Faith in an Age of Elmer Gantrys - Word&Way

Faith in an Age of Elmer Gantrys

Elmer Gantry

At the start of a recent road trip, I popped in the audiobook Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis. Although I’d heard the lead character, Elmer Gantry, used as an insult about fraudulent clergy like televangelists, I hadn’t actually read the book. Since I enjoyed some other books by Lewis, I thought I should try this one.

Brian Kaylor

Brian Kaylor

When published in 1927, some called it anti-Christian since Gantry used the pulpit to chase money and women. But Lewis wasn’t actually critiquing all churches. With a bit of the same indignation as the biblical prophets, he sought to expose frauds who prey on others. In many ways, Lewis predicted preachers like Jim Bakker, the televangelist who went to prison in 1989 after having an affair and cheating people out of money. Bakker later returned with a new wife and new ministry (in Branson, Missouri), where he today peddles products like apocalypse survival food buckets (for $4,500) and makes outrageous claims about current events.

Elmer GantryGantry starts out as a Baptist in Kansas and Missouri. However, whenever Gantry gets caught, he moves to new places and switches faith traditions, becoming a Pentecostal evangelist, a sort of New Age teacher, and a Methodist minister.

So, there I was in eastern Kansas not far from where the beginning of the story takes place. Gantry the young Baptist starts preaching in a small Baptist church. While enjoying dinner at a deacon’s house, the deacon tries to engage Gantry in theological talk but Gantry’s more interested in the deacon’s daughter. Deacon Bains then asks Gantry where he gets his Baptist news. (Readers already know by this point Gantry really isn’t reading such things.)

Bains mentions a paper he used to read, the Watchman Examiner. I was surprised. That was a real Baptist newspaper back in the day. Lewis did his homework, I thought to myself, unprepared for the next line.

Elmer Gantry poster

Theatrical poster

“I’ve started taking the Word and Way,” the deacon added. “Now there’s a mighty sound paper that don’t mince matters none, and written real elegant — just suits me.”

I almost swerved off the highway with shock and excitement that Word&Way made it in Lewis’s book. I later learned that Lewis spent quite a bit of time in Kansas City, Missouri, meeting with various ministers as part of his research. At the time, Word&Way was even headquartered in Kansas City.

Fortunately, the swindling Gantry didn’t add he also read Word&Way — there are some endorsements we don’t want! But when Lewis wanted to depict a sincere Baptist deacon, he put the Word&Way in Bain’s hands.

More than 90 years later — and nearly 124 years after our founding — that remains true. I’d say we’re still mighty sound and don’t mince matters. I’d like to think we’re even elegant. And, above all, Baptists across the Midwest who are concerned about issues impacting their local churches, what’s happening in the world, and sharing the Good News still read the Word&Way.

There will, unfortunately, always be characters like Gantry. Those who misuse churches, who lie, who hurt other people. And that’s part of why we need Word&Way still today.

In an age of deception, we need a publication committed to telling the facts. In a time when people allow other causes to corrupt their priorities, we need a publication committed to biblical teachings.

But it can’t happen without you. Somehow it seems the Gantrys of the world always get the money. Perhaps it’s because they’re so driven by it and not embarrassed to ask. But we need your support even more. If you believe in the work of Word&Way that has been inspiring Baptists — and novelists — for over a century, we hope you will help us in 2020:

  • Tell your friends about Word&Way. You could give them that subscribe card stuck in each issue and encourage them to try Word&Way for themselves.
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Written by

Brian Kaylor is editor & president of Word&Way.