“Go Tell It on the Mountain” is a 1953 novel by James Baldwin. The novel was ranked 39th on the Modern Library list of 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th century and was included in Time Magazines 100 Best English-Language novels from 1923 to 2005.
The novel deals heavily with the Pentecostal churches role in the lives of African-Americans during the 1950’s. The story is about a young boy named John Grimes and his journey into spiritual rebirth. Through flashbacks, the story of John’s father, mother and aunt are told, and the reader discovers that John’s abusive, preacher father is, in fact, his step-father.
John’s step-father, Gabriel was given a vision from God at a young age that his son would bear His seal. At the end of the novel, John has a vision of God, and his reborn and Gabriel is unhappy to realize that his vision was talking about his step-son.
The novel is a semi-autobiographical one about Baldwin’s childhood and his experiences with his preacher step-father.
Part One: The Seventh Day
On a Saturday in March of 1935, John Grimes celebrates his fourteenth birthday. John and his family live in Harlem. John’s father is a preacher, and the family is very involved in the local storefront church, The Temple of the Fire Baptized. The morning of his birthday, John wakes up and remembers that he has “sinned his hand” (masturbated) the day before in the school bathroom. This sin has created a crisis within him, a crisis that is only aggravated by his rocky relationship with his preacher father.
John believes that submission to God goes hand in hand with submission to his father. John feels that he is intelligent and knows that he has earned the praise of not only his black teachers but his white ones as well. He begins to wonder what his future could be like away from his emotionally and physically abusive father.
When John goes into the kitchen of his household, his mother, Elizabeth, his younger brother, Roy and his two younger sister’s Sarah and the baby, Ruth are already awake. Roy is arguing with their mother and their father. Roy does not follow the gospel like the other members of the household. He rebels against his father’s religion as well as his abuse. The people of the Temple of the Fire Baptized hope that Roy will soon find God and return to the church.
Roy resents his father’s devotion to the church and the Bible and especially the physical beatings that his father punishes him with. Roy says, “When I have children I ain’t going to treat them like this… I’m sure this ain’t no way to be.”
Elizabeth defends her husband, saying that he is only trying to teach Roy and keep him out of jail. Eventually, the argument ends. John has breakfast in silence, and no one mentions his birthday. Soon it is time for him to do chores and he sweeps the front room and dusts the furniture. However, the rooms of the house are in such bad condition that his work does little. No amount of cleaning seems to help alter the state of the house.
John dusts a picture of his father with his first wife, Deborah and remembers that his aunt Florence told him that Deborah went to heaven. Since Florence knew his father when he was young and lived in the south, John often wonders if she could have told him how to win his father’s affection. After he is done with his chores, Elizabeth gives John some birthday money and tells him some words of encouragement and love, sending him out to buy something for himself.
Going to Central Park, John climbs his favorite hill and looks out at the city. He thinks about conquering it and about the glory that could be obtained while he is alive as opposed to the glory that his father promises after he is dead. He sees the fancy, well-dressed white people on Broadway and imagines what it is like to live like them. John’s father has told him that whites are evil and that God will “bring them low.” He doesn’t feel this way at first, but he remembers reading about atrocities committed against blacks in the south. He realizes that he is not comfortable entering any of the shops that whites patronize and realizes that this is not his world.
John goes to a movie, and the story in the film causes him to think about Hell and redemption. After the movie is over, he returns home in the mid-afternoon and finds Aunt Florence tending to Roy who has been hurt in a knife fight. Roy had apparently gone to the other side of town with a group of his friends to pick a fight with a group of white boys.
John’s father, Gabriel makes John look at the wound on his brother and tells him that it is a warning from God about the dangers of white people. John’s mother and aunt argue that Roy was the one who was looking for a fight. Florence argues with her brother, and Gabriel turns on his wife, saying that she cannot control the children and doesn’t care about Roy at all. Elizabeth argues that no one, not even Gabriel with his whippings, can control Roy. Gabriel slaps her and Roy challenges him to a fight. Gabriel then begins to whip Roy with a belt until Florence manages to stop him.
Later that evening, John goes to church to do his chores there. As he is sweeping, Brother Elisha, a member of the church who John admires, comes in. John’s mood brightens, and the too break into one of their friendly roughhousing matches. John manages to hold his own, and the two continue sweeping afterward. Elisha begins to talk to John about whether or not he would like to be saved. John does not think that he would. Soon, Gabriel, Elizabeth, and Florence enter the church and John are surprised to see Florence since she is not a regular church attendee. He thinks that she seems to have been brought there to “witness a bloody act” and he wonders what is going to happen.
Part Two: The Prayers of the Saints- Florence’s Prayer.
In part two, the perspective shifts to Florence. Florence has never been in this church before. She gets the feeling that her brother is more pleased that a hardship has come over her than he is to see her suddenly embracing religion for any other reason. She puts away her pride and kneels before the alter. A message has come to Florence and fear has led her to the church where her mother tried to bring her years earlier. The message was: “Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die and not live.” She realizes that she is sick and thinks that she has seen the specter of death standing in the corner of her room.
Florence begins having flashbacks. She remembers the night after Gabriel’s first wife, Deborah was attacked and raped by a group of white men. Florence’s mother led the family in a prayer. Florence’s father left to live in the north shortly after Gabriel was born and since then Florence had always felt that their mother preferred Gabriel over her. Their mother made Florence do most of the household chores and denied her any schooling. Gabriel was encouraged in his studies, although this did not come to much as he was not a good student. Their mother also used to constantly pray for him and try to beat the disrespect out of him which Florence took as a sign that she cared.
Even after their mother gave up on trying to stop Gabriel from his drinking and sinful ways, he was still her main focus. When Florence was 26, their mother was on her deathbed. Florence walked away from the family that day and headed north.
Florence recalls her life in New York and her marriage to an alcoholic named Frank who eventually left her for another woman and then later died in World War I. Florence remembers getting a letter from Deborah during this time where her sister in law revealed that she suspected Gabriel might have had a bastard child. Florence kept the letter to use as a weapon against her brother but worries now that she will never be able to use it and that he will outlive her and smile over her grave. She wonders if she should show him the letter tonight.
Part Two: “The Prayers of the Saints” – Gabriel’s Prayer.
The narrative now shifts to Gabriel’s perspective. Gabriel recalls the moment that he feels was his rebirth into religion. After he had been drinking for some time, he had a dream that God came to him and told him that His seal would be on Gabriel’s children. This was the start of a new way of life for Gabriel. He soon began preaching and gaining followers. He married Deborah as an act of charity, assuming that no other man would want her after she was raped.
In church, Brother Elisha starts speaking and brings Gabriel back to the present. Gabriel thinks about John. John is, unknowingly, the bastard son of Elizabeth and he was already born when Gabriel married her. Gabriel resents John and does not want him to come under the power of the Lord when his real sons – one of who is dead and the other who is at home cursing his father – have not yet.
Elizabeth does not regret giving birth to John and insists that Gabriel makes no distinctions between their sons. But Gabriel does feel differently about John. He does not feel that John is the son that was promised to him in his dream. He thinks that son should be Roy who was conceived in marriage and is very much like Gabriel was at his age.
Gabriel’s first son was named Royal and has since died. His mother was a woman named Esther who was working for the same white family that Gabriel was shortly after he married Deborah. Esther was a young, vibrant personality who did not believe in God. Gabriel invited her to attend a sermon at his church, and she came.
Later on, the white family had left town and Gabriel was yelling at Esther about her beliefs when the two ended up having sex. The affair had lasted for nine days before Gabriel called it off. A few months later Esther told him that she was pregnant. Gabriel considered Esther, an evil woman who was sent by Satan to tempt him. He wouldn’t even consider leaving Deborah for her, but he stole some money that she had been saving and gave it to Esther for the baby so that she would go away.
Gabriel isn’t sure if Deborah even learned of the affair or noticed the missing money. He later learned that Esther died while giving birth. She named their son Royal because of Gabriel’s dream that his descendants would be a royal line of faith. Royal grew up with relatives in the town and Gabriel watched him grow but never informed him that he was his father.
Royal grew into just as much of a reckless youth as his father and died in a knife fight. Deborah was the one to tell him of the boy’s death while she was sick in bed. Gabriel began crying, and Deborah asked him if the boy was his. He confirmed that he was. Deborah informed him that she had known for years and had been waiting for him to confess to it. She told him that she would have taken Royal in and raised him as her own since she was unable to have children herself. She said that she saw the depth of Gabriel’s sin and that he had better start praying until God made it plain that he was forgiven.
Back in the church, the narrative switches back to John’s perspective. John is struggling with his inner thoughts of salvation and his hatred for his father. He tries to pray but hears voices speaking about his father. He feels like deep oceans are churning within him. Gabriel sees his son looking up at him and sees the same accusation in his eyes that he has seen all of his life from different people. He tells the boy to kneel down.
Part Two: “The Prayers of the Saints” – Elizabeth’s Prayer
Now the narrative turns to Gabriel’s current wife, Elizabeth. As the congregation continues singing Elizabeth thinks about her past. When Elizabeth was eight, her mother died, and her aunt became her guardian. Elizabeth was taken back to Maryland and away from her beloved father. She hated her aunt for cutting off her contact with her father and for her aunt’s constant warning that God was would lay her low.
In 1919, Elizabeth met a grocery store clerk named Richard and fell in love with him. He asked Elizabeth to travel to New York with him so they could marry. Elizabeth convinced her aunt that she wanted to take advantage of the North’s better opportunities for blacks and that she was going to stay with a relative in Harlem.
While living in New York City, Elizabeth began to feel that society was less concerned with her behavior and began living in sin with Richard. Richard and his group of friends were virulently anti-religious, which bothered her but she worried what would happen to him if she left. Eventually, Elizabeth became pregnant, but she did not want to tell Richard for fear that he would feel pressured into marrying her. She regrets not telling him but thinks that she does not regret her time living with him as they were happy together.
One night, Richard was waiting by himself on a subway platform when a group of black youths who had just robbed a store ran up to him. The police arrested him along with them, and he was beaten in prison and put on trial. Although he was released, his reputation had been damaged, and the police were now watching him closely. He committed suicide that night.
Elizabeth began working as a cleaning lady shortly after John’s birth, and it was there that she met Florence. Through Florence, Elizabeth met Gabriel, who had just lost his wife. She felt that Gabriel would help her return to her faith and take care of her and her infant son. Elizabeth thinks about John’s birth, all of her pain and cursing and then hearing John cry for the first time. Just as she thinks this she hears her son cry again and realizes that John is laying on the church floor, yelling. She thinks that he is “astonished beneath the power of the Lord.”
Part Three: “The Threshing Floor.”
On the floor, John has a hallucination of his spiritual rebirth. He has visions of struggling with his father and his doubts, fears, and sins. At the end of the vision, John has a quick glimpse of what he believes to be God himself. He wakes up and realizes that it is now the next morning and he has been locked in this strange visions all night. Brother Elisha and his family have been with him all night. John feels that he has been saved.
Everyone is very pleased and happy for him except Gabriel, who remains cold. “It comes from your mouth,” Gabriel says, “I want to see you live it. It’s more than a notion.” Everyone walks out of the church together. Elizabeth walks with the women in the congregation who congratulate her. She cries, and they assume that she is crying from happiness, but she thinks that it is bitterness.
Florence walks out with Gabriel and finally confronts him about Deborah’s letter. She tells him that he is trying to make Elizabeth and John pay for Deborah’s sins so that Roy will not have to pay for his. She tells him that she isn’t going to let him do that.
John walks out with Brother Elisha and talks to him about what he has experienced. Elisha promises to help him any way he can. They make it back to John’s house and the congregation leaves while congratulating him. The sun begins to come up as John smiles at his father, who does not smile back. John’s mother waits for him in the doorway.
John Grimes – the protagonist of the story. John is a fourteen-year-old boy who lives with his preacher father, his mother and his three siblings. John is both attracted to and repulsed by the church. He thinks a lot about his personal salvation and his sins.
John is close with a young man a few years older than him at church called Brother Elisha. He often contemplates Elisha’s devotion to the church and whether he should or could ever be saved. John is terrified of sinning but longs to experience all that the world has to offer. He eventually has a spiritual vision in which he believes that he sees God and when he wakes he feels that he has been reborn and saw the world differently. John’s character arc is a hopeful one as he has a happy ending despite his father’s hatred of him.
Gabriel – John’s step-father. Gabriel is a difficult, religious man who feels that he was reborn after years of drinking and sinning by a vision of God. In the vision, God told him that any descendants of his would bear His seal. After this, Gabriel became desperate and even obsessed with the idea of having a son who would be touched by the Lord.
He married young and had an affair with another woman, during which his son, Royal was born. After his wife and son had died, Gabriel became obsessed with Roy, his son from his second wife, Elizabeth. Gabriel is abusive toward his children, regularly subjecting them to beatings and psychological torture to beat or scare the “sin” out of them. He also beats John, although he does not care about John’s religion as much, as John is not his biological son.
At the end of the novel, Gabriel is livid to discover that John is the son that bears the seal from God and has a holy vision. He is shown to be very quietly angry at John although John does not understand this.
Florence – Gabriel’s sister. Florence has resented her brother since she was a child. As Gabriel was the son and therefore seen as being more important, he was always their mother’s favorite and encouraged to go to the school where Florence was not.
Florence is aware that Gabriel had a bastard child with Esther years earlier and had held this knowledge in reserve to use it as a weapon against him. Florence feels that she is ill and does not have much time left on this earth but she intends to use her final weapon against her brother before she dies.
At the end of the novel, Florence does reveal that she knows about Royal and that she isn’t going to stand by while Gabriel abuses his children anymore.
James Baldwin Biography
James Baldwin was born on August 2nd, 1924 in Harlem, New York. James’ mother left his father shortly before he was born because of the man’s drug addiction. She moved to Harlem and married a preacher named David Baldwin.
Growing up, James spent most of his time caring for his younger siblings. His adoptive father treated him very badly, and the man later died of tuberculosis around James’ 19th birthday. He was heavily influenced by the legendary Harlem Renaissance movement and got into writing as a small child when he wrote his elementary school a song that they used until closing down years later.
During middle school, he served as the editor of the school paper and worked on his High school’s school magazine. It was during his teenage years that Baldwin began to realize that he was gay and due to the prejudices against blacks and gays, became disillusioned with America and moved to France at the age of 24. He felt that leaving the U.S. was not only necessary to escape this prejudice but also to see his writing outside of the context of his race.
Baldwin’s first published work was a review of the writer Maxim Gorky in the magazine The Nation in 1947. His first novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was published in 1953 and was quickly followed by his first collection of essays “Notes of a Native Son.” In 1956, Baldwin published his second novel, “Giovanni’s Room” which faced massive controversy because of it’s explicit homoerotic content.
In 1957, Baldwin returned to the U.S. to report on the then burgeoning Civil Rights Movement for the Partisan Review. During this trip, Baldwin met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and later published two essays on the interviews he did there.
During the next decade, Baldwin became a proponent of the Civil Rights Movement and began a lecture tour of the South where he taught racial ideology and the differences between the positions of Dr. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1963, Baldwin was put on Time magazines cover about the Movement. Baldwin was present at the Civil Rights March on Washington DC in 1963 however, pressure on the leaders of the movement to distance themselves from Baldwin because of his homosexuality later resulted in him being uninvited to the ending of the event. Baldwin continued with the movement on his own and later joined marchers who walked 50 miles from Selma, Alabama to the capitol in Montgomery. However, Baldwin later asserted that he rejected the title of “activist” and felt that he only fought for his rights as a citizen.
Baldwin continued to published novels into the 1970’s and 1980’s although he began to receive less attention for his work. Many of his essays in the 1980’s are notable for their unflinching discussions of homosexuality and homophobia.
On December 1st, 1987, Baldwin died from stomach cancer in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. He was buried in New York City.