By 1927, as the great depression approached, Harold Bell Wright's sales were
dramatically down from the old Book Supply Company
days, though he was still one of the best selling authors in the
world. In this book he returns to Dan Matthews, making sort of a
trilogy with The Shepherd of The Hills, where Dan is a teen, and The Calling of Dan
Matthews, where Dan is a young pastor. In God and the Groceryman,
Dan, now a wealthy but still faithful businessman, funds a non-sectarian
In my opinion, this book marks the low point in Wright's
career, and is the last of his books to sell more than 50,000 copies.
Unlike the first two simple and compelling stories, this book is about
10 percent story and 90 percent grumpy lecturing on how to improve
American churches. While Wright makes a good point, that
churches are only valuable to the extent that they serve people as Jesus did,
he could have summed it all up in ten pages or less. The lesson that
Wright tries to teach does not flow from the story itself, but is forced
from the lips of the characters in seemingly endless and repetitive
This book is decidedly less common than earlier Appleton
titles, but still not rare. The foil dust jackets are hard to
find. All first editions were produced by
Appleton and look exactly like the photos at the top of this page. In all Appleton books, at the end of the last page of
text, you will find a printing number. First editions with numbers
higher than (1) are, of course, considered not quite as desirable as
first printings. Reprints were produced by A.L. Burt, Hodder and
Stoughton, and Triangle.
Total sales: 198,865
Review of Book by Dr.
Joyce Kinkead Copyright 1979 by Joyce
Kinkead. Used by Permission
an eighteen year absence, Dan Matthews returns in 1927 in Wright's
thirteenth novel, God and the Groceryman, the last book in the
Matthews trilogy which begins with The Shepherd of the Hills.
In this more optimistic novel, Wright again attacks the church,
but this time he offers a plan for reform, a unified church. However, this novel fails whereas The Calling of Dan Matthews
succeeded because the former is more sermon than story.
Wright's purpose is to find a solution to the moral bankruptcy and social
degeneracy of America, and although he determines the cause of America's
problems as the failure of the churches to preach Christianity, his
solution is rather unrealistic. Even
though denominational congregations may be dissatisfied with their
particular sects, they are not likely to abandon their churches as readily
as do the people in Westover, the novel's fictional town.
The plan to incorporate the churches into one unified body was
initiated by Dan Matthews, now a Kansas City millionaire businessman,
"the Carnegie of mining."
Dan, feeling that he has failed to be a true Christian even though
he has donated money to several good works, decides to perform an
experiment in Christianity in an average American town, Westover.
He sends his friend and confidential agent, John Saxton, to begin
inspecting the town for the religious enterprise.
When Saxton arrives in Westover, the local businessmen see the
presence of the wealthy man as a possible means for their own good
fortune. However, they also
feel impending doom, for the home lives of these men are unsettling as
they feel that their families are falling apart.
And so they tell polite lies to each other. Their children drink bootleg liquor and dance (God, p.
219); their wives have affairs and substitute clubs of all types for
family life (God, p. 78); and the men drink liquor and try to
appear prosperous for the good of their families (God, p. 103).
Wright studies one family in particular, the Paddocks. Joe Paddock is a groceryman and a director of one of the
banks. His life is upset
though by his wife, Laura Louise, who has an affair with a cultured
novelist, who actually only wrote one worthless book.
His daughter Georgia is basically "a good girl," but she
is driven to drink and wild parties after she discovers her mother with a
lover. The only content
Paddocks are the grandparents who have remained on the farm and kept
religion in their lives. Each
leading Westover family has basically the same problem, but it is not
until the banker's son is killed in an automobile accident that the
leading citizens realize that the town's moral situation must be changed.
They recognize that it is not the bootleggers or taverns that are
responsible for the boy's death; the fault lies with the parents and the
church for not being better instructors.
When the five businessmen, whom Saxton has already met, decide to
take action, they go to him and find that his business enterprise is
actually a religious enterprise. Together,
with Dan Matthews, they plan a church which has no denominational ties, no
membership, no dues, and follows the simple teachings of Christ. At first scoffed and ridiculed by the denominational
ministers, the church rapidly gains acceptance by the townspeople who
appreciate the church's purpose. As
Dan's elaborate statistics show, only one out of every five dollars given
to the church actually goes toward good works, and the other four dollars
is spent on the machinations of the church (God, p. 27). A good business would never operate in such a manner.
All of the charity work for the town has to be done by an
association especially designed for that purpose or by organizations such
as the Elks, Rotary, or Kiwanis. The town, much like Babbitt's Zenith, even has a Booster's
Club to promote the community's industry, and every businessman is
expected to do his part (God, p. 42).
However, there is no religion associated with these clubs, and
Wright stresses that there must be Christianity in all that the people do,
even in business. The new
church, which has been totally funded by Matthews, gives any donations it
receives to charitable cases. As
usual, Wright provides a sympathetic family whose son serves as delivery
boy for Paddock. Both of the boy's parents are temporarily disabled and have
been taken off the church roll since they have not paid their dues.
The son is driven to delivering bootleg liquor and, finally,
stealing to provide for his parents and family.
Fortunately, Paddock realizes that here is the opportunity to
practice his Christianity, and thus he finances the family until the
parents can return to work, which they do. That family, like many others who have fallen on hard times,
becomes bitter toward the church, but the family members' faith is renewed
when they attend the unified church where money does not matter.
Although Paddock's family suffers through several confrontations
between family members, they survive because of his determination to
return Christianity to the home. Paddock,
like his friends and business associates, is tired of the constant rivalry
of the denominations and the modern minister who is, he says,
ten per cent social visitor, tea drinker and diner-out; five per
cent handyman and speaker for all kinds of boosting clubs; five per cent
political henchman; twenty per cent denominational advocate; five per cent
protector and comforter of that portion of his membership who, because
their deeds will not bear the light, must live under the cloak of the
Church; and fifty per cent public entertainer.
The remaining five per cent of him is the teacher of the truths of
Jesus, which, alone constitutes one hundred per cent of Christianity. (God,
As the churches attempt to draw more members, these institutions
become places of public entertainment.
Somewhat parallel to Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry, the book
catalogs the church programs advertised in the Sunday newspaper:
"An Up-to-date Jazz Band Furnishes the Music at
Services," "Broncho Jack, Here to Hog-tie Souls of Men,"
"An Ex-Governor to Occupy Pulpit," and "The Go-Getter
Church" (God, pp. 171-173).
The churches rely on athletes turned ministers, illustrated talks
of China, and movies to capture the attention of the people.
They are actually alienating the people who want to hear
Christianity preached. Rather
than tending to their congregations, the ministers are interested in
making religion pay. The church money spent in missionary work "opened up
those heathen countries to our commerce until the return in dollars and
cents were already a thousand times more than the total cost of the
work" (God, p. 60).
The reviewers of this novel note the cynicism of Wright's attitude
toward churches, but they also think his solution to the problem is too
simplistic. One reviewer
writes about Wright: "He
places everything that is wrong on the doorstep of Twentieth Century
Christianity. Like Sinclair Lewis, he believes the Church of Jesus to be
flabby with divines who have nothing to say and say it vulgarly."
Wright follows Lewis' pattern of putting the novel's major
character in a town to illuminate its faults, in this case to point to the
lack of religion. The same
technique is evident in The Calling of Dan Matthews.
Another reviewer finds that Wright, in order to accomplish his
purpose, has practically abandoned "the pleasant fields of fiction
for the less luscious plains of statistic and propaganda."
Wright retains his love story, adding a near rape of Georgia
Paddock, a rather liberal move for the author.
A more detailed and accurate critique of the novel is given by Leon
Wright surpasses Sinclair's seriousness of the propagandist with
his seriousness of the theological seminar.
He was an Ozark mountain-preacher and still is.
His importance is not artistic, but social, for his books sold by
the carload and supported a special publisher.
His vogue invites attention for it is millions-wide. He has a narrative gift, a kind of popular sentimentality
tempered with common sense, and a style that is a mosaic of phrases that
people understand from long usage in books.
He is clean, simple and naive.
He here combines a slight story of conflict between the generations
with pages of harangue against the evils of denominationalism. He stages debates between characters and writes Platonic
dialogues. His characters
have different faces but the voice is the voice of Wright. He is a ventriloquist whose ideas and accent remain the same
whether projected from the dummy of golden-haired Mary of black Sambo.
The book is as bitter against the church as Elmer Gantry [sic], and
often more pointed. It will
prove useful in that his large clientele must certainly absorb the idea
that their literary pastor is disgusted with functionless sectarianism and
the failure of the Church either to preach spiritual salvation or offer
social succor. That this is
all that is the matter with the Church I cannot agree, nor do I find in
his remedy of the united community church an answer that seems to carry
In the review by the New York Times, Wright is referred to
as "the mouthpiece of a multitude."
This is because he reflects the opinions of the masses. When Wright says that the people of Westover are not content
with religion, he actually means that Americans are not content.
The twenties was a difficult period for the American people, who
recovered from a war, drank bathtub gin, and adopted a new set a values.
The fictional town of Westover cannot escape from these problems or
from the new freedom of the younger generation, especially the freedom of
One advertisement for the book reflects the insecurity of the
decade and asks:
Is God being crowded out of American life?
Are we losing the deep religious background that has played so
important a part in moulding [sic] a nation?
In his new novel, "God and the Groceryman," Harold Bell
Wright shows what is happening today in thousands of American homes.
An amazingly interesting and absorbing story of people you know,
the people who live round the corner or up and down your street, and
behind it all a message filled with hope and inspiration.
God and the Groceryman is not as well written as Wright's
previous novels, for he dwells on criticism of the church rather than
mixing criticism with plot as he did in The Printer of Udell's and The
Calling of Dan Matthews. In
fact, Dan Matthews is only present in about one-fifth of the novel as he
chooses to remain in Kansas City so that the new church will not become
associated with one man. The contrast between the second and third novels in the
Matthews trilogy is shockingly apparent.
In the space of twenty years, the horse and buggy of The Calling
of Dan Matthews has been scrapped for the automobile, and morals of
the characters have changed from Victorian to flapper in God and the
Wright's choice of titles for this novel is unfortunate, though the
analogy of the groceryman Matthews uses is appropriate.
He likens the groceryman to a church member who must learn to
recognize and acknowledge God in all things, just as the groceryman
recognizes the importance of produce, money, and the grocery store; each
is just a link in a chain (God, pp. 22-23).
In this case, Wright's purpose is not to write a good novel but to
deliver his sermon on the evils of denominational worship.
He does so with a rather heavy hand.
This book best serves as an accurate picture of the religious
attitudes prevalent during the twenties and the unification movement which
tried to reform the churches. Once
again, Wright proves himself an apt social commentator, concerned with the
lower, middle, and upper classes who are disturbed by the role of the
church in the American society. Although
the argument sustains interest, the story does not.
Copyright 1979 by Joyce Kinkead.
Used by Permission.