Elmer Gantry is a satirical novel written by Sinclair Lewis in 1926 and published by Harcourt in March 1927.
Lewis did research for 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 (not Burris Jenkins), pastor of the Linwood Boulevard Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Stidger introduced Lewis to many other clergymen, among them the Reverend L.M. 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 KC ministers Lewis interviewed included Burris Jenkins, Earl Blackman, I. M. Hargett, and Bert Fiske.
The character of Sharon Falconer was based on elements in the career of Aimee Semple McPherson, an American evangelist 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 did not suit the unethical Gantry, who then became a notorious and cynical alcoholic. Gantry is mistakenly ordained as a Baptist minister, briefly acts as a "New Thought" evangelist, and eventually becomes a Methodist minister. He acts as 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.
During his career, Gantry contributes to the downfall, physical injury, and even death of key people around him, including a genuine minister, Frank Shallard. Ultimately Gantry marries well and obtains a large congregation in Lewis's fictional Midwestern city of Zenith.
Throughout his life, Gantry continues as a false prophet and finds that his games lead to misery.
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. Elmer Gantry also appears in another, lesser known Lewis novel, Gideon Planish.
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