Elmer Gantry, a brawny football hero and indifferent scholar at Terwillinger College. After his inadvertent conversion to Christianity, Elmer makes a successful, plagiarized speech that serves him for years. His call to the Baptist ministry is achieved with the aid of whiskey. After two years at Mizpah Theological Seminary, Elmer is given a small church, where he seduces (and forgives) Lulu Bains. Postponing an Easter meeting to drink with friends, he is asked to leave Mizpah. Later, he finds a job as an assistant to evangelist Sharon Falconer, who becomes his lover. After her death, a Methodist bishop helps him become a Methodist preacher. Elmer marries and gradually advances to larger congregations until he reaches the metropolis of Zenith. He remains obsessed with practical results, money, and power. After forming the Committee on Public Morals, Elmer raids Zenith’s red light district and acquires a number of honors. Eventually, he decides to unite all the moral organizations in America, with himself as head. As national director of morality, he will dictate what America should say and think. At the novel’s end, having survived all misadventures, Elmer looks forward to making America a truly moral nation under his guidance.
Frank Shallard, the son of a Baptist minister and Elmer’s fellow student at the seminary. Elmer accuses him of liberalism because he questions the Baptists’ self-appointed role as guardians of Christianity. In fact, Frank is a good, decent man who is weakened by doubt. He longs to share with humanity and resents being set apart as a parson. During World War I, he enlists in the Army, then returns to a church in Zenith. When he bravely attacks Prohibition, big business, and hypocrisy in the pulpit, he becomes the antithesis of Elmer Gantry, who sets the stage for his downfall. After Frank speaks out against Fundamentalist influence in the schools and society, he is beaten into blindness by fanatics.
(The entire section is 833 words.)