A flamboyant man who in many ways resembled Elmer Gantry

Posted by | February 7, 2017

“We go to bed at night and get up in the morning, and our Milk Bottles are standing on the back porch waiting for us,” observed Rev. W.L. Stidger in a sermon titled ‘Milk Bottles & Monotony.’

“Fifty years ago we got up at five o’clock, dressed in the cold, shivering as we dressed, went out to the barn, knocked ice from the buckets, primed the old iron pump with hastily heated hot water, and milked the cows before breakfast. We worked for our milk then. Now it is brought to us. That is monotony.”

William Stidger, preacherWilliam Stidger in Missouri, about 1925.

Stidger published this sermon in 1926, the same year that writer Sinclair Lewis was spending time shadowing the famous preacher as part of his research for a forthcoming novel about the Chautauqua circuit and the preachers it produced.

Stidger himself apparently wasn’t bored having his milk brought to him. He had a full time maid and gardener when he wrote these words.

William Leroy Stidger (1885-1949) attracted Lewis’ attention for the modern marketing methods and publicity tactics he brought to his crusade to save souls.

Long before Sinclair Lewis appeared in his life, the future preacher grew up to the slow tempo of late nineteenth century daily life in Moundsville, WV. This town of 5,000 souls was disrupted each summer by Methodist revival camp meetings that more than doubled the population.

“The town rocked with religion each summer,” says John Hyland in Evangelism’s First Modern Media Star: Reverend Bill Stidger. “It was a form of group hysteria. People would climb over chairs to get down the aisles to confess their sins.”

Religious fervor wafted through the heat in the summer of 1901 as Rev. William B. King pressed his followers to find salvation. One audience member, 16-year-old Bill Stidger, decided then and there to follow the ministry. “He learned about evangelism from the exhorters,” notes Hyland, his grandson.

aerial map of Moundsville WV in 1899Moundsville, West Virginia in 1899.

Stidger went on to become an ingenious innovator whose marketing abilities filled churches wherever he pastored: San Francisco, San Jose, Detroit, Kansas City, and Boston. He wrote 52 books, ran FDR’s radio reelection campaign in 1936, and taught techniques for sermon writing at Boston University’s School of Theology. He was one of the first radio preachers. By the mid-1930s, Stidger had a radio audience of half a million listeners.

Sinclair Lewis and Stidger first met in Terre Haute, IN in August of 1922 when Stidger was lecturing on the Chautauqua circuit. He challenged Sinclair Lewis to write a “real preacher book” about a minister “who lives and walks and has a being; not all good, not all bad—some of both—a human being.”

Four years later Lewis accepted the Reverend’s invitation to stay at his house to help get the sense of a preacher’s world. Lewis wasn’t the best houseguest: he stayed with the Stidgers for several weeks, during which time he was visited by Ethel Barrymore, Edwin Markahm, William Allen White, Gilbert Frankau and Harpo Marx. They came to attend a wedding between Stidger’s maid and a gardener – a ceremony which Stidger had planned to conduct quietly. But Lewis slipped out and called a newspaper and the wedding made the front page.

When Elmer Gantry released, Stidger was pastoring the Linwood Boulevard Methodist Episcopal Church in Kansas City, MO. He’d let it be known that Lewis would be writing about him, which led many to think he was the model for Gantry (which, in part, he was). Naturally, he was outraged when he saw how Lewis had shaped the novel—nearly every man of God is either a hypocrite or a closet agnostic.

Sinclair Lewis in the 1920sThis photograph of Sinclair Lewis was taken by Nikolas Muray for Vanity Fair magazine in the 1920s.

The Gantry publication created a church backlash and the book was banned and burned in many cities. Stidger declared that the book contained fifty technical errors in its account of church practices and that the author had been drunk all the time he was working on the book.

Shot back Lewis: “Stidger was a flamboyant man who in many ways resembled Elmer Gantry…unaware of the kind of novel that Elmer Gantry was to be, he went to Kansas City…boasting that the central character was to be modeled on himself.”

A bitter battle ensued between the two men, conducted in the press and from the pulpit, which neither of them ultimately won.

Sources: “Stidger,” Russell Maloney, The Talk of the Town, The New Yorker, March 2, 1940, p. 9
Evangelism’s First Modern Media Star: Reverend Bill Stidger, by Jack Hyland, Cooper Square Press, 2002
Sinclair Lewis, by Richard R. Lingeman, Minnesota Historical Society, 2005
Sinclair Lewis: an American Life, by Mark Schorer, New York, McGraw Hill, 1961

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