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GirlGenius Suggests --Elmer Gantry

Updated on April 14, 2011

Elmer Gantry, a look at a small town preacher

Sinclair Lewis has a talent for showing the "other side" of American culture. He won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1930, which he richly deserved.

In his book "Elmer Gantry" (1927), he peers into the life of a small-town preacher, who takes the necessary steps to become famous and wealthy.

This book is not for people who will be easily offended by the idea of a "dishonest" preacher. Although the title character has moments where he truly does feel the grace of God, he mainly approaches religion as if it were a business. In college, his nickname was "Hellcat" and he was more interested in chasing women and drinking booze than really studying.

He becomes ordained as a minister, switches denominations, and ends up as the manager of a well known lady preacher named Sharon Falconer. She is an evangelist and has a huge following. Large tents are set up in the cities and towns she visits, and her messages are considered inspiring. But the houses they rent in these places are nearly destroyed by drunken parties Sharon condones. Even worse, her manager oftens spends the night in her room (and they are not married!).

Sharon dreams of having a permanent home for her ministry, and builds a huge church at the end of a pier. It feels like the church simply floats on the water. But it does not last long -- during the inauguration, it catches on fire. It is difficult to escape and many people, including Sharon, die.

Elmer bounces right back, though. He marries well and is put in charge of a large church in a Midwestern city. Through some careful maneuvering, he manages to attract a very wealthy member from another church over to his church. This might not be "good" Christianity, but it is very good capitalism -- at the time, most members gave 10% of their income to the church.

He becomes well-known for his "fire and brimstone" approach. He frightens people into stamping out "vice" in the community, firmly believes that honest people do not go to the cinema on Sundays, and sees himself as the champion of the "right" way to live.

In the end, Elmer's big dreams (and weakness for beautiful women) lead to his demise. Fascinated by the wealth and power he is able to accumulate, he aims to start a nationwide organization. As times change, his religious fanaticism falls out of favor.

This book is a great read and provides valuable insight to the marriage of religion and business. It is not for the faint of heart -- for those people who want or need to believe that preachers are better than the rest of us, this book will be shockingly disappointing and uncomfortably eye-opening. For the rest of us, it gives plenty of food for thought as we examine ourselves, and the religious people we have met.

I give this book a 9/10 based on its outstanding literary merit. Sinclair Lewis performed extensive research before writing this book, and the characters all seem strikingly real. The truth may not be pretty, but it is quite fascinating.

Photo of the Author

"Elmer Gantry" was written in 1927 -- on a typewriter!
"Elmer Gantry" was written in 1927 -- on a typewriter!

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