84 pages 2 hours read

James Baldwin

Go Tell It on the Mountain

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1953

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Summary and Study Guide


Go Tell it on the Mountain is a semi-autobiographical novel by James Baldwin. Published in 1953, the novel tells the story of a teenager in 1930s Harlem named John Grimes as well as his wider family, dealing with themes of religion, sexuality, and race. This guide uses an eBook version of the Modern Penguin Classics edition of the novel.

Plot Summary

Go Tell it on the Mountain is set on the 14th birthday of the protagonist John Grimes. The novel is split into five parts; the first and final part use John’s point of view, the second uses his aunt’s point of view, the third uses his father’s point of view, and the fourth uses his mother’s point of view.

John Grimes is destined to follow in his father Gabriel’s footsteps. Everyone in the community in Harlem believes that he will become a preacher, just like his father. John has been told this so often that he almost believes it himself. The church has been a constant presence in his life, and his earliest memories involve his father’s Pentecostal services at the Temple of the Fire Baptized. The church is situated in a rundown part of Harlem with a bad reputation, and John remembers passing the so-called sinners every Sunday as he walked to his father’s services. People spilled out of bars, constantly reminding the young John about the sinful nature of the world around him. However, John has not always been as sure of his faith as his father. As he grows older, and as his 14th birthday arrives, he feels the pressure of his family and his father’s followers to officially announce that he will take up his father’s mantle. He can do so by officially accepting God and renouncing sin on the threshing floor of the church.

John’s belief in God is complicated by his homelife. His mother Elizabeth is pregnant, and his father is abusive toward John and his three siblings. Furthermore, John is beginning to feel a confusing sexual longing toward Elisha, a young male preacher at the church’s Sunday school. John’s awareness of sex is increased when he and his brother Ray watch two people have sex in an empty building. John’s own nascent sexuality makes him feel confused; when he masturbates in the school toilets, he finds himself thinking about other boys. These complicated feelings convince John that he is a sinner. As such, his salvation and his redemption at the church become even more important. He wakes up on the day of his 14th birthday and is convinced that he will go to Hell when he dies.

On the evening of his 14th birthday, John goes to his father’s church. He needs to clean the building ahead of an important service. Elisha arrives and helps John clean. The congregation begins to arrive, including his father Gabriel, his mother Elizabeth, and Gabriel’s sister Florence. Elisha plays the piano as the service begins. The congregation sings and John reluctantly joins them. However, he rebels by refusing to clap along. He does not believe that he has the right to join the religious service because of his sexual thoughts about other men. He thinks about God and his abusive father, not able to think of one without thinking of the other.

Gabriel’s sister Florence has her own struggles with religion. John’s 14th birthday is her first visit to her father’s church; she has not been to any church in a long time. Now aged 60, her health is beginning to falter. She may not feel love for God, but she fears what might happen to her after her death. She wants to set her house in order before she dies, and she wonders whether she should use the letter to expose Gabriel’s hypocrisy. She does not remember how to pray; she only knows one hymn, a song which her mother Rachel sang to her as a child. Gabriel watches his sister in the church. He is delighted that she has returned to religion not because she is rejoicing in God but because her presence means that she is suffering. Her suffering makes Gabriel happy.

Florence has resented Gabriel for many years. When they were children, he was treated better than her. He received the best clothes, the best education, and the best food from their parents. They preferred him because he was male, and their mother believed that preferring the male child was logical and obvious, as Florence would simply marry a man and become the concern of her new husband. Florence was forced to watch as her brother squandered his preferential treatment. As a teenager, Gabriel drank alcohol and chased women. Rachel beat Gabriel when she found out about his sins, hoping her abuse would bring her son closer to God. She prayed after she beat him. By the time Gabriel found God, Florence had left their family home in the South and traveled North. She married a man named Frank, even though she dislikes all men. Frank left Florence after 10 years of unhappy marriage. He lived with another woman for some time and then died in World War I. Twenty years after their marriage fell apart, Florence still resents her bitter marriage and believes that she will die alone.

Gabriel watches his congregation and thinks about his own past. After a long struggle, he found God. He married his first wife a short time after he became a preacher. His first wife, Deborah, was a kind woman but Gabriel was horrified to discover that she could not have children. She died without giving birth. Instead, Gabriel had a son out of wedlock with a local woman named Esther who died a short time after giving birth to their son Royal. Esther’s parents raised Royal; as a young man, he was stabbed to death in Chicago. Gabriel believes that he has repented for his abusive treatment of Esther, Royal, and Deborah. He believes that he will go to heaven.

With Gabriel watching his congregation and thinking about his past, John feels the spirit of God inside him. He approaches the threshing floor. As he calls out, his voice makes Elizabeth think about her past. Gabriel is not John’s real father. Instead, Elizabeth was in a relationship with a man named Richard. He died by suicide when Elizabeth was still pregnant following racist abuse by the police. Elizabeth met Gabriel, who promised to raise John as though John was his own son. She knows that Gabriel has failed in his promise, as he is abusive to all of their children, including his legitimate children. Elizabeth fears that she and John are being punished for her sinful behavior. As John takes to the threshing floor, she feels a swell of pride. John feels immense joy as he gives himself up to God, even though he knows his future will be difficult. He leaves the church with his family and embraces the challenge as he steps into the bright light.