Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 24


It was during his inquiry about clerical allies and rivals — they were the same thing — that Elmer learned that two of his classmates at Mizpah Seminary were stationed in Zenith.

Wallace Umstead, the Mizpah student-instructor in gymnastics, was now general secretary of the Zenith Y.M.C.A.

“He’s a boob. We can pass him up,” Elmer decided. “Husky but no finesse and culture. No. That’s wrong. Preacher can get a lot of publicity speaking at the Y., and get the fellows to join his church.”

So he called on Mr. Umstead, and that was a hearty and touching meeting between classmates, two strong men come face to face, two fellow manly Christians.

But Elmer was not pleased to learn of the presence of the second classmate, Frank Shallard. He angrily recalled: “Sure — the fellow that high-hatted me and sneaked around and tried to spy on me when I was helping him learn the game at Schoenheim.”

He was glad to hear that Frank was in disgrace with the sounder and saner clergy of Zenith. He had left the Baptist Church; it was said that he had acted in a low manner as a common soldier in the Great War; and he had gone as pastor to a Congregational Church in Zenith — not a God-fearing, wealthy Congregational Church, like that of Dr. G. Prosper Edwards, but one that was suspected of being as shaky and cowardly and misleading as any Unitarian fold.

Elmer remembered that he still owed Frank the hundred dollars which he had borrowed to reach Zenith for the last of his Prosperity lectures. He was furious to remember it. He couldn’t pay it, not now, with a motor car just bought and only half paid for! But was it safe to make an enemy of this crank Shallard, who might go around shooting his mouth off and telling a lot of stories — not more’n half of ’em true?

He groaned with martyrdom, made out a check for a hundred — it was one-half of his present bank-balance — and sent it to Frank with a note explaining that for years he had yearned to return this money, but he had lost Frank’s address. Also, he would certainly call on his dear classmate just as soon as he got time.

“And that’ll be about sixteen years after the Day of Judgment,” he snorted.


Not all the tenderness, all the serene uprightness, all the mystic visions of Andrew Pengilly, that village saint, had been able to keep Frank Shallard satisfied with the Baptist ministry after his association with the questioning rabbi and the Unitarian minister at Eureka. These liberals proved admirably the assertion of the Baptist fundamentalists that to tamper with biology and ethnology was to lose one’s Baptist faith, wherefore State University education should be confined to algebra, agriculture, and Bible study.

Early in 1917, when it was a question as to whether he would leave his Baptist church or to be kicked out, Frank was caught by the drama of war — caught, in his wavering, by what seemed strength — and he resigned, for all of Bess’ bewildered protests; he sent her and the children back to her father, and enlisted as a private soldier.

Chaplain? No! He wanted, for the first time, to be normal and uninsulated.

Through the war he was kept as a clerk in camp in America. He was industrious, quick, accurate, obedient; he rose to a sergeancy and learned to smoke; he loyally brought his captain home whenever he was drunk; and he read half a hundred volumes of science.

And all the time he hated it.

He hated the indignity of being herded with other men, no longer a person of leisure and dignity and command, whose idiosyncrasies were important to himself and to other people, but a cog, to be hammered brusquely the moment it made any rattle of individuality. He hated the seeming planlessness of the whole establishment. If this was a war to end war, he heard nothing of it from any of his fellow soldiers or his officers.

But he learned to be easy and common with common men. He learned not even to hear cursing. He learned to like large males more given to tobacco-chewing than to bathing, and innocent of all words longer than “hell.” He found himself so devoted to the virtues of these common people that he wanted “to do something for them”— and in bewildered reflection he could think of no other way of “doing something for them” than to go on preaching.

But not among the Baptists, with their cast-iron minds.

Nor yet could he quite go over to the Unitarians. He still revered Jesus of Nazareth as the one path to justice and kindness, and he still — finding even as in childhood a magic in the stories of shepherds keeping watch by night, of the glorified mother beside the babe in the manger — he still had an unreasoned feeling that Jesus was of more than human birth, and veritably the Christ.

It seemed to him that the Congregationalists were the freest among the more or less trinitarian denominations. Each Congregational church made its own law. The Baptists were supposed to, but they were ruled by a grim general opinion.

After the war he talked to the state superintendent of Congregational churches of Winnemac. Frank wanted a free church, and a poor church, but not poor because it was timid and lifeless.

They would, said the superintendent, be glad to welcome him among the Congregationalists, and there was available just the flock Frank wanted: the Dorchester Church, on the edge of Zenith. The parishioners were small shopkeepers and factory foremen and skilled workmen and railwaymen, with a few stray music-teachers and insurance agents. They were mostly poor; and they had the reputation of really wanting the truth from the pulpit.

When Elmer arrived, Frank had been at the Dorchester Church for two years, and he had been nearly happy.

He found that the grander among his fellow Congregational pastors — such as G. Prosper Edwards, with his downtown plush-lined cathedral — could be shocked almost as readily as the Baptists by a suggestion that we didn’t really quite KNOW about the virgin birth. He found that the worthy butchers and haberdashers of his congregation did not radiate joy at a defense of Bolshevik Russia. He found that he was still not at all certain that he was doing any good, aside from providing the drug of religious hope to timorous folk frightened of hell-fire and afraid to walk alone.

But to be reasonably free, to have, after army life, the fleecy comfort of a home with jolly Bess and the children, this was oasis, and for three years Frank halted in his fumbling for honesty.

Even more than Bess, the friendship of Dr. Philip McGarry, of the Arbor Methodist Church, kept Frank in the ministry.

McGarry was three or four years younger than Frank, but in his sturdy cheerfulness he seemed more mature. Frank had met him at the Ministerial Alliance’s monthly meeting, and they had liked in each other a certain disdainful honesty. McGarry was not to be shocked by what biology did to Genesis, by the suggestion that certain Christian rites had been stolen from Mithraic cults, by Freudianism, by any social heresies, yet McGarry loved the church, as a comradely gathering of people alike hungry for something richer than daily selfishness, and this love he passed on to Frank.

But Frank still resented it that, as a parson, he was considered not quite virile; that even clever people felt they must treat him with a special manner; that he was barred from knowing the real thoughts and sharing the real desires of normal humanity.

And when he received Elmer’s note of greeting he groaned, “Oh, Lord, I wonder if people ever class me with a fellow like Gantry?”

He suggested to Bess, after a spirited account of Elmer’s eminent qualities for spiritual and amorous leadership, “I feel like sending his check back to him.”

“Let’s see it,” said Bess, and, placing the check in her stocking, she observed derisively, “There’s a new suit for Michael, and a lovely dinner for you and me, and a new lip-stick, and money in the bank. Cheers! I adore you, Reverend Shallard, I worship you, I adhere to you in all Christian fidelity, but let me tell you, my lad, it wouldn’t hurt you one bit if you had some of Elmer’s fast technique in love-making!”


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