It is the 8th of October 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1927.
The publisher Alfred Harcourt sent a telegram to author Sinclair Lewis on the publication of his new book, “Elmer Gantry.” Harcourt wrote, “Reviews violent either way…Clergy hot. Reorders already.” The book had a (then) record 1st run of 140,000 copies. However, the book was as popular as it was controversial… although those things tend to be bedfellows. Elmer Gantry was the story of a womanizing boozehound who finds his way into the world of fundamentalism and revivalism, sweeping through 1920s America. A polarizing character, Gantry works with a female revivalist based loosely on Almanac favorite Aimee Semple MacPherson until her untimely death and his own spiritual rebranding and epiphany.
Lewis, who had attended Oberlin College, was fascinated with middle America's lives, thoughts, and patterns. His other works, “Main Street,” “Babbit,” and “Arrowsmith” all explored similar aspects of small-town America with some controversy. But this was the first book to get Lewis marked with the infamous label “Banned in Boston.” The famous phrase has its roots in Boston’s Puritan past. The one-time hub of the Massachusetts Bay Colony served as a kind of bellwether for what might be considered obscene by the nation’s ministers and churches. By the late 19th century, a neo-Puritan outfit known as the “New England Society for the Repression of Vice,” also known as the “Watch and Ward Society,” successfully lobbied for obscene books kept under lock and key in the Boston public library. With his Boston banning, Lewis joined the likes of Voltaire, Whitman, Huxley, and Mencken. It was, in fact, Mencken, the irascible wit, to whom Lewis dedicated Elmer Gantry. Mencken was made famous for his reporting and critique of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Mencken’s criticisms and Lewis’ book both sullied the reputation of those who might be in the ministry with less than pure motives.
1927 was a year, like many in that anxious decade, that saw a gulf open between Christianity and culture, especially regarding public opinion concerning ministers. There is some poetic irony that in the year that Elmer Gantry was published, the 8th of October in 1927, the beloved missionary and martyr Phillip James, or “Jim” Elliot, was born in Portland, Oregon. The son of a minister amongst the Plymouth Brethren, Elliot grew up with pastoral aspirations. It was at Wheaton College that Elliot decided to become a missionary. In his journal, he famously wrote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
In 1952 Elliot and others would travel to Ecuador to minister to and live with the indigenous tribes. They worked with the Quichua tribe but could not penetrate the more remote tribe known as the Aucas. Auca was the native word for savage. It was the pejorative term for the Huaorani that the Quichua used. Elliot and his team eventually made inroads with the fierce and isolated tribe and soon set out to develop a relationship built on trust. However, shortly into their early contact, they were ambushed. Despite being armed, the men did not fire on the Huaroni and were all killed themselves. While their restraint led to their death, the families of these men, led by Jim’s wife Elisabeth, were able to eventually gain the trust of the tribe and continue evangelistic work amongst the very people who killed Jim and his companions. A 2002 documentary “Through Gates of Splendor” and a 2006 feature “End of the Spear” brought Elliot to a new generation of admirers. Born on this, the 8th of October, in 1927, Jim Elliot was 28 when he died in 1956.
Today's reading comes from the unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writing in the 11th chapter. This is a reminder of what the great martyrs of the faith have gone through and for what reason.
36 Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
39 And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 8th of October 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, who knows a thing or two about banned books. Check out his podcast “Banned Books” with Donavon Riley, right here on the 1517 Network. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day. Remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.