Before Sinclair Lewis completed Elmer Gantry, Methodist minister William “Big Bill” Stidger boasted that he was the person after whom the book’s main character would be patterned. After seeing advanced sheets of the book, Stidger attempted to distance himself from the Elmer Gantry character and tried to discredit it by announcing that Lewis was drunk the entire time he wrote Elmer Gantry and that the book contained “fifty technical errors in its account of church practices” (Mark Schorer, Sinclair Lewis: An American Life, 470). When challenged to name at least one of those supposed errors, Stidger was silent.
In several of his books, Lewis criticized religion with a destructive rather than constructive motive and manner. He did so in Elmer Gantry by using certain characteristics of popular preacher Bill Stidger. There were enough similarities between Stidger and the fictional Gantry that the description for his 2002 biography Evangelism’s First Modern Media Star: The Life of Reverend Bill Stidger (written by his grandson Jack Hyland) states “Bill Stidger was the most famous preacher in America in the 1930s and the model for Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry.” The book’s description also claims that Stidger “changed the way we worship in America.”
Do 21st century American churches demonstrate Stidger’s influence? Consider that question in light of the following synopsis of Stidger’s personality, practice, and philosophy in the early 20th century.
In November, 1929, The Methodist Review hailed Rev. Stidger as a “revolutionist” because of the methods he employed. In each of his churches attendance figures skyrocketed and other pastors, desiring the same results, copied his ideas. Stidger encouraged this mimicry. In two of his books, Standing Room Only and That God’s House May Be Filled, Stidger documented his ministry successes tested in what he called “the laboratory of his own experiences” and showed other pastors how they, too, could get the same results (Standing Room Only, xiii). Stidger was popular, persuasive, and promoted himself. These characteristics attracted the attention of Sinclair Lewis.
In August, 1922, Lewis was passing through Terre Haute, Indiana. At that same time Rev. Stidger was also in Terre Haute and staying in the same hotel as Lewis. Stidger noticed Lewis’ name on the hotel registry and decided to pay Lewis a visit and express his dismay at how Lewis had negatively portrayed clergymen via the fictional Rev. Dr. Drew character in his novel Babbitt. During the course of his conversation with Lewis, Stidger suggested that a new novel be written to better portray clergymen (Schorer, 440-441).
About three years later, Lewis decided he would write a novel about American clergymen. Remembering the minister he met at that Terre Haute hotel, Lewis contacted Rev. Stidger. By this time Stidger was pastor of a Methodist church in Kansas City. In 1926, Lewis arrived in Kansas City and briefly stayed with Stidger before settling into a local hotel. Lewis was introduced to area clergymen who subsequently met with him for what became known as “Sinclair Lewis’s Sunday School Class” (Schorer, 448). In addition to these meetings, Lewis visited various churches, including Stidger’s. What did Lewis observe at Stidger’s church?
Practice (Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes in this section are from Stidger’s Standing Room Only.) Stidger’s first aim was to attract people to his church and his second goal was to keep them coming back. One of Stidger’s claims to fame was the use of a lighted, revolving cross adorning his church exterior. He invented this idea and first implemented it while pastor of a church in California. It attracted people to his church and he had a similar cross installed during his subsequent pastorates (141). Those familiar with Elmer Gantry will recall that at several points Lewis inserted a lighted, revolving cross into that novel.
Stidger also experimented with various advertising schemes and marketing techniques to draw people into his churches. This was done through ads, signs, and slogans. He wrote, “the use of plenty of money, carefully spent in publicity, actually pays in dollars and cents, and will always pay, and never fails to pay. . . . Careful advertising pays in dollars, in attendance, and in getting folks into the Kingdom” (150, 161).
Another of Stidger’s innovations involved the institution of programs that appealed to the masses. He solved what he called “the Prayer Meeting problem in a great city” by renaming it “Food, Faith, and Fun Night” in order to increase attendance (35). The evening began with an hour-long, family-style meal, followed by an hour-long, age-segregated time of testimony and “spiritual message,” (88) and concluded with two hours of recreation in the church’s gymnasium. He justified this approach by claiming that they were “enacting all over again, in a modern American city church, that scene on the shores of Galilee where Jesus fed the five thousand and then preached the eternal life to them” (35).
One of the ways Stidger drew people to the Sunday evening service was through music. Because he wanted to appeal to those who “were not interested in the church at all” (56) he began the service with popular, secular songs. According to Stidger, this “wins their hearts” (62). The singing portion of the service gradually transitioned to more sacred songs before ending with softly sung hymns. He referred to this method as the “Big Sing” (62) and admitted to using a hymn story “to get people into the mood for prayer” following the “excitement” produced by the music (81-82).
Stidger also initiated non-preaching programs and events with the goal of making the church “a community center” that is “useful to folks, in order to get folks” (163). His goal was to help people feel comfortable in his church building in hopes that they would eventually attend services. He claimed that not only did he get people into church, but he gained their souls as well. He wrote, “In one church in the first year I saw 325 people kneel at the altars of the church; in another I watched them come at the rate of fifty a month” (33).
During church services, Rev. Stidger tinkered in various ways to achieve desired moods from the congregation. He unapologetically admitted to borrowing ideas and methods from secular society in order to achieve his desired end. During corporate prayer, per Stidger’s instructions, they would “turn all the lights of the church off gradually, just as they do in the theaters” in order to create “an effect of twilight with darkness gradually approaching.” After prayer, the lights were turned back on “producing an effect like that of the dawning of the new day.” Stidger wrote that doing so “gets the hearts of the folks ready for the sermon in a way that no single thing that we have ever tried has done” (78-79).
Stidger also tried new preaching styles involving “dialogue, drama, poetry, and action.” He claimed that doing so made the gospel “alive, real, saving and modern” (34). He based some of his sermons on popular books of the day and claimed this was the best way he had found to make Christ “winning,” conversion “fascinating,” and sin “horrible” (34). He justified his innovations by claiming he was simply dressing the “old Gospel” and the “old truths” in “new clothes” (xiv).
Rev. Stidger was considered a popular, successful preacher in his day. Thousands packed his churches, hundreds read his books, and many copied his tactics. In his book That God’s House May Be Filled he justified his methods with the phrases “It’s pragmatic” and “It Works.” At one time he asked, “Why should not we preachers, as well as the artist, apply the laws of subtle emotional and spiritual psychology to our church services?” (Standing Room Only, 83). In the May, 1929, issue of The Methodist Review, Stidger advocated that a “wise preacher” attend the theater in order to “enrich his preaching” by learning “dialogue that will thrill his congregations as it has thrilled theatrical audiences.” In that article, Stidger surmised that doing so might “result in making church congregations once a week as large as theatrical audiences are seven times a week.” He concluded with “Who knows the value of this experiment? At least it is very well worth trying.”
Stidger admitted, “I do not claim to be an authority on great preaching” (Standing Room Only, 23). Also, The Methodist Review described him as “not being much versed in theology” but justified his “homiletical innovation” by extolling him as “a revolutionist with genius, who is often misunderstood” (November, 1929).
In October, 1925, the Reformed Church Review pointed out that Rev. Stidger “resorted to sensational topics and novelty methods to draw an audience” and conceded that it is possible for anyone to fill a church through those means, but warned that a church doing so “would hardly be filled with worshiping people.”
Churches that tinkered with lights, music, programs, and preaching began doing so before the 21st century. Is there evidence today of tactics in American churches similar to those instituted by Rev. Stidger in the 1920s? Do churches today employ practices or philosophies that resemble those introduced by Stidger decades ago? If so, consider the question posed by the Reformed Church Review (October, 1925) in response to Stidger’s ministry: “How far are all of these modern methods from the methods of the Head of the Church, who bade man to seek first the Kingdom and the righteousness of God?”