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ClassicsOnline Home » ALDRIDGE, R.L.: Elmer Gantry [Opera] (Phares, Risley, Rideout, Kelley, Florentine Opera Chorus, Milwaukee Symphony, Boggs)
Set just before World War I, Sinclair Lewis’s incendiary novel Elmer Gantry tells a story of old-time religion, illicit romance and revenge. Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein’s operatic adaptation is a ‘marvelous amalgam of toe-tapping accessibility’ (Opera News) full of hymns, gospel songs, marches and dance, evoking the period in a score which echoes Gershwin and Copland. This all-American production combines a first-rate cast of singers and a world-class orchestra for ‘an intoxicating experience’ (The New York Times).
By Ken Smith
Music by Robert Livingston Aldridge (b. 1954) • Libretto by Herschel Garfein (b. 1958)
An Opera in Two Acts
Libretto by Herschel Garfein based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis
Elmer Gantry - Keith Phares
Sharon Falconer - Patricia Risley
Frank Shallard - Vale Rideout
Eddie Fislinger - Frank Kelley
Lulu Baines - Heather Buck
Reverend Arthur Baines - Matthew Lau
T.J. Rigg - Jamie Offenbach
Mrs Baines - Julia Elise Hardin
Revival Singer - William Johnson
Binch/Bully/Worker #1 - Aaron Blankfield
Keely Family Singers - Sarah Lewis Jones /
Linda S. Ehlers / Paul Helm / Nathan Krueger
Reporter - Peter C. Voigt
Revival Worker/Worker #2 - Scott Johnson
Ice Cream Vendor - Matthew Richardson
Child - Katie Koester
Man #1 - James Barany
Woman #1 - Tracy Wildt
Woman #2 - Kristin Ngchee
Tour Guide - Margaret Wendt
Women’s Chorus Leader - Julie Alonzo-Calteaux
Elmer Gantry is an all-American opera. It presents us with a particular moment in American history, the period early in the twentieth century just before World War I, when popular religion set out to appropriate contemporary business models and when best-selling books argued that if Jesus were to come back today, he would be president of the Rotary Club. But the real subject of the opera is one that runs through all of American history, the pervasive and easily corrupted power of religion.
Elmer Gantry begins with sexual boasting and a bar-room brawl; it closes in an apocalyptic revival meeting. The title character is a former football player who has become a huckstering evangelist who serves as the business manager for an even more successful evangelist, Sister Sharon Falconer. In one stirring and amusing scene, Elmer stages a mock football game during a service and scores a touchdown for Jesus despite interference from some pitchfork-wielding little devils. One of the things that makes it particularly amusing is that we remember that Elmer had used the same metaphor in the opening scene of the opera, but that time the score was sexual. Sex and sports and religion—a volatile compound.
We also learn, early on, that Elmer Gantry is a hypocrite, a prototype for such much-publicized contemporary American figures as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Ted Haggard. The difference is that Elmer is a well-meaning hypocrite who simply wants mutually exclusive things and enjoys all of them; he does whatever he wishes without going through internal struggles over choosing the right thing.
In addition to the world of evangelism, we explore other aspects of period Americana—a Bible College faculty meeting (CD 1 ), the hustle of traveling salesmen, and a meeting of the Elks Lodge (CD 1 ). The opera helps us realize that all of these groups, and the individuals within them, are using comparable methods to achieve the same secular economic goal, and that things have not changed much in the subsequent century. We also experience characters, and the evolution of characters—unprincipled people unexpectedly do principled things, and vice versa; Elmer and Sharon learn something from each other, although neither one of them learns enough.
The source of the story is a section of Sinclair Lewis’s once-controversial, now-classic, American novel, Elmer Gantry (1927). Both the composer, Robert Livingston Aldridge, and the librettist, Herschel Garfein, are Americans, Aldridge from Presbyterian stock, Garfein of Jewish heritage. They wrote their opera for American singers, more specifically for American singing-actors, who know how to internalize, then deliver, their own yeasty language, and how to sing many different kinds of American music. When there is a discussion a class in Old Testament Hebrew that Elmer has been skipping, Aldridge gives us some klezmer clarinet, making a little bow to his friend and librettist (CD 1 ).
Like most serious artists in America—or anywhere else—Aldridge and Garfein had to overcome major obstacles to bring their colorful, powerful and thought-provoking opera to the stage. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy to achieve.
The process all began at Christmas dinner in 1990, when Aldridge and Garfein were still in their early thirties. After the table was cleared they decided to watch a videocassette of the 1960 movie version of Elmer Gantry which featured Burt Lancaster as Elmer and Jean Simmons as Sharon. Aldridge said, “That’s a great subject for an opera, and I could write the music for it”; he is, after all, the son of a minister, a preacher’s kid. Garfein added, “And I could write the libretto.” (Garfein, a composer of quality himself, comes from a theatrical family—his father is a stage and film director, his mother and sister are actors.) And the late mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt, not yet the legendary Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, said she would like to tackle the role of the fervent female evangelist Sharon Falconer.
Aldridge and Garfein had met at New England Conservatory; Aldridge was a founding member of the popular new-music collective Composers in Red Sneakers, which Garfein subsequently joined. Both had already won their spurs as composers, but neither one of them knew anything much about the opera world and how it operates. They found out the hard way—it was a seventeen-year journey from that Christmas dinner to the world première at the Nashville Opera on 16th November, 2007. American opera companies are not geared to further the ambitions of young composers, and commissioners are more interested in works by people who are already famous—even if their fame comes from their accomplishments in areas far removed from opera.
Everything began promisingly. First came the painstaking but exciting job of roughing out a scenario, which evolved into a more labor-intensive job of cutting and adding, shaping and revising. Ultimately Elmer Gantry emerged as an opera in two acts, with thirteen scenes and an epilogue.
In 1991 and 1992, Aldridge and Garfein travelled to North Carolina to experience the old-time religion firsthand—and to hear and assimilate the music of the old-time religion. They had a prestigious predecessor in this endeavor. In the summer of 1934 George Gershwin headed to South Carolina to study some of the regional African-American music he needed to know before he could compose Porgy and Bess. There are echoes of Gershwin in Gantry, and in fact the marimba-limned opening of the opera pays tribute to the opening of Porgy.
Elmer Gantry is full of hymns, gospel songs, marches, dances and all kinds of other period genre music that reflects the religious and popular music of the period of the story. One can hear other influences as well, notably Copland and Kurt Weill. But there is only one bit of pre-existing music in the opera, a familiar hymn Aldridge must have sung countless times as a dutiful young churchgoer—“What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” composed in 1868 on a poem written in Canada in 1855.
All of the other “period” music which illumines the score sounds authentic—even though Garfein wrote the words for all the hymns and Aldridge composed the music, which is not pastiche. Instead, the music is something denser and richer, something that probes deeper because of the sophisticated musical mind and experienced ear that Aldridge brings to the raw materials from the vernacular; Garfein charted a parallel course in finding the poetry in colloquial American English, even the slang, of the period.
Aldridge’s musical imagination makes the choral music, in particular, quite exceptionally difficult to sing—although it is catchy and easy to remember. Among other things, Aldridge has notated the kind of improvisational jubilation that marks choral and congregational singing of this kind.
Aldridge’s use of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” also points to the major shift in direction away from the novel that he and Garfein made as they experienced church services and revival meetings in North Carolina. Lewis’s novel is almost exhaustingly satirical, a brilliant cartoon, really, and Elmer is a one-dimensional and profoundly unpleasant character. Aldridge and Garfein may not have become converts to populist religion, but they recognized and felt its power for good as well as understanding how easily that power can be diverted and exploited for personal and political gain. They rounded out Elmer’s character—Gantry may not examine himself, or even understand himself, but he is at least an honest hypocrite whose enthusiasms are real, even if they do not run deep.
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is sung by Elmer’s college pal Frank Shallard, who has become a clergyman too, but one whose religious beliefs are constantly being tested by the realities of his world—including the success of Elmer. To a silent Elmer, who hears but does not understand, Frank asks “Is belief a gift? / How is conviction earned? / Fresh, boundless and unwavering faith, / Can that be learned?” (CD 2 )
Something similar happens to the music that delivers Eddie Fislinger’s sermon, “What is Love? It is the morning and the evening star.” This becomes one of the score’s leitmotifs, and a source of mirth when Elmer passes these words off as his own in various contexts, appropriate and not. Eddie himself loses control over his own words as he prepares his sermon in the extraordinary aria that closes Act I. He starts to sing “It shines upon the cradle of the babe” but the words “swindler bully” emerge unbidden from his lips; “it casts its radiance,” he continues, “on the quiet vermin lickspittle rutting lecherous ape.” Eddie becomes a figure both comic and tragic as he forsakes his own beliefs and becomes as hypocritical in his own way as Elmer is in his (CD 1 ).
As the opera developed, Aldridge and Garfein worked together in Aldridge’s home—or burnt up the phone lines between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. They also made a pact to listen to an opera every day. It was a pact frequently broken, but they did study several operas like Boris Godunov, Die Meistersinger, and Peter Grimes in which the chorus becomes the voice of the community, as well as the operas of Verdi that provide examples of complex musical characterization.
As their work progressed, Aldridge and Garfein made a studio recording of two extended scenes from the opera in order to apply for support from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest “Opera for a New America” program. They received a $13,000 grant that they used for a piano-accompanied workshop production in Boston in 1992. The laughter and applause you can hear on this recording from Florentine Opera in Milwaukee was present even on that earlier, incomplete opening night—only half the opera was performed, because that’s how much of it had been completed. Garfein was the stage director, and the “original cast” included Lorraine Hunt as Sharon, Metropolitan Opera baritone Vernon Hartman as Elmer, and Frank Kelley as Eddie—Kelley is the only singer who has consistently appeared in Gantry since the beginning, but it is fair to say that all of that first group of singers provided significant inspiration for Aldridge and Garfein to develop their roles. Eddie Fislinger’s aria that now ends the first act is quite specifically tailored to Kelley’s gift for communicating uncensored emotion and the ironic laughter Aldridge composed into this bitter scherzo is a tribute to the coloratura skills Kelley has honed over decades of early-music performance. Similarly Sharon’s entrance aria  lay in the most lustrous part of Lorraine Hunt’s range and called for all of the womanly and spiritual radiance she later became internationally famous for. And is it going too far to hear in the sinuous vocal line of that aria, “The sun embraces the stony earth” with its rippling accompaniment and solo flute an echo of Norma’s entrance aria Casta diva in Bellini’s opera? Aldridge and Garfein even provide a comparable cabaletta with chorus, “Jesus could be comin’ tonight” (CD 1 ).
Aldridge and Garfein raised $75,000 for a second workshop of what they thought was the complete opera two years later. But at that point the Boston opera company that had funneled the money for those workshops decided not to produce the work.
Aldridge and Garfein then began to shop their opera around to more than a dozen other American companies—at their own expense. Many companies expressed no interest; an occasional glimmer of promise would end in defeat. Meanwhile, Aldridge worked at orchestrating the whole score, and collaborated with Garfein on making many cuts in the hope of creating a more effective opera—and a more performable one, not to mention a more budgetable one. The collaborators slimmed a 4 1/2 hour piece down to one that now lasts about 2 hours and 25 minutes, according to the printed score, although most productions to date have made additional minor trims.
The chorus appears as Bible College faculty, farmers, members of the Elks Lodge, and various other congregations; Aldridge ensures variety not only by writing for full mixed chorus, but also for men’s chorus, women’s chorus, and even a “family” gospel quartet led by a solo gospel singer. Collectively the chorus represents the voice of the people, a vox Americana.
Aldridge and Garfein have also given solo arias to six of the principal singers, Sharon and Elmer of course, Frank Shallard and Eddie Fislinger, Lulu Baines and her father, Rev. Arthur Baines. Most of them do not achieve closure and court applause in the nineteenth-century manner, but instead evolve into other things. Lulu is a little minx, the daughter of the president of the Bible College, one of Elmer’s girlfriends, and ultimately the wife of Eddie Fislinger; her arietta evolves into a delicious double entendre trio. The words and music at first sound as innocent as something from Hansel und Gretel, but before long the trio is at once sexy, perverse, dreamlike, funny and sad (CD 2 ).
These arias develop remarkably vivid characterizations. Sister Sharon is always off in her own world; she seems to be in a state of perpetual trance. Elmer, on the other hand, is always out in the world. He doesn’t have much of an inner life to expose, so most of his arias are public performances like his patter-song shilling for Pequot Farm Implements, which he interrupts with a parlor ballad about a dying farmer who bought the right implements and saved his property (CD 1 ). Towards the end he delivers a public aria of repentance, with chorus; he is still working the crowd. Later, when he needs to, he cannot repent convincingly, and, trying to divert attention, creates a disaster.
Elmer’s one moment alone begins as an angry personal response to being rejected by Sister Sharon which turns into a ringing address to God who, through Sharon, has “opened him down to the bone.” This is at once an accusation and a moment of triumph, for Elmer believes that God has filled him with “howling” words and that he will never be the same again—“Never the same!” Except this is ironic too—Elmer is always the same, whether he realizes it or not; his aria is self-dramatization, not self-revelation (CD 1 ).
Aldridge’s remarkably supple score mingles the arias and choruses with recitative, conversations like the spooky one between T.J. Riggs and the electricians who are setting up the electric cross in Sister Sharon’s new tabernacle (CD 2 ), a love duet (CD 2 ), a trio (CD 2 ), the gospel quartet (CD 1 ) which is actually a quintet, and, in an exercise of tremendous compositional virtuosity, an octet in which two quartets of opposing forces interact (CD 2 ).
Everything in the opera converges in the dazzling and apocalyptic final scene, the opening and dedication of Sister Sharon’s The Waters of Jordan Tabernacle (CD 2 ). This has celebratory choruses, the football ballet, moments of prayer, an offering (“What is Love?” for the last time). Revengeful figures from Elmer’s past file forward to confess, repent and be forgiven; the influence of the finale of Mozart’s Don Giovanni is inescapable. Elmer is exposed, tries to repent, this time for real, but he cannot even do that; to distract attention, he directs a boy to throw the switch to illuminate the electric cross. It explodes and the tabernacle goes up in flames. Sister Sharon refuses to let Elmer rescue her; this is her Immolation Scene (CD 2 ).
The libretto has set all of this forth with clarity, ingenuity and theatrical daring, and the music rises to the occasion; one can hear the licking of the flames and then feel the hot flare. Finally we see Elmer again. He is a survivor, and he is on to the next thing, rewriting history as he goes. The fire has become fluid and the last word is not Elmer’s; we hear the united voices of the dead singing Sharon’s dying words about angels in the flames, singing and calling to one another. Elmer has left the stage, so we do not know if he is haunted by these voices; we do know that we are.
After the première in Nashville, the production moved on to Montclair State University in New Jersey. The University of Houston and the University of Minnesota have since produced it—Elmer Gantry is proving to be a piece that ambitious opera-training programs want to turn their students loose on. Florentine Opera’s general director William Florescu decided to create the second professional production, bringing the original stage director and conductor (John Hoomes and William Boggs, respectively), but using new costumes and building a redesigned set. Florescu retained emerging star baritone Keith Phares in the title role, but also engaged some new singers, arranged for a national broadcast, and this Naxos recording.
Florescu says Elmer Gantry is a wonderful example of how composers today are unapologetic, indeed messianic, about the musical language they use. “Bob was not pandering or trite, or derivative, and Herschel’s libretto is really excellent—what great words he gave Bob to set. And the piece breaks the mold of insider opera—Elmer Gantry has demonstrated that a successful and important opera does not have to have its première on either of the coasts. I am very proud that we did it here in the flyover zone!”
Following the première in Nashville, one man turned to his wife and said, “This is better than any Broadway show. And to that we can say, Amen.
Richard Dyer covered music in The Boston Globe for 33 years and followed the fortunes of Elmer Gantry from the beginning. Since his retirement from the newspaper he has been creating podcasts for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, writing program notes, lecturing, and teaching at the Tanglewood Music Center.
The Bully Pulpit: Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
When Sinclair Lewis arrived in New York in September 1926, he was met by his publisher Alfred Harcourt. He handed Harcourt a heavy black bag. “What is it?” asked the publisher. “Dynamite!” replied the author in a stage whisper. The bag held the half-finished manuscript of Elmer Gantry, a novel about a silver-tongued saver of souls whose private life was an unabashed repertoire of hypocrisy and vice. It would indeed prove to be Lewis’s most incendiary work.
At the time, Lewis had published two of the five novels on which his critical reputation rests, Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922). The year before, Lewis had won—and refused—the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Arrowsmith. With Elmer Gantry (1927) and the Nobel Prize winner Dodsworth (1930), Lewis gained a reputation as a sort of American Diogenes. His scathing wit, his all-seeing eye, and his cynical outlook made him the literary equivalent of that other favorite skeptic of the period, H.L. Mencken.
During the 1920s, the Puritanism that had long sustained American character seemed to be drowning in a sea of bathtub gin. (Mencken defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”) One of the greatest blows to religion in America came during the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial at which Clarence Darrow bested William Jennings Bryan in debates of evolution versus creationism. The drowning of beloved female evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in 1926 seemed to be a national tragedy until she showed up in Mexico, dressed to the nines. She had apparently been having an affair, and the event compromised her marriage as well as her career. Her awkward reappearance also caused Lewis to rewrite the death scene of the novel’s female evangelist Sharon Falconer.
Lewis’s biographer Mark Schorer described Elmer Gantry as “the noisiest novel in American literature, the most braying, guffawing, belching novel that we have.” Filled with extravagant writing, strobe light scenes of revivalist mayhem, and a vast quantity of Golly! and Gee!, the novel’s hectic prose is the perfect setting for one of fiction’s greatest scoundrels. Elmer lives as a hard-drinking, sweet-talking rover until he meets Sister Sharon. Elmer thinks he’s in love, but the poetry “gushing” in him is part ego, part greed. (To be honest, this also characterizes the good Sister.)
Certainly, naturalistic portraits of the clergy existed in American literature, Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), for example. In that novel, readers at least found a sympathetic character. But Lewis offered no such consolation with Elmer Gantry. What he tapped into with this novel touched the American psyche at a time of significant shifts in national character and religious practice. Lewis’s admittedly crude treatment of Gantry should have been interpreted as the burlesque its author intended, but the outrage was real and widespread. One pastor invited Lewis to a lynching party in Virginia, while another in Maine wondered if there was no “respectable and righteous way” of putting Lewis in jail. To understand this, we have to remember the legacy of Puritanism in the America of the 1920s.
That the Puritans came to North America to escape religious persecution in England is well known to every schoolchild. What may be surprising is that religious conflict began among the Pilgrims as early as the 1660s. In the next decades, religious enthusiasm began to decline. New England clergy responded by adopting an emotional style of preaching known as the jeremiad, influenced by the prophecies of Jeremiah with its emphasis on joy, fervor, and anxiety about displeasing God. Also around this time, the Puritans lost political control of their territory to the British. In 1692, the Salem witch trials showed how extreme religious anxiety had become. John Winthrop’s vision of a city of a hill had faded remarkably quickly.
British influence in New England helped liberalize society by bringing in European Enlightenment ideas. The colonists reacted with the first Great Awakening, an anti-intellectual religious movement that occurred between the 1730s and 1770s. Pastors like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards exhorted the faithful to remember that they were sinners in the hands of an angry God. The Presbyterian preaching family of William Tennent and his four sons led colonial religious revivals and founded a training seminary. These preachers used vivid, emotionally-charged sermons to remind their listeners of their sacred destiny as Christians. In fact, what we think of as manifest destiny or American exceptionalism originated in the jeremiads of the Great Awakening.
Increasingly, itinerant revivalists began to travel around the countryside, preaching outdoors and gathering converts in large numbers. The fire-and-brimstone theatrics of these preachers deeply offended the more conservative clergy. The revivalists’ success and their disdain for traditional congregational churches presented a serious challenge to church authority.
By the 1820s, evangelical Protestant sects dominated religion in the United States. They stressed the importance of the conversion experience—religion through the heart rather than the head. This profound transformation came about through the powerful words of a preacher and the collective enthusiasm of fellow worshippers. The conversion was the climax of the popular outdoor camp meeting or revivals that characterized the Second Great Awakening during the mid-nineteenth century. Gradually, these revivals became complex, highly-orchestrated events sometimes lasting several days.
The modern crisis of faith—one that many believe is still with us—came about by the end of the nineteenth century. A combination of factors led to an intellectual reaction against revivalism: Darwinism, increasing awareness of non-Christian faiths, and higher biblical criticism that aimed to analyze the Bible not as the divinely-inspired word of God but as an ancient artifact. In addition, proponents of what became known as Social Gospel sought to utilize the Bible to right social wrongs. By the 1920s, events like the Scopes trial and the “disappearance” of Sister Aimee seemed to offer proof of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of American religion.
Elmer Gantry struck America in a tender spot during a time of doubt. Lewis’s audaciously unflattering portrait of the clergy attacked an institution struggling to maintain its integrity. In his daring, Lewis had the full support of essayist H. L. Mencken who contended that “deep within the heart of every evangelist lies the wreck of a car salesman.” The Sage of Baltimore had praised both Main Street and Babbitt from his own bully pulpit in the pages of the Smart Set, noting ironically that “[Lewis’s] apprenticeship in the cellars of the tabernacle was not wasted.” Lewis repaid the kindness by dedicating Elmer Gantry to Mencken “in profound admiration.” Of course, Lewis being Lewis, he added the rather disingenuous assertion that “no character in this book is the portrayal of any actual person.”
Leann Davis Alspaugh
Leann Davis Alspaugh writes about opera, literature, and the visual arts.
 Scene 1: The Old Home Sample Room, Cato, Missouri, 1905.
Elmer Gantry, captain of the Terwillinger College football team, and his roommate Frank Shallard are getting drunk in a local bar. Elmer regales the patrons with stories of his sexual exploits. A bully picks a fight with him, saying he attends a “sissy bible school.” Elmer sucker punches him. The barroom erupts in chaos.
 Scene 2: The President’s Office, Terwillinger College and Seminary, the next day.
Elmer is called in to a prayer meeting by the college president, Rev. Baines. Captivated by the president’s pretty daughter, Lulu; enticed by the promise of a full scholarship to the seminary; and cajoled by Eddie Fislinger, head of the campus YMCA, Elmer fakes a conversion, to the chagrin of his roommate Frank. The scene ends amid a chorus of Hallelujahs.
 Scene 3: A field on the outskirts of Grauten, Missouri, 1906.
Now in seminary, Elmer Gantry makes unauthorized use of his newfound oratorical skills by selling farm tools in a nearby town. He is also having a surreptitious affair with Lulu, despite her engagement to Eddie. He promises to meet Lulu that night, but then decides to go to a tent revival held by the famous traveling evangelist, Sharon Falconer.
 Scene 4: Outside Sharon Falconer’s revival tent, Sautersville, Kansas, later that evening.
Elmer watches in awe as Sharon Falconer leads her tent meeting. Lulu arrives with Frank to warn Elmer that he is about to be expelled from seminary. Angry and defiant, he chases her away only to be treated with cool indifference by the departing Sharon. Elmer is left alone to rail against the world. He suddenly feels himself in the grip of a true conversion. In a state of agonized delirium, he hears these words over and over: “Never the same again.”
 Scene 5: The Elks Lodge Meeting Room, Zenith, Missouri, 1911.
Sharon Falconer appears before the Elks Lodge of Zenith. She attempts to enlist the aid of the city’s elders in realizing her dream: to build a grand tabernacle in their city. Elmer, now a successful businessman, intervenes on her behalf. The Elks sing in celebration of civic pride.
 Scene 6: The Pastor’s Study in the home of Eddie and Lulu Fislinger, Cato, Missouri, 1912.
There is an undercurrent of tension in the home of the Rev. Eddie and Mrs Lulu Fislinger. Eddie has begun preparing his Sunday sermon when he pauses over a newspaper story about the proposed building of Sharon and Elmer’s tabernacle. When he resumes his sermon, his hatred and envy of Elmer infect his theme of Christian Love.
 Scene 1: Sharon’s suite, The Antlers Hotel, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1912.
Working as business manager within Sharon’s ministry, Elmer has helped her to become ever more successful. One night, he confesses the depth of his love for her; she responds by proclaiming the depth of her religious calling. They reach a passionate understanding.
 Scene 2: The Waters of Jordan Tabernacle construction site, Zenith, Missouri, 1913.
Sharon’s grand tabernacle is being built under Elmer’s supervision. Frank, now a minister in Zenith, pays a visit. Eddie, Lulu, and Rev and Mrs Baines tour the site and privately express their displeasure with commercialized religion. The eight principal characters sing an octet in which they debate the merits of the old-time religion versus the new.
 Scene 3: Same setting, later that night. Frank expresses his doubts about God and yearns for a “fresh, boundless” faith.
 Scene 4: A hotel room in Zenith, Missouri, a few months later.
Elmer has an assignation with Lulu. She sings him a suggestive “bedtime story”, then lets Eddie in the door to spy on them as she and Elmer make love.
 Scene 5: Sharon’s private sanctuary in the Tabernacle, the same day.
In her private sanctuary, Sharon prays to God for help on the evening before the opening of her tabernacle. She also prays for advice about Elmer, who has asked her to marry him.
 Scene 6: The Waters of Jordan Tabernacle, very late that night.
TJ Rigg, financier of the tabernacle, checks last-minute details in the building. He is awestruck by its cross of electric lights.
 Scene 7: The Waters of Jordan Tabernacle, Opening Night, 1913.
Sharon and Elmer enchant their throngs of followers. Eddie and Lulu arrive to denounce Elmer as a philanderer and a sinner. Chaos follows, and a fire breaks out. Elmer tries to save Sharon, but she refuses his help. He escapes; she stays to comfort her flock with a last mystical vision as all are immolated.
 Epilogue: Another place, a few weeks later.
Elmer embarks on a new career with the founder of the
‘New Thought’ movement . The ashes of the fire and the haunting voices of the past surround him.
A Timeline of American Revivalism
A religious fervor begins to sweep the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. Sinners are converted by the hundreds under the ministry of Rev. Jonathan Edwards. He details the occurrences in A Faithful Narrative of the Surprizing Works of God (1737), one of the seminal works of the Great Awakening.
In response to Edwards and his disciples, the annual convention of Massachusetts Congregational ministers issues a condemnation of practices which lead to “disorderly tumults.”
Edwards, attempting to instate open confession (one of the hallmarks of the Great Awakening), is fired from his church in Northampton. He turns to theological writing.
These years see the publication of several central works of American deism, a humanistic philosophy espousing faith based on reason: Ethan Allen’s Reason the Only Oracle of Man, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Deism is condemned by the clergy, embraced by the intelligentsia, including Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
A survey at Princeton University, a bastion of the Presbyterian ministry, finds only two professed Christians in the student body.
The Presbyterian minister James MacGready of North Carolina moves to Kentucky to begin a frontier mission. Over the next two years at his Red River church, the Great (or Western) Revival begins.
On August 6th, the first camp meeting (precursor of the tent meeting) takes place, at Cane Ridge, KY. It lasts three days; 20,000 are said to attend. Some witnesses record that liquor was in abundant use and many virgins were undone.
The Presbyterian Church disciplines MacGready and distances itself from revivalism.
Through its embrace of revivalism, and the labors of its “circuit riders” (traveling frontier preachers), the Methodist Church grows from 15,000 to 850,000 souls. The Methodist ministers stress dramatic, personal conversion. Rev. Peter Cartwright tells of being struck down by a flash of divine light; when “convicted,” Rev. James B. Finley spends a week in a hollow log, weeping and reading the Bible.
Boston shoe salesman Dwight L. Moody moves to Chicago to make his fortune. He spends his free time as a YMCA organizer, until his fame as a preacher allows him to give up business. He unites with singer/composer Ira Sankey (who coined the term “gospel music”). They are the first great urban revivalists. They use publicity, advertising and organizational planning to conduct successful revivals throughout the U.S. and England (where in one tour they are heard by 1.5 million people).
Mariah Woodworth-Etter, first of the famous woman revivalists, arrives to preach in Oakland, CA. At the height of her popularity, she speaks to racially mixed crowds of 2,500. Her husband cranks an ice-cream freezer at the refreshment stand, 50 feet from the pulpit.
Etter holds weekly street parades to trumpet her prediction of an earthquake and tidal wave to strike the city on April 14. The date passes uneventfully. Etter flees Oakland the next day. Her chief civic supporters are sent to an insane asylum.
Chicago outfielder Billy Sunday gives up baseball to begin spreading the word of God. Twenty years later “the baseball preacher,” famous for “sliding in” to the altar, will be preaching in New York in a tabernacle of 16,000 seats, with the Astors and Rockefellers in attendance.
• 1901, 1906
During revivals in Topeka, Kansas, and Los Angeles, California, congregants speak in tongues. The modern Pentecostal movement begins.
Evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson “disappears,” the purported victim of kidnappers. When she reappears in Los Angeles, 100,000 people line the streets to greet her rose-draped car.
SINCLAIR LEWIS PUBLISHES ELMER GANTRY.
• 1947 After years of declining popularity in the 30s and 40s, revivalism is launched again by Pentecostal preachers Oral Roberts, A.A. Allen and Jack Coe.
A.A. Allen holds interracial revivals in Little Rock and Atlanta, hotbeds of segregationism. He publicly pledges to uphold integration in his services.
Evangelist Jack Coe is arrested for practicing medicine without a license. During a service, he had urged a woman to remove the leg braces from her polio-stricken son, thus causing the boy irreparable physical damage. Coe is acquitted, but dies ten months later.
Oral Roberts stuns evangelicals by accepting the stewardship of an Oklahoma Methodist church. He begins massive campaigns to build a university and medical center in Tulsa. Over the next twenty years he will repeatedly claim that God is going to “call him back” if he doesn’t meet fundraising goals.
In the aftermath of two deaths at a Holiness church in Newport, Tennessee, the ACLU represents the church in an unsuccessful challenge to the state’s law prohibiting snake-handling.
In a private prayer meeting, Evangelist Arthur Blessitt, famous for having carried a 12-foot cross around the world, helps future President George W. Bush to accept Jesus. Blessitt’s diary entry for April 4 says, “Led Vice President Bush’s son to Jesus today. This is great! Glory to God.”
Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, rumored to be visiting prostitutes, tearfully confesses to unspecified sins on national TV. The Assemblies of God order him not to preach for one year.
In the Iowa Presidential caucus, televangelist Pat Robertson finishes second.
Jim Bakker, head of PTL (Praise the Lord) Ministries, is convicted of defrauding his followers of $158 million—the largest case of mail fraud in U.S. history. He is sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Jimmy Swaggart is stopped for traffic violations in California. A prostitute is with him in the car. He later announces he will step down from the directorship of his worldwide ministries.
On Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” telecast two days after the September 11 attacks, Rev. Jerry Falwell says God may have allowed the attacks because of the country’s moral decay. Addressing the ACLU, abortionists, feminists and gays, he says, “You helped this happen.” He apologizes a few days later.
A film, “George W. Bush: Faith in the White House,” which recounts the Blessitt conversion experience, is released on DVD and shown at off-the-floor events at the Republican National Convention. Eventually, Bush carries 78% of the white evangelical vote (up from 68% in 2000).
Ted Haggard (‘Pastor Ted’), leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, is alleged by male prostitute Mike Jones to have paid him for sex and bought methamphetamine over the course of a 3-year relationship. Haggard receives three weeks of pastoral counseling and emerges ‘completely heterosexual.’ However, the public uproar continues and Haggard resigns. By Herschel Garfein. Sources: Bernard A. Weisberger, They Gathered at the River (Little, Brown, 1958); Patsy Sims, Can Somebody Shout Amen? (St Martin’s, 1988); The New York Times; MSNBC; The Pew Resource Center.
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