Published in 1926, Elmer Gantry
is a classic fiction novel by Sinclair Lewis. Set in the 1920s, the novel is a satire of American religious attitudes at the time. The story follows the titular character, a charismatic preacher with a secret love of vice, as he experiences several ups and downs and eventually becomes the minister of a large Methodist church. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Lewis is considered one of the most seminal American authors. He is best known for using humor to criticize materialism (such as in Main Street
) and for writing strong female characters.
Lewis introduces his main character by saying, "Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk." The son of strict evangelicals, Elmer has grown up knowing nothing but the Church and the colorless Christian lifestyle. But now he's attending Terwillinger Baptist College and has attained the rank of captain of the football team. Such a position comes with privileges, and Elmer enjoys them all. He and his roommate Jim spend their time drinking, womanizing, and mocking their uptight classmates.
One day, a charismatic preacher comes to town and invites Elmer and Jim to a revival meeting. Sensing that something is amiss, Jim pretends to be sick in bed while Elmer attends the meeting with his mother. Elmer is swept up in the emotion of the moment, and to the astonishment of his schoolmates, he converts. His worst fears confirmed, Jim moves out.
Elmer wants to be a preacher, but he feels that he must wait to see if God is going to call him to the ministry. As time passes, and he fails to get the call, he meets up with Jim to share a bottle of whiskey. In his drunken enthusiasm, he feels that he has finally heard God's call. Leaving Terwillinger for Mizpah Seminary, Elmer soon becomes the talk of the school, and he is all too happy to entertain his classmates with wild stories of his sexual encounters.
The seminary's dean sends Elmer and his roommate Frank to go pastor a nearby church. While there, the pair are hosted by a deacon named Bains, and Elmer immediately tries to seduce Bains' daughter Lulu. Meanwhile, Frank is drawn to the company of a professor who confesses that he is secretly an atheist. Never one to miss an opportunity, Elmer exposes the professor and is awarded with thirty dimes; he spends them on pornographic pictures.
Next, Elmer turns his attention to Frank, who he has determined is getting in the way of his successful seduction of Lulu. Elmer accuses Frank of apostasy, and Frank is expelled from the seminary. After this, Elmer is able to have sex with Lulu. When Deacon Bains discovers the affair, he forces Elmer to propose to Lulu. However, Elmer tricks another man into becoming engaged to Lulu and escapes from the situation to go pastor a different church.
On the way, Elmer stops for a night on the town and is so drunk that he misses his appointed time at the new church. As punishment, he is expelled from the seminary. For the next two years, Elmer works as a traveling salesman. One day he happens upon a tent revival meeting being conducted by Sharon Falconer, a female evangelist. The pair immediately fall in love and use their combined talents for preaching and manipulation to build a huge congregation and grow rich from the offerings.
Things are going well until Sharon catches Elmer trying to seduce her pianist. She breaks up with Elmer, but he talks her into reconsidering because of the wealth the two have been able to create by working together. At the next revival meeting, the tent catches fire. Sharon and a hundred of her congregation members are killed. During the commotion, Elmer happens upon several women who have become trapped. Climbing over them, he escapes from the fire.
Elmer next joins a metaphysical cult, but he is quickly expelled when he's caught stealing from the coffers. Running out of options, he decides to visit Frank, who works a large Methodist church despite having embraced the apostasy that got him expelled from seminary. Elmer befriends the church's pastor, and he helps Elmer become the minister of a neighboring city's Methodist church.
Using his charisma to endear himself to the congregation, Elmer finds great success and a swiftly growing church. He marries the choir director, Cleo Benham, whom he discovers is a bland lover. When Lulu begins attending the church, his affair with her is rekindled.
As time passes, Elmer becomes close friends with T. J. Rigg, a famous criminal attorney. Using their combined influence, Elmer makes friends with several newspaper reporters, and he accuses the government of protecting the city's brothels and drug dealers. This forces the city to make a crime raid and raises Elmer to a position of power and influence. Elmer uses this to discredit Frank, and when Frank stands against him, he is nearly beaten to death by kidnappers.
Elmer has now become hugely famous and preaches at churches across the country. Having tired of Lulu, he begins an affair with his secretary, Hettie. However, he soon receives blackmail threats and realizes that Hettie is part of a plot to discredit him. Elmer turns to Rigg for help, who hires a detective to dig up incriminating evidence against Hettie and her husband. The couple abandons their campaign against Elmer and leave the church. Despite her actions against him, Elmer finds himself missing Hettie. Yet as the story closes, Elmer notices a new choir member that he looks forward to knowing better.