Elmer Gantry is a satirical novel written by Sinclair Lewis in 1926 that presents aspects of the religious activity of America in fundamentalist and evangelistic circles and the attitudes of the 1920s public toward it. The novel’s protagonist, the Reverend Dr. Elmer Gantry, is initially attracted by booze and easy money (though he eventually renounces tobacco and alcohol) and chasing women. After various forays into evangelism, he becomes a successful Methodist minister despite his hypocrisy and serial sexual indiscretions.
Elmer Gantry was first published in the United States by Harcourt Trade Publishers in March 1927, dedicated by Lewis to the American journalist and satirist H. L. Mencken.
Lewis researched the novel by observing the work of various preachers in Kansas City in his so-called “Sunday School” meetings on Wednesdays. He first worked with William L. “Big Bill” Stidger, pastor of the Linwood Boulevard Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Stidger introduced Lewis to many other clergymen, among them the Reverend Leon Milton Birkhead, a Unitarian and an agnostic. Lewis preferred the liberal Birkhead to the conservative Stidger, and on his second visit to Kansas City, Lewis chose Birkhead as his guide. Other Kansas City ministers Lewis interviewed included Burris Jenkins, Earl Blackman, I. M. Hargett, Bert Fiske, and Robert Nelson Horatio Spencer, who was rector of a large Episcopal parish, Grace and Holy Trinity Church, which is now the cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri.
Lewis finished the book while mending a broken leg on Jackfish Island in Rainy Lake, Minnesota.
The character of Sharon Falconer was loosely based on events in the career of the Canadian-born American radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who founded the Pentecostal Christian denomination known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in 1927.
The novel tells the story of a young, narcissistic, womanizing college athlete who abandons his early ambition to become a lawyer. The legal profession does not suit the unethical Gantry. After college, he attends a Baptist seminary and is ordained as a Baptist minister. While managing to cover up certain sexual indiscretions, he is thrown out of the seminary before completing his BD because he is too drunk to turn up at a church where he is supposed to preach. After several years as a travelling salesman of farm equipment, he becomes manager for Sharon Falconer, an itinerant evangelist. Gantry becomes her lover, but loses both her and his position when she is killed in a fire at her new tabernacle. After this catastrophe, he briefly acts as a “New Thought” evangelist, and eventually becomes a Methodist minister. He marries well and eventually obtains a large congregation in Lewis’s fictional Midwestern city of Zenith. During his career, Gantry contributes to the downfall, physical injury, and even death of key people around him, including a sincere minister, Frank Shallard, who is plagued by doubt. Especially ironic is the way he champions love, an emotion he seems incapable of, in his sermons, preaches against ambition, when he himself is so patently ambitious, and organizes crusades against (mainly sexual) immorality, when he has difficulty resisting sexual temptation himself.
Mark Schorer, then of the University of California, Berkeley, notes: “The forces of social good and enlightenment as presented in Elmer Gantry are not strong enough to offer any real resistance to the forces of social evil and banality.” Schorer also says that, while researching the book, Lewis attended two or three church services every Sunday while in Kansas City, and that: “He took advantage of every possible tangential experience in the religious community.” The result is a novel that satirically represents the religious activity of America in evangelistic circles and the attitudes of the 1920s toward it.
On publication in 1927, Elmer Gantry created a public furor. The book was banned in Boston and other cities and denounced from pulpits across the United States. One cleric suggested that Lewis should be imprisoned for five years, and there were also threats of physical violence against the author. Evangelist Billy Sunday called Lewis “Satan’s cohort”. Elmer Gantry ranked as the number one fiction bestseller of 1927, according to “Publisher’s Weekly”.
Shortly after the publication of Elmer Gantry, H. G. Wells published a widely syndicated newspaper article called “The New American People”, in which he largely based his observations of American culture on Lewis’ novels.
Elmer Gantry also appears as a minor character in two later, lesser-known Lewis novels: The Man Who Knew Coolidge and Gideon Planish.
There have been five adaptations of the novel.