Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 17


Frank Shallard had graduated from Mizpah Theological Seminary and taken his first pulpit. And now that he was a minister, theoretically different from all ordinary people, he was wondering whether there was any value to the ministry whatever.

Of what value were doggerel hymns raggedly sung? What value in sermons, when the congregation seemed not at all different from people who never heard sermons? Were all ministers and all churches, Frank wondered, merely superstitious survivals, merely fire-insurance? Suppose there were such things as inspiring sermons. Suppose there could be such a curious office as minister, as Professional Good Man; such a thing as learning Goodness just as one learned plumbing or dentistry. Even so, what training had he or his classmates, or his professors — whose D. D. degrees did not protect them from indigestion and bad tempers — in this trade of Professional Goodness?

He was supposed to cure an affliction called vice. But he had never encountered vice; he didn’t know just what were the interesting things that people did when they were being vicious. How long would a drunkard listen to the counsel of one who had never been inside a saloon?

He was supposed to bring peace to mankind. But what did he know of the forces which cause wars, personal or class or national; what of drugs, passion, criminal desire; of capitalism, banking, labor, wages, taxes; international struggles for trade, munition trusts, ambitious soldiers?

He was supposed to comfort the sick. But what did he know of sickness? How could he tell when he ought to pray and when he ought to recommend salts?

He was supposed to explain to troubled mankind the purposes of God Almighty, to chat with him, and even advise him about his duties as regards rainfall and the church debt. But which God Almighty? Professor Bruno Zechlin had introduced Frank to a hundred gods besides the Jewish Jehovah, or Yahveh, who had been but a poor and rather surly relation of such serene aristocrats as Zeus.

He was supposed to have undergone a mystic change whereby it was possible to live without normal appetites. He was supposed to behold girls’ ankles without interest and, for light amusement, to be satisfied by reading church papers and shaking hands with deacons. But he found himself most uncomfortably interested in the flicker of ankles, he longed for the theater, and no repentance could keep him from reading novels, though his professors had exposed them as time-wasting and frivolous.

What had he learned?

Enough Hebrew and Greek to be able to crawl through the Bible by using lexicons — so that, like all his classmates once they were out of the seminary, he always read it in English. A good many of the more condemnatory texts of the Bible — rather less than the average Holy Roller carpenter-evangelist. The theory that India and Africa have woes because they are not Christianized, but that Christianized Bangor and Des Moines have woes because the devil, a being obviously more potent than omnipotent God, sneaks around counteracting the work of Baptist preachers.

He had learned, in theory, the ways of raising money through church fairs; he had learned what he was to say on pastoral visits. He had learned that Roger Williams, Adoniram Judson, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and George Washington were the greatest men in history; that Lincoln was given to fervent prayer at all crises; and that Ingersoll had called his non-existent son to his death-bed and bidden him become an orthodox Christian. He had learned that the Pope at Rome was plotting to come to America and get hold of the government, and was prevented only by the denunciations of the Baptist clergy with a little help from the Methodists and Presbyterians; that most crime was caused either by alcohol or by people leaving the Baptist fold for Unitarianism; and that clergymen ought not to wear red ties.

He had learned how to assemble Jewist texts, Greek philosophy, and Middle–Western evangelistic anecdotes into a sermon. And he had learned that poverty is blessed, but that bankers make the best deacons.

Otherwise, as he wretchedly examined his equipment, facing his career, Frank did not seem to have learned anything whatever.

From Elmer Gantry’s relations to Lulu Bains, from Harry Zenz’s almost frank hint that he was an atheist, Frank perceived that a preacher can be a scoundrel or a hypocrite and still be accepted by his congregation. From the manners of Dean Trosper, who served his God with vinegar, he perceived that a man may be free of all the skilled sins, may follow every rule of the church, and still bring only fear to his flock. Listening to the celebrated divines who visited the seminary and showed off to the infant prophets, he perceived that a man could make scholarly and violent sounds and yet not say anything which remained in the mind for six minutes.

He concluded, in fact, that if there was any value in churches and a ministry, of which he was not very certain, in any case there could be no value in himself as a minister.

Yet he had been ordained, he had taken a pulpit.

It was doubtful whether he could have endured the necessary lying had it not been for Dean Trosper’s bullying and his father’s confusing pleas. Frank’s father was easygoing enough, but he had been a Baptist clergyman for so many years that the church was sacred to him. To have had his son deny it would have broken him. He would have been shocked to be told that he was advising Frank to lie, but he explained that the answers to the ordination examination were after all poetic symbols, sanctified by generations of loving usage; that they need not be taken literally.

So Frank Shallard, pupil of Bruno Zechlin, said nervously to an examining cleric that, yes, he did believe that baptism by immersion was appointed by God himself, as the only valid way of beginning a righteous life; that, yes, unrepentant sinners would go to a literal Hell; that, yes, these unrepentant sinners included all persons who did not go to evangelical churches if they had the chance; and that, yes, the Maker of a universe with stars a hundred thousand light-years apart was interested, furious, and very personal about it if a small boy played baseball on Sunday afternoon.

Half an hour after the ordination and the somewhat comforting welcome by veterans of the ministry, he hated himself, and ached to flee, but again the traditional “not wanting to hurt his father” kept him from being honest. So he stayed in the church . . . and went on hurting his father for years instead of for a day.


It was a lonely and troubled young man, the Frank Shallard who for his first pastorate came to the Baptist Church at Catawba, a town of eighteen hundred, in the same state with Zenith and the Mizpah Seminary. The town liked him, and did not take him seriously. They said his sermons were “real poetic”; they admired him for being able to sit with old Mrs. Randall, who had been an invalid for thirty years, a bore for sixty, and never ill a day in her life. They admired him for trying to start a boys’ club, though they did not go so far in their support as to contribute anything. They all called him “Reverend,” and told him that he was amazingly sound in doctrine for one so unfortunately well educated; and he stayed on, in a vacuum.

Frank felt well about his fifth sermon in Catawba; felt that he was done with hesitations. He had decided to ignore controversial theology, ignore all dogma, and concentrate on the leadership of Jesus. That was his topic, there in the chapel with its walls of glaring robin’s-egg blue — the eager-eyed, curly-headed boy, his rather shrill voice the wail of a violin as he gave his picture of Jesus, the kindly friend, the unfailing refuge, the gallant leader.

He was certain that he had done well; he was thinking of it on Monday morning as he walked from his boarding-house to the post office.

He saw one Lem Staples, a jovial horse-doctor who was known as the Village Atheist, sitting on a decayed carriage seat in front of the Fashion Livery Barn. Doc Staples was a subscriber to the Truth Seeker, a periodical said to be infidel, and he quoted Robert Ingersoll, Ed Howe, Colonel Watterson, Elbert Hubbard, and other writers who were rumored to believe that a Catholic was as good as a Methodist or Baptist. The Doc lived alone, “baching it” in a little yellow cottage, and Frank had heard that he sat up till all hours, eleven and even later, playing cribbage in Mart Blum’s saloon.

Frank disliked him, and did not know him. He was prepared to welcome honest inquiry, but a fellow who was an avowed athetist, why, Frank raged, he was a fool! Who made the flowers, the butterflies, the sunsets, the laughter of little children? Those things didn’t just HAPPEN! Besides: why couldn’t the man keep his doubts to himself, and not try to take from other people the religion which was their one comfort and strength in illness, sorrow, want? A matter not of Morality but of reverence for other people’s belief, in fact of Good Taste —

This morning, as Frank scampered down Vermont Street, Lem Staples called to him, “Fine day, Reverend. Say! In a hurry?”

“I’m — No, not especially.”

“Come sit down. Couple o’ questions I’m worried about.”

Frank sat, his neck prickling with embarrassment.

“Say, Reverend, old Ma Gherkins was telling me about your sermon yesterday. You figger that no matter what kind of a creed a fellow’s got, the one thing we can all bank on, absolute, is the teaching of Jesus?”

“Why, yes, that’s it roughly, Doctor.”

“And you feel that any sensible fellow will follow his teaching?”

“Why, yes, certainly.”

“And you feel that the churches, no matter what faults they may have, do hand out this truth of Jesus better than if we didn’t have no churches at all?”

“Certainly. Otherwise, I shouldn’t be in the church!”

“Then can you tell me why it is that nine-tenths of the really sure-enough on-the-job membership of the churches is made up of two classes: the plumb ignorant, that’re scared of hell and that swallow any fool doctrine, and, second, the awful’ respectable folks that play the church so’s to seem more respectable? Why is that? Why is it the high-class skilled workmen and the smart professional men usually snicker at the church and don’t go near it once a month? Why is it?”

“It isn’t true, perhaps that’s why!” Frank felt triumphant. He looked across at the pile of rusty horseshoes and plowshares among the mullen weeds beside the blacksmith’s shop; he reflected that he would clean up this town, be a power for good. Less snappishly he explained, “Naturally, I haven’t any statistics about it, but the fact is that almost every intelligent and influential man in the country belongs to some church or other.”

“Yeh — belongs. But does he go?”

Frank plodded off, annoyed. He tried to restore himself by insisting that Doc Staples was a lout, very amusing in the way he mingled rustic grammar with half-digested words from his adult reading. But he was jarred. Here was the Common Man whom the church was supposed to convince.

Frank remembered from his father’s pastorates how many theoretical church-members seemed blithely able month on month to stay away from the sermonizing; he remembered the merchants who impressively passed the contribution plate yet afterward, in conversation with his father, seemed to have but vague notions of what the sermon had been.

He studied his own congregation. There they were: the stiff-collared village respectables, and the simple, kindly, rustic mass, who understood him only when he promised Heaven as a reward for a life of monogamy and honest chicken-raising, or threatened them with Hell for drinking hard cider.

Catawba had — its only urban feature — a furniture factory with unusually competent workmen, few of whom attended church. Now Frank Shallard had all his life been insulated from what he gently despised as “the working class.” Maids at his father’s house and the elderly, devout, and incompetent negroes who attended the furnace; plumbers or electricians coming to the parsonage for repairs; railway men to whom he tried to talk on journeys; only these had he known, and always with unconscious superiority.

Now he timidly sought to get acquainted with the cabinetmakers as they sat at lunch in the factory grounds. They accepted him good-naturedly, but he felt that they chuckled behind his back when he crept away.

For the first time he was ashamed of being a preacher, of being a Christian. He longed to prove he was nevertheless a “real man,” and didn’t know how to prove it. He found that all the cabinet-makers save the Catholics laughed at the church and thanked the God in whom they did not believe that they did not have to listen to sermons on Sunday mornings, when there were beautiful back porches to sit on, beautiful sporting news to read, beautiful beer to drink. Even the Catholics seemed rather doubtful about the power of a purchased mass to help their deceased relatives out of Purgatory. Several of them admitted that they merely “did their Easter duty”— went to confession and mass but once a year.

It occurred to him that he had never known how large a race of intelligent and independent workmen there were in between the masters and the human truck-horses. He had never known how casually these manual aristocrats despised the church; how they jeered at their leaders, officers of the A.F. of L., who played safe by adhering to a voluble Christianity. He could not get away from his discoveries. They made him self-conscious as he went about the village streets trying to look like a junior prophet and feeling like a masquerader.

He might have left the ministry but for the Reverend Andrew Pengilly, pastor of the Catawba Methodist Church.


If you had cut Andrew Pengilly to the core, you would have found him white clear through. He was a type of clergyman favored in pious fiction, yet he actually did exist.

To every congregation he had served these forty years, he had been a shepherd. They had loved him, listened to him, and underpaid him. In 1906, when Frank came to Catawba, Mr. Pengilly was a frail stooped veteran with silver hair, thin silver mustache, and a slow smile which embraced the world.

Andrew Pengilly had gone into the Civil War as a drummer boy, slept blanketless and barefoot and wounded in the frost of Tennessee mountains, and come out still a child, to “clerk in a store” and teach Sunday School. He had been converted at ten, but at twenty-five he was overpowered by the preaching of Osage Joe, the Indian evangelist, became a Methodist preacher, and never afterward doubted the peace of God. He was married at thirty to a passionate, singing girl with kind lips. He loved her so romantically — just to tuck the crazy-quilt about her was poetry, and her cowhide shoes were to him fairy slippers — he loved her so ungrudgingly that when she died, in childbirth, within a year after their marriage, he had nothing left for any other woman. He lived alone, with the undiminished vision of her. Not the most scandalmongering Mother in Zion had ever hinted that Mr. Pengilly looked damply upon the widows in his fold.

Little book-learning had Andrew Pengilly in his youth, and to this day he knew nothing of Biblical criticism, of the origin of religions, of the sociology which was beginning to absorb church-leaders, but his Bible he knew, and believed, word by word, and somehow he had drifted into the reading of ecstatic books of mysticism. He was a mystic, complete; the world of plows and pavements and hatred was less to him than the world of angels, whose silver robes seemed to flash in the air about him as he meditated alone in his cottage. He was as ignorant of Modern Sunday School Methods as of single tax or Lithuanian finances, yet few Protestants had read more in the Early Fathers.

On Frank Shallard’s first day in Catawba, when he was unpacking his books in his room at the residence of Deacon Halter, the druggist, the Reverend Mr. Pengilly was announced. Frank went down to the parlor (gilded cat-tails and a basket of stereopticon views) and his loneliness was warmed by Mr. Pengilly’s enveloping smile, his drawling voice:

“Welcome, Brother! I’m Pengilly, of the Methodist Church. I never was much of a hand at seeing any difference between the denominations, and I hope we’ll be able to work together for the glory of God. I do hope so! And I hope you’ll go fishing with me. I know,” enthusiastically, “a pond where there’s some elegant pickerel!”

Many evenings they spent in Mr. Pengilly’s cottage, which was less littered and odorous than that of the village atheist, Doc Lem Staples, only because the stalwart ladies of Mr. Pengilly’s congregation vied in sweeping for him, dusting for him, disarranging his books and hen-tracked sermon-notes, and bullying him in the matters of rubbers and winter flannels. They would not let him prepare his own meals — they made him endure the several boarding-houses in turn — but sometimes of an evening he would cook scrambled eggs for Frank. He had pride in his cooking. He had never tried anything but scrambled eggs.

His living-room was overpowering with portraits and carbon prints. Though every local official board pled with him about it, he insisted on including madonnas, cinquecento resurrections, St. Francis of Assisi, and even a Sacred Heart, with such Methodist worthies as Leonidas Hamline and the cloaked romantic Francis Asbury. In the bay window was a pyramid of wire shelves filled with geraniums. Mr. Pengilly was an earnest gardener, except during such weeks as he fell into dreams and forgot to weed and water, and through the winter he watched for the geranium leaves to wither enough so that he could pick them off and be able to feel busy.

All over the room were the aged dog and ancient cat, who detested each other, never ceased growling at each other, and at night slept curled together.

In an antiquated and badly listed rocking-chair, padded with calico cushions, Frank listened to Mr. Pengilly’s ramblings. For a time they talked only of externals; gossip of their parishes; laughter at the man who went from church to church fretting the respectable by shouting “Hallelujah”; local chatter not without a wholesome and comforting malice. Frank was at first afraid to bare his youthful hesitancies to so serene an old saint, but at last he admitted his doubts.

How, he demanded, could you reconcile a Loving God with one who would strike down an Uzza for the laudable act of trying to save the Ark of the Covenant from falling, who would kill forty-two children (and somewhat ludicrously) for shouting at Elisha as any small boy in Catawba today would shout? Was it reasonable? And, if it wasn’t, if any part of the Bible was mythical, where to stop? How would we know if anything in the Bible was “inspired”?

Mr. Pengilly was not shocked, nor was he very agitated. His thin fingers together, far down in his worn plush chair, he mused:

“Yes, I’m told the higher critics ask these things. I believe it bothers people. But I wonder if perhaps God hasn’t put these stumbling blocks in the Bible as a test of our faith, of our willingness to accept with all our hearts and souls a thing that may seem ridiculous to our minds? You see, our minds don’t go far. Think — how much does even an astronomer know about folks on Mars, if there are any folks there? Isn’t it with our hearts, our faith, that we have to accept Jesus Christ, and not with our historical charts? Don’t we FEEL his influence on our lives? Isn’t it the biggest men that feel it the most? Maybe God wants to keep out of the ministry all the folks that are so stuck on their poor minds that they can’t be humble and just accept the great overpowering truth of Christ’s mercy. Do you — When do you feel nearest to God? When you’re reading some awful’ smart book criticizing the Bible or when you kneel in prayer and your spirit just flows forth and you KNOW that you’re in communion with him?”

“Oh, of course —”

“Don’t you think maybe he will explain all these puzzling things in his own good time? And meanwhile wouldn’t you rather be a help to poor sick worried folks than write a cute little book finding a fault?”

“Oh, well —”

“And has there ever been anything like the Old Book for bringing lost souls home to happiness? Hasn’t it WORKED?”

In Andrew Pengilly’s solacing presence these seemed authentic arguments, actual revelations; Bruno Zechlin was far off and gray; and Frank was content.

Equally did Mr. Pengilly console him about the intelligent workmen who would have none of the church. The old man simply laughed.

“Good Heavens, boy! What do you expect, as a preacher? A whole world that’s saved, and nothing for you to do? Reckon you don’t get much salary, but how do you expect to earn that much? These folks don’t go to any Christian church? Huh! When the Master started out, wa’nt anybody going to a Christian church! Go out and get ’em!”

Which seemed disastrously reasonable to the shamed Frank; and he went out to get ’em, and didn’t do so, and continued in his ministry.

He had heard in theological seminary of the “practise of the presence of God” as a papist mystery. Now he encountered it. Mr. Pengilly taught him to kneel, his mind free of all worries, all prides, all hunger, his lips repeating “Be thou visibly present with me”— not as a charm but that his lips might not be soiled with more earthly phrases — and, when he had become strained and weary and exalted, to feel a Something glowing and almost terrifying about him, and to experience thus, he was certain, the actual, loving, proven nearness of the Divinity.

He began to call his mentor Father Pengilly, and the old man eluded him only a little . . . presently did not chide him at all.

For all his innocence and his mysticism, Father Pengilly was not a fool nor weak. He spoke up harshly to a loud-mouthed grocer, new come to town, who considered the patriarch a subject for what he called “kidding,” and who shouted, “Well, I’m getting tired of waiting for you preachers to pray for rain. Guess you don’t believe the stuff much yourselves!” He spoke up to old Miss Udell, the purity specialist of the town, when she came to snuffle that Amy Dove was carrying on with the boys in the twilight. “I know how you like a scandal, Sister,” said he. “Maybe taint Christian to deny you one. But I happen to know all about Amy. Now if you’d go out and help poor old crippled Sister Eckstein do her washing, maybe you’d keep busy enough so’s you could get along without your daily scandal.”

He had humor, as well, Father Pengilly. He could smile over the cranks in the congregation. And he liked the village atheist, Doc Lem Staples. He had him at the house, and it healed Frank’s spirit to hear with what beatific calm Father Pengilly listened to the Doc’s jibes about the penny-pinchers and the sinners in the church.

“Lem,” said Father Pengilly, “you’ll be surprised at this, but I must tell you that there’s two-three sinners in your fold, too. Why, I’ve heard of even horse-thieves that didn’t belong to churches. That must prove something, I guess. Yes, sir, I admire to hear you tell about the kind-hearted atheists, after reading about the cannibals, who are remarkably little plagued with us Methodists and Baptists.”

Not in his garden only but in the woods, along the river, Father Pengilly found God in Nature. He was insane about fishing — though indifferent to the catching of any actual fish. Frank floated with him in a mossy scow, in a placid backwater under the willows. He heard the gurgle of water among the roots and watched the circles from a leaping bass. The old man (his ruddy face and silver mustache shaded by a shocking hayfield straw hat) hummed “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” When Father Pengilly mocked him, “And you have to go to books to find God, young man!” then Frank was content to follow him, to be his fellow preacher, to depend more on Pengilly’s long experience than on irritating questions, to take any explanation of the validity of the Bible, of the mission of the church, the leadership of Christ, which might satisfy this soldier of the cross.

Frank became more powerful as a preacher. He went from Catawba, via pastorates in two or three larger towns, to Eureka, a camp of forty thousand brisk industrialists, and here he was picked up and married by the amiable Bess.


Bess Needham, later to be Bess Shallard, was remarkably like a robin. She had the same cheerfulness, the same round ruddiness, and the same conviction that early rising, chirping, philoprogenitiveness, and strict attention to food were the aims of existence. She had met Frank at a church “social,” she had pitied what she regarded as his underfed pallor, she had directed her father, an amiable and competent dentist, to invite Frank home, for “a real feed” and bright music on the phonograph. She listened fondly to his talk — she had no notion what it was about, but she liked the sound of it.

He was stirred by her sleek neck, her comfortable bosom, by the dimpled fingers which stroked his hair before he knew that he longed for it. He was warmed by her assertion that he “put it all over” the Rev. Dr. Seager, the older Baptist parson in Eureka. So she was able to marry him without a struggle, and they had three children in the shortest possible time.

She was an admirable wife and mother. She filled the hot water bottle for his bed, she cooked corn beef and cabbage perfectly, she was polite to the most exasperating parishioners, she saved money, and when he sat with fellow clerics companionably worrying about the sacraments, she listened to him, and him alone, with beaming motherliness.

He realized that with a wife and three children he could not consider leaving the church; and the moment he realized it he began to feel trapped and to worry about his conscience all the more.


There was, in Eureka, with its steel mills, its briskness, its conflict between hard-fisted manufacturers and hard-headed socialists, nothing of the contemplation of Catawba, where thoughts seemed far-off stars to gaze on through the mist. Here was a violent rush of ideas, and from this rose the “Preachers’ Liberal Club,” toward which Frank was drawn before he had been in Eureka a fortnight.

The ring-leader of these liberals was Hermann Kassebaum, the modernist rabbi — young, handsome, black of eye and blacker of hair, full of laughter, regarded by the elect of the town as a shallow charlatan and a dangerous fellow, and actually the most scholarly man Frank had ever encountered, except for Bruno Zechlin. With him consorted a placidly atheistic Unitarian minister, a Presbyterian who was orthodox on Sunday and revolutionary on Monday, a wavering Congregationalist, and an Anglo–Catholic Episcopalian, who was enthusiastic about the beauties of the ritual and the Mithraic origin of the same.

And Frank’s fretting wearily started all over again. He re-read Harnack’s “What Is Christianity?” Sunderland’s “Origin and Nature of the Bible,” James’s “Varieties of Religious Experience,” Fraser’s “Golden Bough.”

He was in the pleasing situation where whatever he did was wrong. He could not content himself with the discussions of the Liberal Club. “If you fellows believe that way, why don’t you get out of the church?” he kept demanding. Yet he could not leave them; could not, therefore, greatly succeed among the Baptist brethren. His good wife, Bess, when he diffidently hinted of his doubts, protested, “You can’t reach people just through their minds. Besides, they wouldn’t understand you if you DID come right out and tell ’em the truth — as you see it. They aren’t ready for it.”

His worst doubt was the doubt of himself. And in this quite undignified wavering he remained, envying equally Rabbi Kassebaum’s public scoffing at all religion and the thundering certainties of the cover-to-cover evangelicals. He who each Sunday morning neatly pointed his congregation the way to Heaven was himself tossed in a Purgatory of self-despising doubt, where his every domestic virtue was cowardice, his every mystic aspiration a superstitious mockery, and his every desire to be honest a cruelty which he must spare Bess and his well-loved brood.

He was in this mood when the Reverend Elmer Gantry suddenly came, booming and confident, big and handsome and glossy, into his study, and explained that if Frank could let him have a hundred dollars, Elmer, and presumably the Lord, would be grateful and return the money within two weeks.

The sight of Elmer as a fellow pastor was too much for Frank. To get rid of him, he hastily gave Elmer the hundred he had saved up toward payment of the last two obstetrical bills, and sat afterward at his desk, his head between his lax hands, praying, “O Lord, guide me!”

He leapt up. “No! Elmer said the Lord had been guiding HIM! I’ll take a chance on guiding myself! I will —” Again, weakly, “But how can I hurt Bess, hurt my dad, hurt Father Pengilly? Oh, I’ll go on!”


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