Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 8


The ardor of Lulu, the pride of having his own church at Schoenheim, the pleasure of watching Frank Shallard puff in agony over the hand-car, all these did not make up to Elmer for his boredom in seminary classes from Monday to Friday — that boredom which all preachers save a few sporting country parsons, a few managers of factory-like institutional churches, must endure throughout their lives.

Often he thought of resigning and going into business. Since buttery words and an important manner would be as valuable in business as in the church, the class to which he gave the most reverent attention was that of Mr. Ben T. Bohnsock, “Professor of Oratory and Literature, and Instructor in Voice Culture.” Under him, Elmer had been learning an ever more golden (yet steel-strong) pulpit manner, learning not to split infinitives in public, learning that references to Dickens, Victor Hugo, James Whitcomb Riley, Josh Billings, and Michelangelo give to a sermon a very toney Chicago air.

Elmer’s eloquence increased like an August pumpkin. He went into the woods to practise. Once a small boy came up behind him, standing on a stump in a clearing, and upon being greeted with “I denounce the abominations of your lascivious and voluptuous, uh, abominations,” he fled yelping, and never again was the same care-free youth.

In moments when he was certain that he really could continue with the easy but dull life of the ministry, Elmer gave heed to Dean Trosper’s lectures in Practical Theology and in Homiletics. Dr. Trosper told the aspiring holy clerks what to say when they called on the sick, how to avoid being compromised by choir-singers, how to remember edifying or laugh-trapping anecdotes by cataloguing them, how to prepare sermons when they had nothing to say, in what books they could find the best predigested sermon-outlines, and, most useful of all, how to raise money.

Eddie Fislinger’s note-book on the Practical Theology lectures (which Elmer viewed as Elmer’s note-book also, before examinations) was crammed with such practical theology as:

Pastoral visiting:
No partiality.
Don’t neglect hired girls, be cordial.
Guard conversation, pleasing manner and laugh and maybe one
funny story but no scandal or crit. of others.
Stay only 15–30 minutes.
Ask if like to pray with, not insist.
Rem gt opportunities during sickness, sorrow, marriage.
Ask jokingly why husband not oftener to church.

The course in Hymnology Elmer found tolerable; the courses in New Testament Interpretation, Church History, Theology, Missions, and Comparative Religions he stolidly endured and warmly cursed. Who the dickens cared whether Adoniram Judson became a Baptist by reading his Greek New Testament? Why all this fuss about a lot of prophecies in Revelation — he wasn’t going to preach that highbrow stuff! And expecting them to make something out of this filioque argument in theology! Foolish!

The teachers of New Testament and Church History were ministers whom admiring but bored metropolitan congregations had kicked up-stairs. To both of them polite deacons had said, “We consider you essentially scholarly, Brother, rather than pastoral. Very scholarly. We’re pulling wires to get you the high honor that’s your due — election to a chair in one of the Baptist seminaries. While they may pay a little less, you’ll have much more of the honor you so richly deserve, and lots easier work, as you might say.”

The grateful savants had accepted, and they were spending the rest of their lives reading fifteenth-hand opinions, taking pleasant naps, and drooling out to yawning students the anemic and wordy bookishness which they called learning.

But the worst of Elmer’s annoyances were the courses given by Dr. Bruno Zechlin, Professor of Greek, Hebrew, and Old Testament Exegesis.

Bruno Zechlin was a Ph. D. of Bonn, an S.T.D. of Edinburgh. He was one of the dozen authentic scholars in all the theological institutions of America, and incidentally he was a thorough failure. He lectured haltingly, he wrote obscurely, he could not talk to God as though he knew him personally, and he could not be friendly with numbskulls.

Mizpah Seminary belonged to the right-wing of the Baptists; it represented what was twenty years later to be known as “fundamentalism”; and in Mizpah Dr. Zechlin had been suspected of heresy.

He also had a heathenish tawny German beard, and he had been born not in Kansas or Ohio but in a city ridiculously named Frankfort.

Elmer despised him, because of the beard, because he was enthusiastic about Hebrew syntax, because he had no useful tips for ambitious young professional prophets, and because he had seemed singularly to enjoy flunking Elmer in Greek, which Elmer was making up with a flinching courage piteous to behold.

But Frank Shallard loved Dr. Zechlin, him alone among the members of the faculty.


Frank Shallard’s father was a Baptist minister, sweet-tempered, bookish, mildy liberal, not unsuccessful; his mother was of a Main Line family, slightly run to seed. He was born in Harrisburg and reared in Pittsburgh, always under the shadow of the spires — in his case, a kindly shadow and serene, though his father did labor long at family prayers and instruct his young to avoid all worldly pollution, which included dancing, the theater, and the libidinous works of Balzac.

There was talk of sending Frank to Brown University or Pennsylvania, but when he was fifteen his father had a call to a large church in Cleveland, and it was the faculty of Oberlin College, in Ohio, who interpreted and enriched for Frank the Christian testimony to be found in Plautus, Homer, calculus, basket-ball, and the history of the French Revolution.

There was a good deal of the natural poet in him and, as is not too rarely the case with poets, something of the reasoning and scientific mind. But both imagination and reason had been submerged in a religion in which doubt was not only sinful but, much worse, in bad taste. The flair which might have turned to roses and singing, or to banners and bravado, or to pity of hopeless toilers, had been absorbed in the terrible majesty of the Jew Jehovah, the brooding mercy of Our Lord, the tales of his birth — jeweled kings and the shepherds’ campfire, the looming star and the babe in the manger; myths bright as enamel buds — and he was bemused by the mysteries of Revelation, an Alice in Wonderland wearing a dragon mask.

Not only had he been swathed in theology, but all his experience had been in books instead of the speech of toiling men. He had been a solitary in college, generous but fastidious, jarred by his classmates’ belching and sudden laughter.

His reasoning had been introverted, turned from an examination of men as mammals and devoted to a sorrow that sinful and aching souls should not more readily seek the security of a mystic process known as Conviction, Repentance, and Salvation, which, he was assured by the noblest and most literate men he had ever known, was guaranteed to cure all woe. His own experience did not absolutely confirm this. Even after he had been quite ecstatically saved, he found himself falling into deep, still furies at the familiarities of hobbledehoys, still peeping at the arching bodies of girls. But that, he assured himself, was merely because he hadn’t “gone on to perfection.”

There were doubts. The Old Testament God’s habit of desiring the reeking slaughter of every one who did not flatter him seemed rather anti-social, and he wondered whether all the wantoning in the Song of Solomon did really refer to the loyalty between Christ and the Church. It seemed unlike the sessions of Oberlin Chapel and the Miller Avenue Baptist Church of Cleveland, Ohio. Could Solomon just possibly refer to relations between beings more mundane and frisky?

Such qualities of reason as he had, Frank devoted not to examining and banishing the doubt itself. He had it as an axiom that doubt was wicked, and he was able to enjoy considerable ingenuity in exorcising it. He had a good deal of self-esteem and pleasure among the purple-broidered ambiguities of religion.

That he should become a minister had always been assumed. He had no such definite and ecstatic Call as came to Elmer Gantry, but he had always known that he would go on nibbling at theories about the eucharist, and pointing men the way to uncharted plateaus called Righteousness, Idealism, Honesty, Sacrifice, Beauty, Salvation.

Curly flaxen hair, clear skin, fine nose, setter eyes, straight back, Frank was a pleasant-looking young man at twenty-three, in his senior year at Mizpah Seminary.

He was a favorite of Dean Trosper, of the Professor of New Testament Interpretation; his marks were high, his manner was respectful and his attendance was perfect. But his master among the faculty was the stammering and stumbling Bruno Zechlin, that bearded advocate of Hebrew syntax, that suspected victim of German beer and German rationalism, and Frank was the only student of his generation whom Dr. Zechlin chose as confidant.

During Frank’s first year in Mizpah, Zechlin and he were merely polite to each other; they watched each other and respected each other and remained aloof. Frank was diffident before Dr. Zechlin’s learning, and in the end it was Zechlin who offered friendship. He was a lonely man. He was a bachelor and he despised all of his colleagues whom he did not fear. Particularly did he dislike being called “Brother Zechlin” by active long-legged braying preachers from the bush.

At the beginning of Frank’s second year in Mizpah he worried once in Old Testament Exegesis class, “Professor Zechlin, I wish you’d explain an apparent Biblical inconsistency to me. It says in John — some place in the first chapter I think it is — that ‘No man hath seen God at any time,’ and then in Timothy it states definitely, about God, ‘Whom no man hath seen nor can see,’ and yet in Exodus xxiv, Moses and more than seventy others did see him, with pavement under his feet, and Isaiah and Amos say they saw him, and God especially arranged for Moses to see part of him. And there too — God told Moses that nobody could stand seeing his face and live, but Jacob actually wrestled with God and saw him face to face and did live. Honestly, Professor, I’m not trying to raise doubts, but there does seem to be an inconsistency there, and I wish I could find the proper explanation.”

Dr. Zechlin looked at him with a curious fuzzy brightness. “What do you mean by a proper explanation, Shallard?”

“So we can explain these things to young people that might be bothered by them.”

“Well, it’s rather complicated. If you’ll come to my rooms after supper tonight, I’ll try to make it clear.”

But when Frank shyly came calling (and Dr. Zechlin exaggerated when he spoke of his “rooms,” for he had only a book-littered study with an alcove bedroom, in the house of an osteopath), he did not at all try to make it clear. He hinted about to discover Frank’s opinion of smoking, and gave him a cigar; he encased himself in a musty arm-chair and queried:

“Do you ever feel a little doubt about the literal interpretation of our Old Testament, Shallard?”

He sounded kind, very understanding.

“I don’t know. Yes, I guess I do. I don’t like to call them doubts —”

“Why not call ’em doubts? Doubting is a very healthy sign, especially in the young. Don’t you see that otherwise you’d simply be swallowing instruction whole, and no fallible human instructor can always be right, do you think?”

That began it — began a talk, always cautious, increasingly frank, which lasted till midnight. Dr. Zechlin lent him (with the adjuration not to let any one else see them) Renan’s “Jesus,” and Coe’s “The Religion of a Mature Mind.”

Frank came again to his room, and they walked, strolled together through sweet apple orchards, unconscious even of Indian summer pastures in their concentration on the destiny of man and the grasping gods.

Not for three months did Zechlin admit that he was an agnostic, and not for another month that atheist would perhaps be a sounder name for him than agnostic.

Before ever he had taken his theological doctorate, Zechlin had felt that it was as impossible to take literally the myths of Christianity as to take literally the myths of Buddhism. But for many years he had rationalized his heresies. These myths, he comforted himself, are symbols embodying the glory of God and the leadership of Christ’s genius. He had worked out a satisfactory parable: The literalist, said he, asserts that a flag is something holy, something to die for, not symbolically but in itself. The infidel, at the other end of the scale, maintains that the flag is a strip of wool or silk or cotton with rather unesthetic marks printed on it, and of considerably less use, therefore of less holiness and less romance, than a shirt or a blanket. But to the unprejudiced thinker, like himself, it was a symbol, sacred only by suggestion but not the less sacred.

After nearly two decades he knew that he had been fooling himself; that he did not actually admire Jesus as the sole leader; that the teachings of Jesus were contradictory and borrowed from earlier rabbis; and that if the teachings of Christianity were adequate flags, symbols, philosophies for most of the bellowing preachers whom he met and detested, then perforce they must for him be the flags, the symbols, of the enemy.

Yet he went on as a Baptist preacher, as a teacher of ministerial cubs.

He tried to explain it to Frank Shallard without seeming too shameful.

First, he suggested, it was hard for any man, it was especially hard for a teacher of sixty-five, to go back on the philosophy he had taught all his life. It made that life seem too pitifully futile.

And he did love to tread theological labyrinths.

And, he admitted, as they plodded back through a winter twilight, he was afraid to come out with the truth lest he plain lose his job.

Man of learning he was, but too sorry a preacher to be accepted by a liberal religious society, too lumbering a writer for journalism; and outside the world of religious parasitism (his own phrase) he had no way of earning his living. If he were kicked out of Mizpah, he would starve.

“So!” he said grimly. “I would hate to see you go through all this, Frank.”

“But — but — but — What am I to do, Dr. Zechlin? Do you think I ought to get out of the church? Now? While there’s time?”

“You have lived the church. You would probably be lonely without it. Maybe you should stay in it . . . to destroy it!”

“But you wouldn’t want it destroyed? Even if some details of dogma aren’t true — or even all of ’em — think what a consolation religion and the church are to weak humanity!”

“Are they? I wonder! Don’t cheerful agnostics, who know they’re going to die dead, worry much less than good Baptists, who worry lest their sons and cousins and sweethearts fail to get into the Baptist heaven — or what is even worse, who wonder if they may not have guessed wrong — if God may not be a Catholic, maybe, or a Mormon or a Seventh-day Adventist instead of a Baptist, and then they’ll go to hell themselves! Consolation? No! But — Stay in the church. Till YOU want to get out.”

Frank stayed.


By Senior year he had read many of Dr. Zechlin’s bootlegged books: Davenport’s “Primitive Traits in Religious Revivals,” which asserted that the shoutings and foamings and twitchings at revival meetings were no more sanctified than any other barbaric religious frenzies, Dods and Sunderland on the origin of the Bible, which indicated that the Bible was no more holy and infallible than Homer; Nathaniel Schmidt’s revolutionary life of Jesus, “The Prophet of Nazareth,” and White’s “History of the Warfare of Science with Theology,” which painted religion as the enemy, not the promoter, of human progress. He was indeed — in a Baptist seminary! — a specimen of the “young man ruined by godless education” whom the Baptist periodicals loved to paint.

But he stayed.

He clung to the church. It was his land, his patriotism. Nebulously and quite unpractically and altogether miserably he planned to give his life to a project called “liberalizing the church from within.”

It was a relief after his sophistries to have so lively an emotion as his sweet, clear, resounding hatred for Brother Elmer Gantry.


Frank had always disliked Elmer’s thickness, his glossiness, his smut, and his inability to understand the most elementary abstraction. But Frank was ordinarily no great hater, and when they went off together to guard the flock at Schoenheim, he almost liked Elmer in his vigorous excitement — beautiful earthy excitement of an athlete.

Frank considered Lulu Bains a bisque doll, and he would have cherished her like any ten-year-old in his Sunday School class. He saw Elmer’s whole body stiffen as he looked at Lulu. And there was nothing he could do.

He was afraid that if he spoke to Mr. Bains, or even to Lulu, in the explosion Elmer might have to marry her, and suddenly the Frank who had always accepted “the holy institution of matrimony” felt that for a colt like Lulu any wild kicking up of the heels would be better than being harnessed to Elmer’s muddy plow.

Frank’s minister father and his mother went to California for Christmas time, and he spent the holiday with Dr. Zechlin. They two celebrated Christmas Eve, and a very radiant, well-contented, extremely German Weinachtsabend that was. Zechlin had procured a goose, bullied the osteopath’s wife into cooking it, with sausages for stuffing and cranberry pancake to flank it. He brewed a punch not at all Baptist; it frothed, and smelled divinely, and to Frank it brought visions.

They sat in old chairs on either side of the round stove, gently waving their punch glasses, and sang:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,

Alles schläft, einsam wacht

Nur das traute hochheilige Paar,

Holder Knabe im lokkigen Haar

Schlaf in himm’lischer Ruh,

Schlaf in himm’lischer Ruh.

“Ah, yes,” the old man meditated, “that is the Christ I still dream of — the Child with shining hair, the dear German Christ Child — the beautiful fairy tale — and your Dean Trospers make Jesus into a monster that hates youth and laughter — Wein, Weib und Gesang. Der arme! How unlucky he was, that Christ, not to have the good Trosper with him at the wedding feast to explain that he must not turn the water into wine. Chk! Chk! I wonder if I am too old to start a leetle farm with a big vineyard and seven books?”


Elmer Gantry was always very witty about Dr. Bruno Zechlin. Sometimes he called him “Old Fuzzy.” Sometimes he said, “That old coot OUGHT to teach Hebrew — he looks like a page of Yid himself.” Elmer could toss off things like that. The applause of Eddie Fislinger, who was heard to say in hallways and lavatories that Zechlin lacked spirituality, encouraged Elmer to create his masterpiece.

Before Exegesis class, he printed on the blackboard in a disguised hand:

“I am Fuzzy Zechlin, the gazabo that knows more than God. If Jake Trosper got onto what I really think about inspiration of the Scriptures, he’d fire me out on my dirty Dutch neck.”

The assembling students guffawed, even ponderous Brother Karkis, the up-creek Calvin.

Dr. Zechlin trotted into the classroom, smiling. He read the blackboard inscription. He looked incredulous, then frightened, and peered at his class like an old dog stoned by hoodlums. He turned and walked out, to the laughter of Brother Gantry and Brother Karkis.

It is not recorded how the incident came to Dean Trosper.

He summoned Elmer. “I suspect it was you who wrote that on the blackboard.”

Elmer considered lying, then blurted, “Yes, I did, Dean. I tell you, it’s a shame — I don’t pretend to have reached a state of Christian perfection, but I’m trying hard, and I think it’s a shame when a man on the faculty is trying to take away our faith by hints and sneers, that’s how I feel.”

Dean Trosper spoke snappishly: “I don’t think you need worry about anybody suggesting new possibilities of sin to YOU, Brother Gantry. But there is some justification to what you say. Now go and sin no more. I still believe that some day you may grow up and turn your vitality into a means of grace for many, possibly including yourself. Thaddeldo.”

Dr. Bruno Zechlin was abruptly retired at Easter. He went to live with his niece. She was poor and liked bridge, and did not want him. He made a little money by translating from the German. He died within two years.

Elmer Gantry never knew who sent him thirty dimes, wrapped in a tract about holiness, nor why. But he found the sentiments in the tract useful in a sermon, and the thirty dimes he spent for lively photographs of burlesque ladies.


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