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Posts Tagged ‘hypocrisy’

Handsome, aimless Elmer Gantry is sent by his mother to small Baptist college where he plays football, drinks, and chases women.

By a fluke, he becomes the champion of the campus preacher boys and is sucked into becoming a Baptist preacher.

religious tent meeting

Tent  were frequently used by itinerant ministers for large meetings.


Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
Harcourt, Brace, 1927; 432 pp. #1 on the 1927 bestseller list; My grade: B.

Elmer escapes a shot-gun wedding at his first church, blows his chance at another church by getting drunk, and ends up as a traveling salesman for a farm equipment company.

On the road, Elmer falls in with a female evangelist, then with a “New Thought” lecturer until he attracts the notice of a Methodist bishop.

Elmer converts to Methodism, and uses his considerable talent for promotion and publicity to good advantage.

There’s money to be made in religion, plenty of applause, and lots of willing women.

Elmer comes close to catastrophe more than once, but he always seems to land on his feet.

The term “Elmer Gantry” has become synonymous with clerical hypocrisy. However, Sinclair Lewis is less concerned with Elmer’s womanizing than with the mercenary religious establishment that shelters him.

The novel is more satire than exposé. Elmer Gantry is too funny for anyone to take Lewis seriously.

I laughed out loud at lines like, “He had learned the poverty is blessed, but that bankers make the best deacons.”

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Never prosperous even in the best of times, during the Great Depression Ty Ty Walden and his extended family are trying to get by in rural Georgia on nothing but libido, hostility, and holes.

Dust jacket of God's Little Acre, first edition.Ty Ty has turned over to black sharecroppers the responsibility for the cotton and vegetable crops on which the family depends.

Ty Ty, his son Shaw and son-in-law Buck spend their days digging for gold.

They’ve dug up most of the farm except God’s Little Acre, the proceeds of which Ty Ty has devoted to the church.

Whenever Ty Ty gets a feeling that the mother lode lies beneath God’s Little Acre, he moves the boundaries of the acre.

Believing in “scientific” knowledge that albinos have miraculous powers to find gold, Ty Ty and the boys capture an albino they learn is working nearby.

Ty Ty summons daughter Rosamond and her husband, Will, an unemployed mill worker, to come help them dig in the place the albino points out.

Will and Buck have never gotten along.

Buck thinks, correctly, that Will is after his wife, Griselda.

Shaw thinks whatever Buck thinks.

It’s not long before the three men come to blows.

Ty Ty, Rosamund, and Griselda go to wheedle money from another of Ty Ty’s sons, Jim Leslie.

Jim Leslie abandoned his father’s gold-diggings for real estate investments.

One look at Griselda, and Jim Leslie is determined to have her.

There are more characters and more couplings, but you get the idea. By comparison to God’s Little Acre, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a a moral treatise.

Ty Ty sums up the point of the novel thus:

God put us in the bodies of animal and tried to make us act like people. That was the beginning of trouble. If He had made us like we are, and not called us people, the last one of us would know how to live. A man can’t live, feeling himself from the inside, and listening to what the preachers say. He can’t do both, but he can do one or the other. He can live like we were made to live, and feel himself on the inside or he can live like the preachers say, and be dead on the inside….When you try to take a woman or a man and hold him off all for yourself, there ain’t going to be nothing but trouble and sorrow the rest of your days.

The term God’s little acre has come to stand for hypocrisy, setting aside something worthless for God while living without any regard for Him.

That really doesn’t fit the novel.

The Waldens shouldn’t be called hypocrites: They haven’t enough moral sense to rise that far.


This is one of GreatPenformances’ occasional reviews of notable novels that didn’t make the bestseller lists. First published in 1933, God’s Little Acre  didn’t make the bestseller list or win a Pulitzer Prize, but Erskine Caldwell’s novel has become an American classic.  The edition I read: God’s Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell.  The Modern Library, 1961. 303 pp.

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Harold Bell Wright’s The Calling of Dan Matthews is so unusual a religious novel, it deserves to be called unique.  Although it didn’t make the bestseller list when it was published in 1909, I’m reviewing it here as one of the notable novels of the 20th century.

The Calling of Dan Matthews rontpiece illustration and title page

While fishing, an Ozark Mountain doctor meets a boy who impresses him with his mind and personality. Dr. Oldham hopes the boy will become a doctor, too. Instead Dan Matthews chooses to go into the ministry.

Dan’s first pastorate is in Corinth where the now-retired doctor is on hand if needed. Dan’s good looks and ignorance of human nature land him in hot water almost immediately.

Although his congregation finds no fault with his sermons, (except that they aren’t what they are used to) Brother Matthews offends them by his undignified behavior: he does manual labor on a farm to win the respect of farmers and get them to church, and helps a crippled Catholic lad with the garden that he and his mother depend on for their livelihood.

Dan’s growing affection for a young nurse who thinks the church is an un-Christian organization is the final straw for the Corinth church people.

Dan is not merely a good Christian with a heart for people. There are plenty of religious novels with that sort of central character. What makes Dan such an unusual lead character is his naiveté.

Nothing in his backwoods upbringing or his theological training prepared Dan for church politics. At the denomination’s annual convention, as his enemies convey the unmistakable message that no God-fearing congregation would want him, Dan knows he’s done for, but scarcely knows how it happened.

Wright’s own experiences provide details that outsiders couldn’t invent. Because of  what his congregation regarded as anti-church sentiment in the novel, Wright was forced out of the ministry.

The novel suffers from the usual flaws of religious-romance novels: both the religion and the romance are too sentimental. A more serious problem, however, is that Dan—and perhaps Wright himself—seem to label folks as hypocrites when they are merely stupid. The outcomes may be the same, but their causation is not. I suspect the God who looketh on the heart would know the difference, even if the novel’s author doesn’t.

In 1935, The Calling of Dan Matthews was made into a black and white film that turned  the church leaders into villains so evil that the Borgias look saintly by comparison. Sadly, film is remembered as a story of what really goes on in churches.

Wright’s nuanced novel is merely footnoted  as the first American novel to sell over a million copies—and it achieved that prominence without making the bestseller list the year it was published. Wright is said to be the first novelist to become a millionaire.

The Calling of Dan Matthews
by Harold Bell Wright
Illustrated by Arthur I. Keller
The Book Supply Company, 1909
364 pages
Not on the 1909 bestseller list
Project Gutenberg Ebook #9314

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