Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 20


He had two days to prepare his first sermon and unpack his trunk, his bags, and the books which he had purchased in Zenith.

His possessions were not very consistent. He had a beautiful new morning coat, three excellent lounge suits, patent leather shoes, a noble derby, a flourishing top hat, but he had only two suits of underclothes, both ragged. His socks were of black silk, out at the toes. For breast-pocket display, he had silk handkerchiefs; but for use, only cotton rags torn at the hem. He owned perfume, hair-oil, talcum powder; his cuff links were of solid gold; but for dressing-gown he used his overcoat; his slippers were a frowsy pulp; and the watch which he carried on a gold and platinum chain was a one-dollar alarm clock.

He had laid in a fruitful theological library. He had bought the fifty volumes of the Expositors’ Bible — source of ready-made sermons — second-hand for $13.75. He had the sermons of Spurgeon, Jefferson, Brooks, and J. Wilbur Chapman. He was willing to be guided by these masters, and not insist on forcing his own ideas on the world. He had a very useful book by Bishop Aberman, “The Very Appearance of Evil,” advising young preachers to avoid sin. Elmer felt that this would be unusually useful in his new life.

He had a dictionary — he liked to look at the colored plates depicting jewels, flags, plants, and aquatic birds; he had a Bible dictionary, a concordance, a history of the Methodist Church, a history of Protestant missions, commentaries on the individual books of the Bible, an outline of theology, and Dr. Argyle’s “The Pastor and His Flock,” which told how to increase church collections, train choirs, take exercise, placate deacons, and make pasteboard models of Solomon’s Temple to lead the little ones to holiness in the Sunday School.

In fact he had had a sufficient library —“God’s artillery in black and white,” as Bishop Toomis wittily dubbed it — to inform himself of any detail in the practice of the Professional Good Man. He would be able to produce sermons which would be highly informative about the geography of Palestine, yet useful to such of his fold as might have a sneaking desire to read magazines on the Sabbath. Thus guided, he could increase the church membership; he could give advice to errant youth; he could raise missionary funds so that the heathen in Calcutta and Peking might have the opportunity to become like the Reverend Elmer Gantry.


Though Cleo took him for a drive through the country, most of the time before Sunday he dedicated to refurbishing a sermon which he had often and successfully used with Sharon. The text was from Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.”

When he came up to the church on Sunday morning, tall and ample, grave and magnificent, his face fixed in a smile of friendliness, his morning coat bright in the sun, a Bible under his arm, Elmer was exhilarated by the crowd filtering into the church. The street was filled with country buggies and a Ford or two. As he went round to the back of the church, passing a knot at the door, they shouted cordially, “Good morning, Brother!” and “Fine day, Reverend!”

Cleo was waiting for him with the choir — Miss Kloof, the school-teacher, Mrs. Diebel, wife of the implement dealer, Ed Perkins, deliveryman for Mr. Benham, and Ray Faucett, butter-maker at the creamery.

Cleo held his hand and rejoiced, “What a wonderful crowd there is this morning! I’m so glad!”

Together they peeped through the parlor door into the auditorium, and he almost put his arm about her firm waist . . . . It would have seemed natural, very pleasant and right and sweet.

When he marched out to the chancel, the church was full, a dozen standing. They all breathed with admiration. (He learned later that the last pastor had had trouble with his false teeth and a fondness for whining.)

He led the singing.

“Come on now!” he laughed. “You’ve got to welcome your new preacher! The best way is to put a lot of lung-power into it and sing like the dickens! You can all make some kind of noise. Make a lot!”

Himself he gave example, his deep voice rolling out in hymns of which he had always been fond: “I Love to Tell the Story” and “My Faith Looks up to Thee.”

He prayed briefly — he was weary of prayers in which the priest ramblingly explained to God that God really was God. This was, he said, his first day with the new flock. Let the Lord give him ways of showing them his love and his desire to serve them.

Before his sermon he looked from brother to brother. He loved them all, that moment; they were his regiment, and he the colonel; his ship’s crew, and he the skipper; his patients, and he the loyal physician. He began slowly, his great voice swelling to triumphant certainty as he talked.

Voice, sureness, presence, training, power, he had them all. Never had he so well liked his rôle; never had he acted so well; never had he known such sincerity of histrionic instinct.

He had solid doctrine for the older stalwarts. With comforting positiveness he preached that the atonement was the one supreme fact in the world. It rendered the most sickly and threadbare the equals of kings and millionaires; it demanded of the successful that they make every act a recognition of the atonement. For the young people he had plenty of anecdotes, and he was not afraid to make them laugh.

While he did tell the gloomy incident of the boy who was drowned while fishing on Sunday, he also gave them the humorous story of the lad who declared he wouldn’t go to school, “because it said in the Twenty-third Psalm that the Lord made him lie down in green pastures, and he sure did prefer that to school!”

For all of them, but particularly for Cleo, sitting at the organ, her hands clasped in her lap, her eyes loyal, he winged into poetry.

To preach the good news of the gospel, ah! That was not, as the wicked pretended, a weak, sniveling, sanctimonious thing! It was a job for strong men and resolute women. For this, the Methodist missionaries had faced the ferocious lion and the treacherous fevers of the jungle, the poisonous cold of the Arctic, the parching desert and the fields of battle. Were we to be less heroic than they? Here, now, in Banjo Crossing, there was no triumph of business so stirring, no despairing need of a sick friend so urgent, as the call to tell blinded and perishing sinners the necessity of repentance.

“Repentance — repentance — repentance — in the name of the Lord God!”

His superb voice trumpeted it, and in Cleo’s eyes were inspired tears.

Beyond controversy, it was the best sermon ever heard in Banjo Crossing. And they told him so as he cheerily shook hands with them at the door. “Enjoyed your discourse a lot, Reverend!”

And Cleo came to him, her two hands out, and he almost kissed her.


Sunday School was held after morning service. Elmer determined that he was not going to attend Sunday School every week —“not on your life; sneak in a nap before dinner”— but this morning he was affably and expansively there, encouraging the little ones by a bright short talk in which he advised them to speak the truth, obey their fathers and mothers, and give heed to the revelations of their teachers, such as Miss Mittie Lamb, the milliner, and Oscar Scholtz, manager of the potato warehouse.

Banjo Crossing had not yet touched the modern Sunday School methods which, in the larger churches, in another ten years, were to divide the pupils as elaborately as public school and to provide training-classes for the teachers. But at least they had separated the children up to ten years from the older students, and of this juvenile department Cleo Benham was superintendent.

Elmer watched her going from class to class; he saw how naturally and affectionately the children talked to her.

“She’d make a great wife and mother — a great wife for a preacher — a great wife for a bishop,” he noted.


Evening services at the Banjo Crossing Methodist Church had normally drawn less than forty people, but there were a hundred tonight, when, fumblingly, Elmer broke away from old-fashioned church practise and began what was later to become his famous Lively Sunday Evenings.

He chose the brighter hymns, “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” “Wonderful Words of Life,” “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” and the triumphant paean of “When the Roll is Called up Yonder, I’ll be There.” Instead of making them drone through many stanzas, he had them sing one from each hymn. Then he startled them by shouting, “Now I don’t want any of you old fellows to be shocked, or say it isn’t proper in church, because I’m going to get the spirit awakened and maybe get the old devil on the run! Remember that the Lord who made the sunshine and the rejoicing hills must have been behind the fellows that wrote the glad songs, so I want you to all pipe up good and lively with ‘Dixie’! Yes, SIR! Then, for the old fellows, like me, we’ll have a stanza of that magnificent old reassurance of righteousness, ‘How Firm a Foundation.’”

They did look shocked, some of them; but the youngsters, the boys and the girls keeping an aseptic tryst in the back pews, were delighted. He made them sing the chorus of ‘Dixie’ over and over, till all but one or two rheumatic saints looked cheerful.

His text was from Galatians: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace.”

“Don’t you ever listen for one second,” he commanded, “to these wishy-washy fellows that carry water on both shoulders, that love to straddle the fence, that are scared of the sternness of the good old-time Methodist doctrine and tell you that details don’t mean anything, that dogmas and the discipline don’t mean anything. They do! Justification means something! Baptism means something! It means something that the wicked and worldly stand for this horrible stinking tobacco and this insane alcohol, which makes a man like a murderer, but we Methodists keep ourselves pure and unspotted and undefiled.

“But tonight, on this first day of getting acquainted with you, Brothers and Sisters, I don’t want to go into these details. I want to get down to the fundamental thing which details merely carry out, and that fundamental thing — What is it? What is it? What is it but Jesus Christ, and his love for each and every one of us!

“Love! Love! Love! How beauteous the very word! Not carnal love but the divine presence. What is Love? Listen! It is the rainbow that stands out, in all its glorious many-colored hues, illuminating and making glad against the dark clouds of life. It is the morning and the evening star, that in glad refulgence, there on the awed horizon, call Nature’s hearts to an uplifted rejoicing in God’s marvelous firmament! Round about the cradle of the babe, sleeping so quietly while o’er him hangs in almost agonized adoration his loving mother, shines the miracle of Love, and at the last sad end, comforting the hearts that bear its immortal permanence, round even the quiet tomb, shines Love.

“What is great art — and I am not speaking of ordinary pictures but of those celebrated Old Masters with their great moral lessons — what is the mother of art, the inspiration of the poet, the patriot, the philosopher, and the great man of affairs, be he business man or statesman — yes, what inspires their every effort save Love?

“Oh, do you not sometimes hear, stealing o’er the plains at dawn, coming as it were from some far distant secret place, a sound of melody? When our dear sister here plays the offertory, do you not seem sometimes to catch the distant rustle of the wings of cherubim? And what is music, lovely, lovely music, what is fair melody? Ah, music, ’tis the voice of Love! Ah, ’tis the magician that makes right royal kings out of plain folks like us! ’Tis the perfume of the wondrous flower, ’tis the strength of the athlete, strong and mighty to endure ‘mid the heat and dust of the valorous conquest. Ah, Love, Love, Love! Without it, we are less than beasts; with it, earth is heaven and we are as the gods!

“Yes, that is what Love — created by Christ Jesus and conveyed through all the generations by his church, particularly, it seems to me, by the great, broad, democratic, liberal brotherhood of the Methodist Church — that is what it means to us.

“I am reminded of an incident in my early youth, while I was in the university. There was a young man in my class — I will not give you his name except to say that we called him Jim — a young man pleasing to the eye, filled with every possibility for true deep Christian service, but alas! so beset with the boyish pride of mere intellect, of mere smart-aleck egotism, that he was unwilling to humble himself before the source of all intellect and accept Jesus as his savior.

“I was very fond of Jim — in fact I had been willing to go and room with him in the hope of bringing him to his senses and getting him to embrace salvation. But he was a man who had read books by folks like Ingersoll and Thomas Paine — fool, swell-headed folks that thought they knew more than Almighty God! He would quote their polluted and devil-inspired ravings instead of listening to the cool healing stream that gushes blessedly forth from the Holy Bible. Well, I argued and argued and argued — I guess that shows I was pretty young and foolish myself! But one day I was inspired to something bigger and better than any arguments.

“I just said to Jim, all of a sudden, ‘Jim,’ I said, ‘do you love your father?’ (A fine old Christian gentleman his father was, too, a country doctor, with that heroism, that self-sacrifice, that wide experience which the country doctor has.) ‘Do you love your old dad?’ I asked him.

“Naturally, Jim was awful’ fond of his father, and he was kind of hurt that I should have asked him.

“‘Sure, of course I do!’ he says. ‘Well, Jim,’ I says, ‘does your father love you?’ ‘Why, of course he does,’ said Jim. ‘Then look here, Jim,’ I said; ‘if your earthly father can love you, how much more must your Father in Heaven, who created all Love, how much more must he care and yearn for you!’

“Well, sir, that knocked him right over. He forgot all the smart-aleck things he’d been reading. He just looked at me, and I could see a tear quivering in the lad’s eyes as he said, ‘I see how you mean, now, and I want to say, friend, that I’m going to accept Jesus Christ as my lord and master!’

“Oh, yes, yes, yes, how beautiful it is, the golden glory of God’s Love! Do you not FEEL it? I mean that! I don’t mean just a snuffling, lazy, mechanical acceptance, but a passionate —”


He had them!

It had been fun to watch the old fanatics, who had objected to the singing of Dixie, come under the spell and admit his power. He had preached straight at one of them after another; he had conquered them all.

At the end they shook hands even more warmly than in the morning.

Cleo stood back, hypnotized. When he came to her she intoned, her eyes unseeing, “Oh, Reverend Gantry, this is the greatest day our old church has ever known!”

“Did you like what I said of Love?”

“Oh . . . LOVE . . . yes!”

She spoke as one asleep; she seemed not to know that he was holding her hand, softly; she walked out of the church beside him, unspeaking, and of her tranced holiness he felt a little awe.


In his attention to business, Elmer had not given especial heed to the collections. It had not been carelessness, for he knew his technique as a Professional Good Man. But the first day, he felt, he ought to establish himself as a spiritual leader, and when they all understood that, he would see to it that they paid suitably for the spiritual leadership. Was not the Laborer worthy of his Hire?


The reception to welcome Elmer was held the next Tuesday evening in the basement of the church. From seven-thirty, when they met, till a quarter of eight, he was busy with a prodigious amount of hand-shaking.

They told him he was very eloquent, very spiritual. He could see Cleo’s pride at their welcome. She had the chance to whisper, “Do you realize how much it means? Mostly they aren’t anything like so welcoming to a new preacher. Oh, I am so glad!”

Brother Benham called them to order, in the basement, and Sister Kilween sang “The Holy City” as a solo. It was pretty bad. Brother Benham in a short hesitating talk said they had been delighted by Brother Gantry’s sermons. Brother Gantry in a long and gushing talk said that he was delighted by Brother Benham, the other Benhams, the rest of the congregation, Banjo Crossing, Banjo County, the United States of America, Bishop Toomis, and the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) in all its departments.

Cleo concluded the celebration with a piano solo, and there was a great deal more of hand-shaking. It seemed to be the rule that whoever came or was pushed within reach of the pastor, no matter how many times during the evening, should attack his hand each time.

And they had cake and homemade ice cream.

It was very dull and, to Elmer, very grateful. He felt accepted, secure, and ready to begin his work.


He had plans for the Wednesday evening prayer-meeting. He knew what a prayer-meeting in Banjo Crossing would be like. They would drone a couple of hymns and the faithful, half a dozen of them, always using the same words, would pop up and mumble, “Oh, I thank the Lord that he has revealed himself to me and has shown me the error of my ways and oh that those who have not seen his light and whose hearts are heavy with sin may turn to him this evening while they still have life and breath”— which they never did. And the sullenly unhappy woman in the faded jacket, at the back, would demand, “I want the prayers of the congregation to save my husband from the sins of smoking and drinking.”

“I may not,” Elmer meditated, “be as swell a scholar as old Toomis, but I can invent a lot of stunts and everything to wake the church up and attract the crowds, and that’s worth a whole lot more than all this yowling about the prophets and theology!”

He began his “stunts” with that first prayer-meeting.

He suggested, “I know a lot of us want to give testimony, but sometimes it’s hard to think of new ways of saying things, and let me suggest something new. Let’s give our testimony by picking out hymns that express just how we feel about the dear Savior and his help. Then we can all join together in the gladsome testimony.”

It went over.

“That’s a fine fellow, that new Methodist preacher,” said the villagers that week.

They were shy enough, and awkward and apparently indifferent, but in a friendly way they were spying on him, equally ready to praise him as a neighbor or snicker at him as a fool.

“Yes,” they said; “a fine fellow, and smart’s a whip, and mighty eloquent, and a real husky MAN. Looks you right straight in the eye. Only thing that bothers me — He’s too good to stay here with us. And if he is so good, why’d they ever send him here in the first place? What’s wrong with him? Boozer, d’ye think?”

Elmer, who knew his Paris, Kansas, his Gritzmacher Springs, had guessed that precisely these would be the opinions, and he took care, as he handshook his way from store to store, house to house, to explain that for years he had been out in the evangelistic field, and that by advice of his old and true friend, Bishop Toomis, he was taking this year in a smaller garden-patch to rest up for his labors to come.

He was assiduous, but careful, in his pastoral calls on the women. He praised their gingerbread, Morris chairs, and souvenirs of Niagara, and their children’s school-exercise books. He became friendly, as friendly as he could be to any male, with the village doctor, the village homeopath, the lawyer, the station-agent, and all the staff at Benham’s store.

But he saw that if he was to take the position suitable to him in the realm of religion, he must study, he must gather several more ideas and ever so many new words, to be put together for the enlightenment of the generation.


His duties at Banjo Crossing were not violent, and hour after hour, in his quiet chamber at the residence of the Widow Clark, he gave himself trustingly to scholarship.

He continued his theological studies; he read all the sermons by Beecher, Brooks, and Chapman; he read three chapters of the Bible daily; and he got clear through the letter G in the Bible dictionary. Especially he studied the Methodist Discipline, in preparation for his appearance before the Annual Conference Board of Examiners as a candidate for full conference membership — full ministerhood.

The Discipline, which is a combination of Methodist prayer-book and by-laws, was not always exciting. Elmer felt a lack of sermon-material and spiritual quickening in the paragraph:

The concurrent recommendation of two-thirds of all the members of the several Annual Conferences present and voting, and of two-thirds of all the members of the Lay Electoral Conferences present and voting, shall suffice to authorize the next ensuing General Conference by a two-thirds vote to alter or amend any of the provisions of this Constitution excepting Article X, 1; and also, whenever such alteration or amendment shall have been first recommended by a General Conference by a two-thirds vote, then so soon as two-thirds of all the members of the several Annual Conferences present and voting, and two-thirds of all the members of the Lay Electoral Conference present and voting, shall have concurred therein, such alteration or amendment shall take effect; and the result of the vote shall be announced by the General Superintendents.

He liked better, from the Articles of Religion in the Discipline:

The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifice of masses, in the which it is commonly said that the priest doth offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, is a blasphemous fable and dangerous deceit.

He wasn’t altogether certain what it meant, but it had such a fine uplifting roll. “Blasphemous fable and dangerous deceit.” Fine!

He informed his edified congregation the next Sunday that the infallibility of the Pope was “a blasphemous fable and a dangerous deceit,” and they almost jumped.

He had much edification from these “Rules for a Preacher’s Conduct” in the Discipline:

Be Serious. Let your motto be, “Holiness to the Lord.” Avoid all lightness, jesting, and foolish talking. Converse sparingly and conduct yourself prudently with women. . . . Tell every one under your care what you think wrong in his conduct and temper, and that lovingly and plainly, as soon as may be; else it will fester in your heart.

As a general method of employing our time we advise you, 1. As often as possible to rise at four. 2. From four to five in the morning and from five to six in the evening to meditate, pray, and read the Scriptures with notes.

Extirpate out of our Church buying or selling goods which have not paid the duty laid upon them by government . . . . Extirpate bribery — receiving anything, directly or indirectly — for voting at any election.

Elmer became a model in all these departments except, perhaps, avoiding lightness and jesting; conducting himself in complete prudence with women; telling every one under his care what he thought wrong with them — that would have taken all his spare time; arising at four; and extirpating sellers of smuggled goods.

For his grades, to be examined by the Annual Conference, he wrote to Dean Trosper at Mizpah. He explained to the dean that he had seen a great new light, that he had worked with Sister Falconer, but that it had been the early influence of Dean Trosper which, working somewhat slowly, had led him to his present perfection.

He received the grades, with a letter in which the dean observed:

“I hope you will not overwork your new zeal for righteousness. It might be hard on folks. I seem to recall a tendency in you to overdo a lot of things. As a Baptist, let me congratulate the Methodists on having you. If you really do mean all you say about your present state of grace — well, don’t let that keep you from going right on praying. There may still be virtues for you to acquire.”

“Well, by God!” raged the misjudged saint, and, “Oh, rats, what’s the odds! Got the credentials, anyway, and he says I can get my B. D. by passing an examination. Trouble with old Trosper is he’s one of these smart alecks. T’ hell with him!”


Along with his theological and ecclesiastical researches, Elmer applied himself to more worldly literature. He borrowed books from Cleo and from the tiny village library, housed in the public school; and on his occasional trips to Sparta, the nearest sizable city, he even bought a volume or two, when he could find good editions secondhand.

He began with Browning.

He had heard a lot about Browning. He had heard that he was a stylish poet and an inspiring thinker. But personally he did not find that he cared so much for Browning. There were so many lines that he had to read three or four times before they made sense, and there was so much stuff about Italy and all those Wop countries.

But Browning did give him a number of new words for the notebook of polysyllables and phrases which he was to keep for years, and which was to secrete material for some of his most rotund public utterances. There has been preserved a page from it:

incinerate — burn up
Merovingian — French tribe about A.D. 500
rem Golgotha was scene crucifixn
Leigh Hunt — poet — 1840 — n. g.
lupin — blue flower
defeasance — making nix
chanson (pro. Shan-song)— French kind of song
Rem: Man worth while is m. who can smile when ev thing goes dead wrong
Sermon on man that says other planets inhabited — nix. cause Bible
says o of Xt trying to save THEM.

Tennyson, Elmer found more elevating then Browning. He liked “Maud”— she resembled Cleo, only not so friendly; and he delighted in the homicides and morality of “Idylls of the King.” He tried Fitzgerald’s Omar, which had been recommended by the literary set at Terwillinger, and he made a discovery which he thought of communicating through the press.

He had heard it said that Omar was non-religious, but when he read:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent

Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument

About it and about: but evermore

Came out by the same door wherein I went,

he perceived that in this quatrain Omar obviously meant that though teachers might do a whole lot of arguing, Omar himself stuck to his belief in Jesus.

In Dickens Elmer had a revelation.

He had not known that any literature published previous to the Saturday Evening Post could be thrilling. He did not care so much for the humor — it seemed to him that Mr. Dickens was vulgar and almost immoral when he got Pickwick drunk and caused Mantalini to contemplate suicide — but he loved the sentiment. When Paul Dombey died, Elmer could have wept; when Miss Nickleby protected her virtue against Sir Mulberry Hawk, Elmer would have liked to have been there, both as a parson and as an athlete, to save her from the accursed society man, so typical of his class in debauching youth and innocence.

“Yes, sir, you bet, that’s great stuff!” exulted Elmer. “There’s a writer that goes right down to the depths of human nature. Great stuff. I’ll preach on him when I get these hicks educated up to literary sermons.”

But his artistic pursuits could not be all play. He had to master philosophy as well; and he plunged into Carlyle and Elbert Hubbard. He terminated the first plunge, very icy, with haste; but in the biographies by Mr. Hubbard, at that time dominating America, Elmer found inspiration. He learned that Rockefeller had not come to be head of Standard Oil by chance, but by labor, genius, and early Baptist training. He learned that there are sermons in stones, edification in farmers, beatitude in bankers, and style in adjectives.

Elmer, who had always lived as publicly as a sparrow, could not endure keeping his literary treasures to himself. But for once Cleo Benham was not an adequate mate. He felt that she had read more of such belles-lettres as “The Message to Garcia” than even himself, so his companion in artistic adventure was Clyde Tippey, the Reverend Clyde Tippey, pastor of the United Brethren Church of Banjo Crossing.

Clyde was not, like Elmer, educated. He had left high school after his second year, and since then he had had only one year in a United Brethren seminary. Elmer didn’t think much, he decided, of all this associating and fellowshiping with a lot of rival preachers — it was his job, wasn’t it, to get their parishioners away from them? But it was an ecstasy to have, for once, a cleric to whom he could talk down.

He called frequently on the Reverend Mr. Tippey in the modest cottage which (at the age of twenty-six) Clyde occupied with his fat wife and four children. Mr. Tippey had pale blue eyes and he wore a fourteen-and-a-half collar encircling a thirteen neck.

“Clyde,” crowed Elmer, “if you’re going to reach the greatest number and not merely satisfy their spiritual needs but give ’em a rich, full, joyous life, you gotta explain great literature to ’em.”

“Yes. Maybe that’s so. Haven’t had time to read much, but I guess there’s lot of fine lessons to be learned out of literature,” said the Reverend Mr. Tippey.

“IS there! Say, listen to this! From Longfellow. The poet.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal,

and this — just get the dandy swing to it:

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time.

I read that way back in school-reader, but I never had anybody to show me what it meant, like I’m going to do with my congregation. Just think! ‘The grave is NOT its goal!’ Why, say, Longfellow is just as much of a preacher as you or I are! Eh?”

“Yes, that’s so. I’ll have to read some of his poetry. Could you lend me the book?”

“You bet I will, Clyde! Be a fine thing for you. A young preacher like you has got to remember, if you’ll allow an older hand to say so, that our education isn’t finished when we start preaching. We got to go on enlarging our mental horizons. See how I mean? Now I’m going to start you off reading ‘David Copperfield.’ Say, that’s full of fine passages. There’s this scene where — This David, he had an aunt that everybody thought she was simply an old crab, but the poor little fellow, his father-inlaw — I hope it won’t shock you to hear a preacher say it, but he was an old son of a gun, that’s what he was, and he treated David terribly, simply terribly, and David ran away, and found his aunt’s house, and then it proved she was fine and dandy to him! Say, ‘ll just make the tears come to your eyes, the place where he finds her house and she don’t recognize him and he tells her who he is, and then she kneels right down beside him — And shows how none of us are justified in thinking other folks are mean just because we don’t understand ’em. You bet! Yes, sir. ‘David Copperfield.’ You sure can’t go wrong reading that book!”

“‘David Copperfield.’ I’ve heard the name. It’s mighty nice of you to come and tell me about it, Brother.”

“Oh, that’s nothing, nothing at all! Mighty glad to help you in any way I can, Clyde.”

Elmer’s success as a literary and moral evangel to Mr. Clyde Tippey sent him back to his excavations with new fervor. He would lead the world not only to virtue but to beauty.

Considering everything, Longfellow seemed the best news to carry to this surprised and waiting world, and Elmer managed to get through many, many pages, solemnly marking the passages which he was willing to sanction, and which did not mention wine.

Ah, nothing is too late

Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.

Cato learned Greek at eighty; Sophocles

Wrote his grand Oedipus, and Simonides

Bore off the prize of verse from his compeers,

When each had numbered more than fourscore years.

Elmer did not, perhaps, know very much about Simonides, but with these instructive lines he was able to decorate a sermon in each of the pulpits he was henceforth to hold.

He worked his way with equal triumph through James Russell Lowell, Whittier, and Ella Wheeler Wilcox. He gave up Kipling because he found that he really enjoyed reading Kipling, and concluded that he could not be a good poet. But he was magnificent in discovering Robert Burns.

Then he collided with Josiah Royce.


Bishop Wesley R. Toomis had suggested to Elmer that he ought to read philosophy, and he had recommended Royce. He himself, he said, hadn’t been able to give so much time to Royce as he would have liked, but he knew that here was a splendid field for any intellectual adventurer. So Elmer came back from Sparta with the two volumes of Royce’s “The World and the Individual,” and two new detective stories.

He would skip pleasantly but beneficially through Royce, then pick up whatever ideas he might find in all these other philosophers he had heard mentioned: James and Kant and Bergson and who was that fellow with the funny name — Spinoza?

He opened the first volume of Royce confidently, and drew back in horror.

He had a nice, long, free afternoon in which to become wise. He labored on. He read each sentence six times. His mouth drooped pathetically. It did not seem fair that a Christian knight who was willing to give his time to listening to people’s ideas should be treated like this. He sighed, and read the first paragraph again. He sighed, and the book dropped into his lap.

He looked about. On the stand beside him was one of the detective stores. He reached for it. It began as all proper detective stories should begin — with the tap-room of the Cat and Fiddle Inn, on a stormy night when gusts of rain beat against the small ancient casement, but within all was bright and warm; the Turkey-red curtains shone in the firelight, and the burnished handles of the beer-pump —

An hour later Elmer had reached the place where the Scotland Yard Inspector was attacked from the furze-bush by the maniac. He excitedly crossed his legs, and Royce fell to the floor and lay there.

But he kept at it. In less than three months he had reached page fifty-one of the first volume of Royce. Then he bogged down in a footnote:

The scholastic text-books, namely, as for instance the Disputations of Suarez, employ our terms much as follows. Being (ens), taken quite in the abstract, such writers said, is a word that shall equally apply BOTH to the WHAT and to the THAT. Thus if I speak of the being of a man, I may, according to this usage, mean either the ideal nature of a man, apart from man’s existence, or the existence of a man. The term “Being” is so far indifferent to both of the sharply sundered senses. In this sense Being may be viewed as of two sorts. As the WHAT it means the Essence of things, or the Esse Essentiæ. In this sense, by the Being of a man, you mean simply the definition of what a man as an idea means. As the THAT, Being means the Existent Being, or Esse Existentiæ. The Esse Existentiæ of a man, or its existent being, would be what it would possess only if it existed. And so the scholastic writers in question always have to point out whether by the term Ens or Being, they in any particular passage are referring to the WHAT or to the THAT, to the Esse Essentiæ or to the Existentiæ.

The Reverend Elmer Gantry drew his breath, quietly closed the book, and shouted, “OH, SHUT UP!”

He never again read any philosophy more abstruse than that of Wallace D. Wattles or Edward Bok.


He did not neglect his not very arduous duties. He went fishing — which gained him credit among the males. He procured a dog, also a sound, manly thing to do, and though he occasionally kicked the dog in the country, he was clamorously affectionate with it in town. He went up to Sparta now and then to buy books, attend the movies, and sneak into theaters; and though he was tempted by other diversions even less approved by the Methodist Discipline, he really did make an effort to keep from falling.

By enthusiasm and brass, he raised most of the church debt, and made agitation for a new carpet. He risked condemnation by having a cornet solo right in church one Sunday evening. He kept himself from paying any attention, except for rollickingly kissing her once or twice, to the fourteen-year-old daughter of his landlady. He was, in fact, full of good works and clerical exemplariness.

But the focus of his life now was Cleo Benham.


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