History Vignette 3: The Preacher and the Novelist
Written by Jim Grebe
It was instant chemistry between a Kansas City Unitarian minister and a famous novelist from Minnesota.
In early 1926 Sinclair Lewis, a future Nobel laureate, came to Kansas City to gather material for his “preacher novel,” which became Elmer Gantry. He met local clergy including Leon Birkhead, minister at All Souls Unitarian Church. They hit it off and Lewis asked Birkhead to assist him in his research. He described him as “a Unitarian and generally disillusioned preacher who was for ten years a Methodist preacher, whom I’ll use as cyclopedia for data about church organization and the like.”
“Somehow I feel comfortable in your presence, I can swear, I can smoke a cigarette without any discomfort,” he told Birkhead, “I cannot do that in the presence of most preachers.” E.J. Kahn, Jr., in his lengthy New Yorker profile of Birkhead, wrote that Lewis picked Birkhead “because, unlike some other ministers he had known, he had a sense of humor and was prodigiously informed on such Eastern theologies as Buddhism and Zoroastrianism.”
A two-room suite in a local hotel became the site of “Sinclair Lewis’s Sunday School Class,” a weekly get-together of local clergy including Protestants, Roman Catholics, a rabbi and even the agnostic head of the local Rationalist Society.
Birkhead later wrote that all attendees were “good sports”:
They could be “razzed” and would take no offense. They were the sort that would not be shocked by swearing. In fact, the preachers enjoyed the sessions of the class because they did not have to be on their good behavior; they could say “hell” and “damn” and speak right out without fear. On one occasion, Lewis said to “the boys” (as he affectionately called the members of his class), “Now, boys, you have been very frank today. Suppose we were on the stage of a big theater and before you were your congregations. Would you talk as frankly as you have here today?” One of the leading preachers of Kansas City spoke right up and said, “I wouldn't change a word; I would talk just as I have talked to this class,” and another one of the leading preachers of Kansas City turned about and said, “Like hell you would.” And the latter preacher, who was so frank, was very likely getting near to the truth.
Lewis would open the sessions with challenges designed to provoke discussion such as “What the hell right has the church to exist anyhow? What accounting can you loafers give society? What do you believe in anyhow? What have you to give to the world?” Birkhead wrote that Lewis challenged the preachers to follow the example of the “lowly Nazarene, the One who had not where to lay His head, who said ‘Blessed are ye poor.’ ” He challenged them to give up their comfortable homes, their fine motor cars, their big cigars, and their good food and “become real Christians.” “We haven’t the courage to do it,” some answered, according to Birkhead. Another answered, “Not for me; I ‘m not going to give up my life of comfort; I like my cigars and my car and my comfortable home too well.”
The group often sang revival hymns in order to get into the spirit of the occasion. “Visitors would sometimes join in these fervent songfests,” Birkhead related. “Once Clarence Darrow, E. Haldeman-Julius and Gilbert Frankau, the British novelist, joined us in some old-fashioned hymn-singing and revival shouting.”
Birkhead was surprised at the painstaking research that Lewis did before the actual writing of the novel and he assisted Lewis in amassing a huge library of books and magazines related to religion and, in particular, evangelism, preachers and preaching. “He read the Bible faithfully,” Birkhead wrote. “He was constantly objecting to the Bible, because he felt that it was crude and condoned all sorts of serious offenses, such as incest and polygamy. The Methodist Discipline and the Baptist Church-Manual were his constant companions.”
In the summer of 1926 Birkhead and his wife Agnes spent three months with Lewis at Pelican Lake in northern Minnesota, where Lewis developed his novel. Lewis’s talent as a mimic strongly impressed Birkhead, who later wrote, “. . . he was constantly playing the part of some character as the story of Elmer Gantry developed. We had lengthy theological arguments, discussions about the church and preachers, he playing the part of one character and I the part of another.”
Elmer Gantry was published the following year, to much controversy, and the Birkheads and Lewis remained friends for many years. A writer in the Kansas City Star later referred to Birkhead as “the self-styled champion of the freckled face novelist in these parts.”
Note: this article is adapted from Defender of Democracy: The Life of L. M. Birkhead by Jim Grebe (Lulu.com, 2013).