advise it. Trouble is, in such an attack you’re liable to offend some of the leading church members — the very folks that contribute the most cash to a revival. They’re often the owners of buildings that get used by unscrupulous persons for immoral purposes, and while they of course regret such unfortunate use of their property, if you attack such places by name, you’re likely to lose their support. Why, you might lose thousands of dollars! It seems to me wiser and more Christian to just attack vice in general.”

“How much orchestra do you use, Dr. Binch?” asked Sharon.

“All I can get hold of. I’m carrying a pianist, a violinist, a drummer, and a cornetist, besides my soloist.”

“But don’t you find some people objecting to fiddling?”

“Oh, yes, but I jolly ’em out of it by saying I don’t believe in letting the devil monopolize all these art things,” said Dr. Binch. “Besides, I find that a good tune, sort of a nice, artistic, slow, sad one, puts folks into a mood where they’ll come across both with their hearts and their contributions. By the way, speaking of that, what luck have you folks had recently in raising money? And what method do you use?”

“It’s been pretty good with us — and I need a lot, because I’m supporting an orphanage,” said Sharon. “We’re sticking to the idea of the free-will offering the last day. We can get more money than any town would be willing to guarantee beforehand. If the appeal for the free-will offering is made strong enough, we usually have pretty fair results.”

“Yes, I use the same method. But I don’t like the term ‘freewill offering,’ or ‘thank offering.’ It’s been used so much by merely second-rate evangelists, who, and I grieve to say there are such people, put their own gain before the service of the Kingdom, that it’s got a commercial sound. In making my own appeal for contributions, I use ‘love offering.’”

“That’s worth thinking over, Dr. Binch,” sighed Sharon, “but, oh, how tragic it is that we, with our message of salvation — if the sad old world would but listen, we could solve all sorrows and difficulties — yet with this message ready, we have to be practical and raise money for our expenses and charities. Oh, the world doesn’t appreciate evangelists. Think what we can do for a resident minister! These preachers who talk about conducting their own revivals make me sick! They don’t know the right technique. Conducting revivals is a profession. One must know all the tricks. With all modesty, I figure that I know just what will bring in the converts.”

“I’m sure you do, Sister Falconer,” from Binch. “Say, do you and Brother Gantry like union revivals?”

“You bet your life we do,” said Brother Gantry. “We won’t conduct a revival unless we can have the united support of all the evangelical preachers in town.”

“I think you are mistaken, Brother Gantry,” said Dr. Binch. “I find that I have the most successful meetings with only a few churches, but all of them genuinely O. K. With all the preachers joined together, you have to deal with a lot of these two-by-four hick preachers with churches about the size of woodsheds and getting maybe eleven hundred a year, and yet they think they have the right to make suggestions! No, sir! I want to do business with the big down-town preachers that are used to doing things in a high-grade way and that don’t kick if you take a decent-sized offering out of town!”

“Yuh, there’s something to be said for that,” said Elmer. “That’s what the Happy Sing Evangelist — you know, Bill Buttle — said to us one time.”

“But I hope you don’t LIKE Brother Buttle!” protested Dr. Binch.

“Oh, no! Anyway I didn’t like him,” said Sharon, which was a wifely slap at Elmer.

Dr. Binch snorted, “He’s a scoundrel! There’s rumors about his wife’s leaving him. Why is it that in such a high calling as ours there are so many rascals? Take Dr. Mortonby! Calling himself a cover-to-cover literalist, and then his relations to the young woman who sings for him — I would shock you, Sister Falconer, if I told you what I suspect.”

“Oh, I know. I haven’t met him, but I hear dreadful things,” wailed Sharon. “And Wesley Zigler! They say he drinks! And an evangelist! Why, if any person connected with me were so much as to take one drink, out he goes!”

“That’s right, that’s right. Isn’t it dreadful!” mourned Dr. Binch. “And take this charlatan Edgar Edgars — this obscene ex-gambler with his disgusting slang! Uh! The hypocrite!”

Joyously they pointed out that this rival artist in evangelism was an ignoramus, that a passer of bogus checks, the other doubtful about the doctrine of the premillennial coming; joyously they concluded that the only intelligent and moral evangelists in America were Dr. Binch, Sister Falconer, and Brother Gantry, and the lunch broke up in an orgy of thanksgiving.

“There’s the worst swell-head and four-flusher in America, that Binch, and he’s shaky on Jonah, and I’ve heard he chews tobacco — and then pretending to be so swell and citified. Be careful of him,” said Sharon to Elmer afterward, and “Oh, my dear, my dear!”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57