Sunday, February 28, 2016

Corrupt Evangelist

Elmer GantryElmer Gantry 
by Sinclair Lewis

"Oh, he gave me special instructions back of the pulpit Christmas Eve. He got to howlin' "Repent! Repent!" and I got to moanin' "Save me! Save me!" and the first thing I know he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man's footsteps!" 

Elmer Gantry, the traveling evangelist who loved whiskey, women and wealth, was written by Sinclair Lewis in 1927. Lewis would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Gantry went on to become a synonym for hypocrisy and showmanship. Displays of these traits will often evoke his name, especially in reference to preachers. Lewis delighted in exposing hypocrisy and pomposity. His landscape was America in the 1920s, often the Midwest. It was a time when the Jazz Age and Prohibition were both in full swing, the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee highlighted a rise in fundamentalism, and traveling evangelists were popular.

During my Sinclair Lewis reading phase many years ago I found Arrowsmith, while providing an interesting picture of some of the quandaries in the medical profession, was not as appealing to me as Elmer Gantry. The latter novel drew me into the arena of fanatically religiosity and hypocrisy just as Main Street had done with the cultural life of small town America. The novel is an unabashed, unashamed, and unforgiving look at a man whose actions contradict everything he says--the epitome of a hypocrite. Elmer Gantry is perhaps one of the finest examples of a "larger than life" character, certainly exceeding Arrowsmith, Babbit and the genteel Carol Kennicott in that aspect. Gantry is a charming womanizer with a great voice who has been been kicked out of seminary and works as a traveling salesman. Gantry gets religion at a tent meeting in a small town, where he falls for Sister Sharon Falconer. She's suspicious, but agrees to take him on when he vows to testify as a "salesman who found God." The trouble down the novel's road awaits simply because Gantry never had a genuine call to the pulpit.

The book was banned in Boston, and other cities, for its depiction of the morally corrupt evangelist, Elmer Gantry. Several years later, it was even banned in Ireland. The opening and closing lines of the novel say it all: "Elmer Gantry was drunk... And we shall yet make these United States a moral nation." The success of the novel can be seen in that the name has become part of our language.

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Stephen said...

The only Lewis I've read was his "It Can't Happen Here", which I read during the last presidential election. Given the wave of authoritarian populism sweeping both parties, it seems even MORE relevant.

Is Gantry a pious fraud, or a deliberate shyster?

James said...


Yes, It Can't Happen Here is certainly more relevant than ever. As for Elmer Gantry, he was simply a drunken con man.