Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Review of Elmer Gantry, a novel by Sinclair Lewis

There is nothing new under the sun for the evangelist. All the issues of today are the same as they were ninety years ago.

A Review of Elmer Gantry, a novel by Sinclair Lewis
Daniel King

In 1926, Sinclair Lewis wrote Elmer Gantry, a fictional novel about a minister who is a hypocrite. The book was ranked as the number one fictional bestseller in 1927. It was instantly condemned by the church and Billy Sunday called the author “Satan’s cohort.” In part because of the success of this book, Lewis became the first American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930. The book was made into a movie in 1960 staring Burt Lancaster as Gantry and Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon Falconer.

The protagonist, Dr. Reverend Elmer Gantry is a shallow, egotistical, self-centered, hypocritical womanizer who accidentally stumbles into a ministry career. He is a college athlete who initially wants to be a lawyer, but after a false conversion encounter at a revival meeting (“he knew the rapture of salvation – yes, and of being the center of interest in the crowd”[1]), decides to be a preacher instead. While he is at seminary, he is assigned to be the pastor of a small church. While he is there, he has sex with a young woman name Lulu Bains. Her father tries to force Elmer to marry the girl, but Elmer tricks another man into being caught in a compromising situation with her.

Elmer is offered the opportunity to preach on Easter morning for a big Baptist church with the possibility of becoming the pastor. On the train ride to the church, he meets a salesman and gets drunk. He misses his service and his opportunity, and is kicked out of seminary when he is discovered drinking.

He becomes a salesman for several years until he attends a revival meeting being conducted by a female evangelist named Sharon Falconer. She is loosely based on Aimee Semple McPherson, who founded the Foursquare Gospel Church. Elmer starts working with her and eventually becomes her devoted lover. She is a modern-day Joan of Arc, flamboyant and dramatic in her preaching. She is a phony huckster just like Gantry, but at the same time she truly believes she is a prophetess and hears from God. She convinces Elmer to give up his habits of drinking and smoking. Eventually, she dies when her tabernacle catches on fire.

Elmer tries to launch out into evangelism himself, but he fails. After a short stint teaching the New Age philosophies of New Thought, he is recruited into the Methodist church. He successfully pastors a church in a small town and marries the daughter of one of his deacons. He quickly tires of her when she proves to be sexually cool.

Elmer is promoted to a bigger church in the fictional city of Zenith. He becomes a crusader for morality and his church grows quickly. Elmer starts a radio show and becomes well known. Meanwhile, he strikes up an affair with his old flame Lulu. Then he dumps her for a secretary who tries to blackmail him after a short affair. At the end of the novel, Elmer launches out on the national stage with a campaign to make America moral again by announcing, “We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!”[2]

Gantry is a Bible-thumping charlatan. He preaches against theft, but he is guilty of stealing from the offering plate. He preaches against sex, but he indulges in adultery in the study behind the platform. He preaches humility but he becomes addicted to the power religion gives him over others. Throughout the book, Elmer preaches the same sermon over and over again about how “love is the morning and the evening star.” But, even though Elmer preaches about love, he never demonstrates love for anyone. He is continually selfish and puts his own needs above the needs of others. He is always focused on money and he regularly gives in to the temptations of the flesh.

The characters in the book all demonstrate various elements of Christian hypocrisy.  There is the liberal professor who no longer believes in the Bible. He causes a talented young preacher to question his faith. The man who converts Elmer is seen smoking even though he preaches against the vice.[3] Elmer’s mother seems to be a true but simple minded Christian although her pride in her son and her hope for his future as a preacher is her blind spot. Elmer believes, “while you ought to teach the highest ideals, nobody could be expected to always and exactly live up to ‘em every day.”[4]

Nothing has changed in America today. As an evangelist, I found it interesting that almost all of the problems that evangelists are concerned with today are mentioned in this book from ninety years ago. Some of these include:

1. Professors teaching higher criticism of the Bible that destroys faith in God’s word. In the book, Bruno Zechlin, Ph.D. “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.”[5]

2. Preachers having big egos: “Elmer assumed that he was the center of the universe and that the rest of the system was valuable only as it afforded him help and pleasure.”[6] 

3. Preachers wanting to be the center of attention. Elmer “desired popularity. He had it now – popularity, almost love, almost reverence, and he felt overpoweringly his role as leading man.”[7] “The greatest urge in his memory of holding his audience, playing on them. To move people – Golly! He wanted to be addressing somebody on something right now, and being applauded.”[8]

4. Preachers getting addicted to publicity. “Elmer went out to see the posters, His name was in lovely large letters”[9] Elmer “advertised himself in the newspapers as though he were a cigarette or a brand of soap.” 

5. Preachers lying about charity to get money. Sharon Falconer says, “There is, for example, the Old Ladies’ Home, which I keep up entirely-oh, I shan’y say anything about it, but if you could see those poor aged woman turning to me with such anxious faces -!” (Where that Old Ladies’ Hope was, Elmer never learned.)”[10]

6. Preachers falling into sin. “Elmer followed the child-Jane Clark, she was-up to his room. As she frisked before him, she displayed six inches of ankle above her clumsy shoes, and Elmer was clutched by that familiar feeling, swifter than thought, more elaborate that the strategy of a whole war, which signified that here was a girl he was going to pursue.”[11]

7. Preachers chasing after money. After failing as an evangelist, Elmer becomes a proponent of New Thought where his “greatest interest was given to the Prosperity Classes.”[12] Elmer teaches his students to say positive confessions like “I am God’s child, God created all good things including wealth, and I will to inherit it.”[13] Elmer “made one discovery superb in its simple genius-the best way to get money was to ask for it, hard enough and long enough.”[14]

8. Preachers chasing after woman. Dr. Binch complains to Sharon, “Why is it that in such a high calling as ours there are so many rascals? Take Dr. Mortonby! Calling himself a cover-to-cover literalist, and then his relations to the young woman who sings for him-I would shock you, Sister Falconer, if I told you what I suspect.”[15] Meanwhile, Sharon is committing adultery with Elmer.

9. Evangelists exaggerating the size of their meetings. “All the statistics of the personal work-so many souls invited to come to the altar, so many addresses to workmen over their lunch-pails, so many cottage prayers, with the length of each-were rather imaginatively entered by Elmer and the Director of Personal Work on the balance-sheet which Sharon used as a report after the meetings as a talking-point for the sale of future meetings.”

10. Evangelists exaggerating the number of people who get saved at their events.  “Say, Dr. Binch,” said Elmer, “how to you count your converts? Some of the preachers in this last town accused us of lying about the number. On what basis do you count them?” “Why, I count every one (and we use a recording machine) that comes down to the front and shakes hands with me. What if some of them are merely old church members warmed over? Isn’t it worth just as much to give new spiritual life to those who’ve had it and lost it?”[16]

11. Not every convert at a meeting stay saved. Some churchmen who opposed evangelism “…were publishing statistics which asserted that not ten per cent of the converts at emotional revival meetings remained church members.”[17]

12. Evangelists collecting huge offerings while local pastors barely receive any salary. Pastors were “even so commercial as to inquire why a pastor with a salary of two thousand dollars a year – when he got it- should agonize over helping an evangelist to make ten thousand, forty thousand.”[18] 

13. Evangelists reporting false healings. “Elmer led the healed deaf woman aside and asked her name for the newspapers. It is true that she could not hear him, but he wrote out his questions, she wrote out her answers, and he got an excellent story for the papers…”[19]

14. Evangelists faking conversions. “Elmer had to go out and hire half a dozen convincing converts.”[20]

15. Evangelists using methods of marketing and organization in order to have successful meetings. Dr. Binch says, “My motto as a soul-saver, if I may venture to apply such a lofty title to myself, is that one should use every method that, in the vernacular, will sell the goods.”[21] Sharon laments, “Oh, the world doesn’t appreciate evangelists. Think what we can do for a resident minister! Those preachers who talk about conducting their own revivals make me sick! They don’t know the right technique. Conducting revivals is a profession. One must know all the tricks. With all modesty, I figure that I know just what will bring in the converts.”[22]

16. Evangelists becoming professional in their approach to church instead of serving God. “The gospel crew could never consider their converts as human beings, like waiters or manicurists or brakemen, but they had in them such a professional interest as surgeons take in patients, critics in an author, fishermen in trout.”[23] 

17. Preachers focusing on the size of crowds as an indication of their success. “The crowds do seem to be increasing steadily,” Elmer tells an associate. “We had over eleven hundred present on my last Sunday evening…and during the season we often have nearly eighteen hundred, in an auditorium that’s only supposed to seat sixteen hundred!”

18. Evangelists using emotional manipulation to get converts. “Elmer explained that prospects were more likely to be converted if they came to the meetings with a fair amount of fear…the real purpose of singing was to lead the audience to a state of mind where they would do as they were told.[24]

19. The boredom of church. Frank Shallard, the earnest preacher turned atheist by his professor says, “My objection to the church isn't that the preachers are cruel, hypocritical, actually wicked, though some of them are that too.... My chief objection is that ninety-nine per cent of sermons and Sunday School teachings are so agonizingly dull!"[25]

The novel is a mocking satire of the professional Christian class in America. The writing reflects the state of evangelism and people’s perception of evangelists during the Roaring 20’s. D.L. Moody was dead and the influence of Billy Sunday was waning. Sunday had received lots of criticism over the large “love offerings” he received at the end of his campaigns. Many imitators of Sunday and Moody had arisen in America and while some of them were sincere, some of them were similar to the caricature of the evangelist presented in this book.

Elmer Gantry is a despicable little book with a horrid little point – that all Christians are hypocrites. As an evangelist, I resent the depiction of the various characters in this book. They ring too close to home. As a Christian, I am embarrassed by the accuracy of how some of the characters in this book are depicted. I have met many of these characters in real life. All too often, I see some aspect of their characters in myself. However, the book is one-sided. It depicts only the bad side of religion without believing in the good side of Christianity. The book reveals the sinfulness of man without an awareness of the goodness of God. Sinclair Lewis is lauded as a genius for accurately and bravely depicting the complexities of human nature and religious conviction in his novel about Elmer Gantry, but in reality, the exact same story has been told before, in the Bible, in the story of Samson.

Lewis’ book contributed to a time when the job of the evangelist fell into disrepute. For the next twenty years, there were no well-known, influential evangelists in America. It was only when Billy Graham came on the scene that the office of the evangelist came back into prominence. This happened in large part because Graham made a deliberate attempt to address the concerns raised in Lewis’ book in his own ministry. For example, Graham refused to be in a room with a woman who was not his wife. He put himself on a salary instead of receiving a love offering at his crusades. He was careful to accurately report the numbers of people who attended his events. Lewis’ book revealed the bad side of evangelism but thankfully Graham restored the integrity of the evangelist. 

[1] Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry, (London, Signet Classics, 2007), 55.

[2] Lewis, 465.

[3] Lewis, 68.

[4] Lewis, 139.

[5] Lewis, 133.

[6] Lewis, 11.

[7] Lewis, 56.

[8] Lewis, 71.

[9] Lewis, 60.

[10] Lewis, 210.

[11] Lewis, 284.

[12] Lewis, 247

[13] Lewis, 250.

[14] Lewis, 370.
[15] Lewis, 228.

[16] Lewis, 226.

[17] Lewis, 207.

[18] Lewis, 207.

[19] Lewis, 229.

[20] Lewis, 215.

[21] Lewis, 225.

[22] Lewis, 227.

[23] Lewis, 215.

[24] Lewis, 213.

[25] Lewis, 407.