Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 18


The Reverend Elmer Gantry was writing letters — he had no friends, and the letters were all to inquirers about his Prosperity Classes — at a small oak-desk in the lobby of the O’-Hearn House in Zenith.

His Zenith classes here had gone not badly, not brilliantly. He had made enough to consider paying the hundred dollars back to Frank Shallard, though certainly not enough to do so. He was tired of this slippery job; he was almost willing to return to farm implements. But he looked anything but discouraged, in his morning coat, his wing collar, his dotted blue bow tie.

Writing at the other half of the lobby desk was a little man with an enormous hooked nose, receding chin, and a Byzantine bald head. He was in a brown business suit, with a lively green tie, and he wore horn-rimmed spectacles.

“Vice-president of a bank, but started as a school-teacher,” Elmer decided. He was conscious that the man was watching him. A possible student? No. Too old.

Elmer leaned back, folded his hands, looked as pontifical as possible, cleared his throat with a learned sound, and beamed.

The little man kept glancing up, rat-like, but did not speak.

“Beautiful morning,” said Elmer.

“Yes. Lovely. On mornings like this all Nature exemplifies the divine joy!”

“My God! No business for me here! He’s a preacher or an osteopath,” Elmer lamented within.

“Is this — this is Dr. Gantry, I believe.”

“Why, yes. I’m, uh, sorry, I—”

“I’m Bishop Toomis, of the Zenith area of the Methodist Church. I had the great pleasure of hearing one of your exordiums the other evening, Dr. Gantry.”

Elmer was hysterically thrilled.

Bishop Wesley R. Toomis! For years he had heard of the bishop as one of the giants, one of the pulpit orators, one of the profound thinkers, exalted speakers, and inspired executives of the Methodist Church, North. He had addressed ten thousand at Ocean Grove; he had spoken in Yale chapel; he had been a success in London. Elmer rose and, with a handshake which must have been most painful to the bishop, he glowed:

“Well, well, well, sir, this certainly is a mighty great pleasure, sir. It sure is! So you came and listened to me! Well, wish I’d known that. I’d of asked you to come sit on the platform.”

Bishop Toomis had risen also; he waved Elmer back into his chair, himself perched like a keen little hawk, and trilled:

“No, no, not at all, not at all. I came only as an humble listener. I dare say I have, by the chance and circumstance of age, had more experience of Christian life and doctrine than you, and I can’t pretend I exactly in every way agreed with you, you might say, but at the same time, that was a very impressive thought about the need of riches to carry on the work of the busy workaday world, as we have it at present, and the value of concentration in the silence as well as in those happy moments of more articulate prayer. Yes, yes. I firmly believe that we ought to add to our Methodist practise some of the Great Truths about the, alas, too often occulted and obstructed Inner Divine Powers possessed in unconsciousness by each of us, as New Thought has revealed them to us, and that we ought most certainly not to confine the Church to already perceived dogmas but encourage it to grow. It stands to reason that really devout prayer and concentration should most materially effect both bodily health and financial welfare. Yes, yes. I was interested in what you had to say about it and — The fact is that I am going to address the Chamber of Commerce luncheon this noon, along much these same lines, and if you happen to be free, I should be very glad if —”

They went, Elmer and Bishop Toomis, and Elmer added to the bishop’s observations a few thoughts, and the most caressing compliments about bishops in general, Bishop Wesley R. Toomis in particular, pulpit oratory, and the beauties of prosperity. Everybody had a radiant time, except possibly the members of the Chamber of Commerce, and after the luncheon Elmer and the bishop walked off together.

“My, my, I feel flattered that you should know so much about me! I am, after all, a very humble servant of the Methodist Church — of the Lord, that is — and I should not have imagined that any slight local reputation I might have would have penetrated into the New Thought world,” breathed the bishop.

“Oh, I’m not a New Thoughter. I’m, uh, temporarily conducting these courses — as a sort of psychological experiment, you might say. Fact is, I’m an ordained Baptist preacher, and of course in seminary your sermons were always held up to us as models.”

“I’m afraid you flatter me, Doctor.”

“Not at all. In fact they attracted me so that — despite my great reverence for the Baptist Church, I felt, after reading your sermons, that there was more breadth and vigor in the Methodist Church, and I’ve sometimes considered asking some Methodist leader, like yourself, about my joining your ministry.”

“Is that a fact? Is that a fact? We could use you. Uh — I wonder if you couldn’t come out to the house tomorrow night for supper — just take pot-luck with us?”

“I should be most honored, Bishop.”

Alone in his room, Elmer exulted, “That’s the stunt! I’m sick of playing this lone game. Get in with a real big machine like the Methodists — maybe have to start low down, but climb fast — be a bishop myself in ten years — with all their spondulix and big churches and big membership and everything to back me up. Me for it. O Lord, thou hast guided me . . . . No, honest, I mean it. . . . No more hell-raising. Real religion from now on. Hurray! Oh, Bish, you watch me hand you the ole flattery!”


The Episcopal Palace. Beyond the somber length of the drawing-room an alcove with groined arches and fan-tracery —-remains of the Carthusian chapel. A dolorous crucifixion by a pupil of El Greco, the sky menacing and wind-driven behind the gaunt figure of the dying god. Mullioned windows that still sparkled with the bearings of hard-riding bishops long since ignoble dust. The refectory table, a stony expanse of ancient oak, set round with grudging monkish chairs. And the library — on either side the lofty fireplace, austerely shining rows of calf-bound wisdom now dead as were the bishops.

The picture must be held in mind, because it is so beautifully opposite to the residence of the Reverend Dr. Wesley R. Toomis, bishop of the Methodist area of Zenith.

Bishop Toomis’ abode was out in the section of Zenith called Devon Woods, near the junction of the Chaloosa and Appleseed rivers, that development (quite new in 1913, when Elmer Gantry first saw it) much favored by the next-to-the-best surgeons, lawyers, real estate dealers, and hardware wholesalers. It was a chubby modern house, mostly in tapestry brick with varicolored imitation tiles, a good deal of imitation half-timbering in the gables, and a screened porch with rocking-chairs, much favored on summer evenings by the episcopal but democratic person of Dr. Toomis.

The living-room had built-in book-shelves with leaded glass, built-in seats with thin brown cushions, and a huge electrolier with shades of wrinkled glass in ruby, emerald, and watery blue. There were a great many chairs — club chairs, Morris chairs, straight wooden chairs with burnt-work backs — and a great many tables, so that progress through the room was apologetic. But the features of the room were the fireplace, the books, and the foreign curios.

The fireplace was an ingenious thing. Basically it was composed of rough-hewn blocks of a green stone. Set in between the larger boulders were pebbles, pink and brown and earth-colored, which the good bishop had picked up all over the world. This pebble, the bishop would chirp, guiding you about the room, was from the shore of the Jordan, this was a fragment from the Great Wall of China, and this he had stolen from a garden in Florence. They were by no means all the attractions of the fireplace. The mantel was of cedar of Lebanon, genuine, bound with brass strips from a ship wrecked in the Black Sea in 1902 — the bishop himself had bought the brass in Russia in 1904. The andirons were made from plowshares as used by the bishop himself when but an untutored farm lad, all unaware of coming glory, in the cornfields of Illinois. The poker was, he assured you, a real whaling harpoon, picked up, surprisingly cheap, at Nantucket. Its rude shaft was decorated with a pink bow. This was not the doing of the bishop but of his lady. Himself, he said, he preferred the frank, crude, heroic strength of the bare woods, but Mrs. Toomis felt it needed a touch, a brightening —

Set in the rugged chimney of the fireplace was a plaque of smooth marble on which was carved in artistic and curly and gilded letters: “The Virtue of the Home is Peace, the Glory of the Home is Reverence.”

The books were, as the bishop said, “worth browsing over.” There were, naturally, the Methodist Discipline and the Methodist Hymnal, both handsomely bound Roycrofty in limp blue calfskin with leather ties; there was an impressive collection of Bibles, including a very ancient one, dated 1740, and one extra-illustrated with all the Hoffmann pictures and one hundred and sixty other Biblical scenes; and there were the necessary works of theological scholarship befitting a bishop — Moody’s Sermons, Farrar’s “Life of Christ,” “Flowers and Beasties of the Holy Land,” and “In His Steps,” by Charles Sheldon. The more workaday ministerial books were kept in the study.

But the bishop was a man of the world and his books fairly represented his tastes. He had a complete Dickens, a complete Walter Scott, Tennyson in the red-line edition bound in polished tree calf with polished gilt edges, many of the better works of Macaulay and Ruskin and, for lighter moments, novels by Mrs. Humphry Ward, Winston Churchill, and Elizabeth of the German Garden. It was in travel and nature-study that he really triumphed. These were represented by not less than fifty volumes with such titles as “How to Study the Birds,” “Through Madagascar with Camp and Camera,” “My Summer in the Rockies,” “My Mission in Darkest Africa,” “Pansies for Thoughts,” and “London from a Bus.” Nor had the bishop neglected history and economics: he possessed the Rev. Dr. Hockett’s “Complete History of the World: Illustrated,” in eleven handsome volumes, a second-hand copy of Hartley’s “Economics,” and “The Solution of Capitalism vs. Labor — Brotherly Love.”

Yet not the fireplace, not the library, so much as the souvenirs of foreign travel gave to the bishop’s residence a flair beyond that of most houses in Devon Woods. The bishop and his lady were fond of travel. They had made a six months’ inspection of missions in Japan, Korea, China, India, Borneo, Java, and the Philippines, which gave the bishop an authoritative knowledge of all Oriental governments, religions, psychology, commerce, and hotels. But besides that, six several summers they had gone to Europe, and usually on the more refined and exclusive tours. Once they had spent three solid weeks seeing nothing but London — with side-trips to Oxford, Canterbury, and Stratford — once they had taken a four-day walking trip in the Tyrol, and once on a channel steamer they had met a man who, a steward said, was a Lord.

The living-room reeked with these adventures. There weren’t exactly so many curios — the bishop said he didn’t believe in getting a lot of foreign furniture and stuff when we made the best in the world right here at home — but as to pictures — The Toomises were devotees of photography, and they had brought back the whole world in shadow.

Here was the Temple of Heaven at Peking, with the bishop standing in front of it. Here was the Great Pyramid, with Mrs. Toomis in front of it. Here was the cathedral at Milan, with both of them in front of it — this had been snapped for them by an Italian guide, an obliging gentleman who had assured the bishop that he believed in prohibition.


Into this room Elmer Gantry came with overpowering politeness. He bent, almost as though he were going to kiss it, over the hand of Mrs. Toomis, who was a large lady with eyeglasses and modest sprightliness, and he murmured, “If you could only know what a privilege this is!”

She blushed, and looked at the bishop as if to say, “This, my beloved, is a good egg.”

He shook hands reverently with the bishop and boomed, “How good it is of you to take in a homeless wanderer!”

“Nonsense, nonsense, Brother. It is a pleasure to make you at home! Before supper is served, perhaps you’d like to glance at one or two books and pictures and things that Mother and I have picked up in the many wanderings to which we have been driven in carrying on the Work. . . . Now this may interest you. This is a photograph of the House of Parliament, or Westminster, as it is also called, in London, England, corresponding to our Capitol in Washington.”

“Well, well, is that a fact!”

“And here’s another photo that might have some slight interest. This is a scene very rarely photographed — in fact it was so interesting that I sent it to the National Geographic Magazine, and while they were unable to use it, because of an overload of material, one of the editors wrote to me — I have the letter some place — and he agreed with me that it was a very unusual and interesting picture. It is taken right in front of the Sacra Cur, the famous church in Paris, up on the hill of Moant-marter, and if you examine it closely you will see by the curious light that it was taken JUST BEFORE SUNRISE! And yet you see how bully it came out! The lady to the right, there, is Mrs. Toomis. Yes, sir, a real breath right out of Paris!”

“Well, say, that certainly is interesting! Paris, eh!”

“But, oh, Dr. Gantry, a sadly wicked city! I do not speak of the vices of the French themselves — that is for them to settle with their own consciences, though I certainly do advocate the most active and widespread extension of our American Protestant missions there, as in all other European countries which suffer under the blight and darkness of Catholicism. But what saddens me is the thought — and I know whereof I speak, I myself have seen that regrettable spectacle — what would sadden you, Dr. Gantry, is the sight of fine young Americans going over there and not profiting by the sermons in stones, the history to be read in those historical structures, but letting themselves be drawn into a life of heedless and hectic gaiety if not indeed of actual immorality. Oh, it gives one to think, Dr. Gantry.”

“Yes, it certainly must. By the way, Bishop, it isn’t Dr. Gantry — it’s Mr. Gantry — just plain Reverend.”

“But I thought your circulars —”

“Oh, that was a mistake on the part of the man who wrote them for me. I’ve talked to him good!”

“Well, well, I admire you for speaking about it! It is none too easy for us poor weak mortals to deny honors and titles whether they are rightly or wrongly conferred upon us. Well, I’m sure that it is but a question of time when you WILL wear the honor of a Doctor of Divinity degree, if I may without immodesty so refer to a handle which I myself happen to possess — yes, indeed, a man who combines strength with eloquence, charm of presence, and a fine high-grade vocabulary as you do, it is but a question of time when —”

“Wesley, dear, supper is served.”

“Oh, very well, my dear. The ladies, Dr. Gantry — Mr. Gantry — as you may already have observed, they seem to have the strange notion that a household must be run on routine lines, and they don’t hesitate, bless ’em, to interrupt even an abstract discussion to bid us come to the festal board when they feel that it’s time, and I for one make haste to obey and — After supper there’s a couple of other photographs that might interest you, and I do want you to take a peep at my books. I know a poor bishop has no right to yield to the lust for material possessions, but I plead guilty to one vice — my inordinate love for owning fine items of literature. . . . Yes, dear, we’re coming at once. Toojoor la fam, Mr. Gantry! — always the ladies! Are you, by the way, married?”

“Not yet, sir.”

“Well, well, you must take care of that. I tell you in the ministry there is always a vast, though often of course unfair, amount of criticism of the unmarried preacher, which seriously cramps him. Yes, my dear, we are coming.”

There were rolls hidden in the cornucopia-folded napkins, and supper began with a fruit cocktail of orange, apple, and canned pineapple.

“Well,” said Elmer, with a courtly bow to Mrs. Toomis, “I see I’m in high society — beginning with a cocktail! I tell you I just have to have my cocktail before the eats!”

It went over immensely. The bishop repeated it, choking.


Elmer managed, during supper, to let them know that not only was he a theological seminary man, not only had he mastered psychology, Oriental occultism, and the methods of making millions, but also he had been general manager for the famous Miss Sharon Falconer.

Whether Bishop Toomis was considering, “I want this man — he’s a comer — he’d be useful to me,” is not known. But certainly he listened with zeal to Elmer, and cooed at him, and after supper, with not more than an hour of showing him the library and the mementos of far-off roamings, he took him off to the study, away from Mrs. Toomis, who had been interrupting, every quarter of an hour, with her own recollections of roast beef at Simpson’s, prices of rooms on Bloomsbury Square, meals on the French wagon restaurant, the speed of French taxicabs, and the view of the Eiffel Tower at sunset.

The study was less ornate than the living-room. There was a business-like desk, a phonograph for dictation, a card catalogue of possible contributors to funds, a steel filing-cabinet, and the bishop’s own typewriter. The books were strictly practical: Cruden’s Concordance, Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, an atlas of Palestine, and the three published volumes of the Bishop’s own sermons. By glancing at these for not more than ten minutes, he could have an address ready for any occasion.

The bishop sank into his golden oak revolving desk-chair, pointed at his typewriter, and sighed, “From this horrid room you get a hint of how pressed I am by practical affairs. What I should like to do is to sit down quietly there at my beloved machine and produce some work of pure beauty that would last forever, where even the most urgent temporal affairs tend, perhaps, to pass away. Of course I have editorials in the Advocate, and my sermons have been published.”

He looked sharply at Elmer.

“Yes, of COURSE, Bishop, I’ve read them!”

“That’s very kind of you. But what I’ve longed for all these years is sinfully worldly literary work. I’ve always fancied, perhaps vainly, that I have a talent — I’ve longed to do a book, in fact a novel — I have rather an interesting plot. You see, this farm boy, brought up in circumstances of want, with very little opportunity for education, he struggles hard for what book-learning he attains, but there in the green fields, in God’s own pure meadows, surrounded by the leafy trees and the stars overhead at night, breathing the sweet open air of the pastures, he grows up a strong, pure, reverent young man, and of course when he goes up to the city — I had thought of having him enter the ministry, but I don’t want to make it autobiographical, so I shall have him enter a commercial line, but one of the more constructive branches of the great realm of business, say like banking. Well, he meets the daughter of his boss — she is a lovely young woman, but tempted by the manifold temptations and gaieties of the city, and I want to show how his influence guides her away from the broad paths that lead to destruction, and what a splendid effect he has not only on her but on others in the mart of affairs. Yes, I long to do that, but — Sitting here, just us two, one almost feels as though it would be pleasant to smoke — DO YOU SMOKE?”

“No, thanks be to God, Bishop. I can honestly say that for years I have never known the taste of nicotine or alcohol.”

“God be praised!”

“When I was younger, being kind of, you might say, a vigorous fellow, I was led now and then into temptation, but the influence of Sister Falconer — oh, there was a sanctified soul, like a nun — only strictly Protestant, of course — they so uplifted me that now I am free of all such desires.”

“I am glad to hear it, Brother, so glad to hear it. . . . Now, Gantry, the other day you said something about having thought of coming into the Methodist fold. How seriously have you thought about it?”


“I wish you would. I mean — Of course neither you nor I is necessary to the progress of that great Methodist Church, which day by day is the more destined to instruct and guide our beloved nation. But I mean — When I meet a fine young man like you, I like to think of what spiritual satisfaction he would have in this institution. Now the work you’re doing at present is inspiring to many fine young men, but it is single-handed — it has no PERMANENCE. When you go, much of the good you have done dies, because there is no institution like the living church to carry it on. You ought to be in one of the large denominations, and of these I feel, for all my admiration of the Baptists, that the Methodist Church is in some ways the great exemplar. It is so broad-spirited and democratic, yet very powerful. It is the real church of the people.”

“Yes, I rather believe you’re right, Bishop. Since I talked with you I’ve been thinking — Uh, if the Methodist Church should want to accept me, what would I have to do? Would there be much red tape?”

“It would be a very simple matter. As you’re already ordained, I could have the District Conference, which meets next month at Sparta, recommend you to the Annual Conference for membership. I am sure when the Annual Conference meets in spring of next year, a little less than a year from now, with your credits from Terwillinger and Mizpah I could get you accepted by the Conference and your orders recognized. Till then I can have you accepted as a preacher on trial. And I have a church right now, at Banjo Crossing, that is in need of just such leadership as you could furnish. Banjo has only nine hundred people, but you understand that it would be necessary for you to begin at the bottom. The brethren would very properly be jealous if I gave you a first-class appointment right at the first. But I am sure I could advance you rapidly. Yes, we must have you in the church. Great is the work for consecrated hands — and I’ll bet a cookie I live to see you a bishop yourself!”


He couldn’t, Elmer complained, back in the refuge of his hotel, sink to a crossroads of nine hundred people, with a salary of perhaps eleven hundred dollars; not after the big tent and Sharon’s throngs, not after suites and morning coats and being Dr. Gantry to brokers’ wives in ballrooms.

But also he couldn’t go on. He would never get to the top in the New Thought business. He admitted that he hadn’t quite the creative mind. He could never rise to such originality as, say, Mrs. Riddle’s humorous oracle: “Don’t be scared of upsetting folks ‘coz most of ’em are topsy-turvy anyway, and you’ll only be putting ’em back on their feet”

Fortunately, except in a few fashionable churches, it wasn’t necessary to say anything original to succeed among the Baptists or Methodists.

He would be happy in a regular pastorate. He was a professional. As an actor enjoyed grease-paint and call-boards and stacks of scenery, so Elmer had the affection of familiarity for the details of his profession — hymn books, communion service, training the choir, watching the Ladies’ Aid grow, the drama of coming from the mysteries back-stage, so unknown and fascinating to the audience, to the limelight of the waiting congregation.

And his mother — He had not seen her for two years, but he retained the longing to solace her, and he knew that she was only bewildered over his New Thought harlequinade.

But — nine hundred population!

He held out for a fortnight; demanded a bigger church from Bishop Toomis; brought in all his little clippings about eloquence in company with Sharon.

Then the Zenith lectures closed, and he had ahead only the most speculative opportunities.

Bishop Toomis grieved, “I am disappointed, Brother, that you should think more of the size of the flock than of the great, grrrrrrrreat opportunities for good ahead of you!”

Elmer looked his most flushing, gallant, boyish self. “Oh, no, Bishop, you don’t get me, honest! I just wanted to be able to use my training where it might be of the most value. But I’m eager to be guided by you!”

Two months later Elmer was on the train to Banjo Crossing, as pastor of the Methodist Church in that amiable village under the sycamores.


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