Elmer Gantry, known as Hell-cat to his classmates at Terwillinger College in Kansas in 1902, is a large man, six feet one, with a loud, booming voice. He leads the team as football captain and is twice elected class president. Although he is assumed to be popular, Gantry is not really well liked by his classmates. Elmer’s father, Logan Gantry, a feed dealer, died at a young age, leaving his widow to support herself and her son with her sewing. She was a religious woman and made Gantry go to church, where he learned about religion but failed to learn decency or kindness.
When the evangelist Judson Roberts speaks at the college for the YMCA Week of Prayer, Gantry is moved to kneel in prayer and announce that he is saved. The crowd cheers for the passionate speech Gantry delivers following his conversion, and the president of the college tells him he is a born preacher. Gantry’s mother, who attended the meeting, says it was her happiest moment. College officials and his mother urge Elmer to become a minister.
Gantry attends Mizpah Seminary, where he is ordained as a Baptist minister. While he is preaching in a small town, Gantry meets Lulu Bains, the daughter of a deacon at the church, and seduces her. He promises to marry her but quickly tires of her. When Floyd Naylor and Deacon Bains threaten to beat him if he does not marry Lulu, Gantry claims he always planned to marry her, and they announce the engagement. In a scheme to get out of his commitment, however, he stages a fight with Lulu and then leaves her alone with Floyd. As Floyd innocently embraces Lulu to comfort her, Gantry leads Deacon Bains to the spot and shines a flashlight on the couple. Outraged to see his daughter kissing Floyd, the deacon forces Lulu to marry Floyd. Gantry pretends to be devastated by Lulu’s betrayal and asks the dean for a transfer.
On his way to the new church, Gantry gets drunk with a stranger he meets on the train, passes out, and misses the church service. He is fired from the seminary and has to find work as a salesman for a farm implement company. On his travels, he falls under the spell of a female evangelist named Sharon Falconer. Acting as her assistant, Gantry pays people to fake being saved or feigns his own conversion. Following her rise to eminence as a healer of the sick, Sharon buys a resort on the New Jersey coast that she names Waters of Jordan Tabernacle. By holding meetings there, she does not have to share her profits with local churches. When a workman carelessly discards a cigarette, the tabernacle goes up in flames and kills 111 people, including Sharon and her crew. Gantry tries to lead...
(The entire section is 1077 words.)