Go Tell It on the Mountain

James Baldwin
“I know,” she said, with a smile, releasing him and rising, “there’s a whole lot of things you don’t understand. But don’t you fret. The Lord’ll reveal to you in His own good time everything He wants you to know” (Baldwin 33).
Revelation is a central theme in James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain. Each character stands to reveal some truth about themselves or another. Elizabeth struggles with revealing her sorrows, doubts, and even her past. Her shame prevents her from telling Johnny about his biological father. Johnny yearns to reveal his love for Elisha and is feels guilty about having sexual thoughts. Florence is determined to one day reveal Gabriel’s past transgressions to Elizabeth and the greater community; and Gabriel believes God has revealed forgiveness to him for denying his deceased son and his mother. We see that none of the characters ends up revealing these feelings or secrets in the way that would offer the redemption they seek. What role does shame and guilt play in each of these characters’ search for redemption?
The novel’s strong focus on Christianity and the black church presents two extremes for how the characters think and act. They are either rebelling against the church or living to the letter of its law. Each character is searching for something in church, expecting religion to provide them with the peace of mind that will set them free. Though Johnny is at first resistant to submitting to Christian practices, we see that he is overcome by the Holy Spirit. Johnny’s experience at the altar takes him on a journey through darkness, which he must pass through to come to the light. “Then John saw the Lord—for a moment only; and the darkness, for a moment only, was filled with a light he could not bear. Then, in a moment, he was set free; his tears sprang as from a fountain; his heart, like a fountain of waters, burst. Then he cried: “Oh blessed Jesus! Oh, Lord Jesus! Take me through!” (Baldwin 266). But when Johnny comes through this experience, proclaiming salvation, his father is unable to smile at him. His father, the preacher, still holds some resentment toward him even after making this triumphant journey to the Lord. What do you think Baldwin wants to the reader to take from this? Does Baldwin want to leave the reader with a negative impression of the black church?

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7 responses to “Go Tell It on the Mountain

  1. rachel

    While the novel’s focus on Christianity does represent the extremes between how the characters think and act, it also binds them. I find that the characters act a certain way, and then they think that their faith and devotion to their church will redeem them. I almost got the feeling that the characters think that according to their religion it is forgivable to sin, just as long as they make their way back to the church. It’s interesting that the profound fear of hell that each of the characters possess is really what seems to make all of the characters question their morals and actions, and forces them back to their faith. To Gabriel, as well as to many of the other characters, “to go down in the grave, unwashed, unforgiven, was to go down in the pit forever, where terrors awaited him greater than any the earth…had ever borne” (105). The characters came back to the church and to their faith to redeem themselves, out of an intense fear of eternal damnation. This forces a very strange connection between how the characters act, and what they think of their actions.

  2. Does Baldwin want to leave the reader with a negative impression of the black church?

    This is a fair question which cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. From our first encounter with the black church. Baldwin portrays a congregation filled with passion and love for God. There’s an incredible amount of zeal as well as faith that is portrayed consistently throughout the piece. Even in John’s initial resistance to the church and its teachings we see a 180 degree turn back into the church of his father, his family.
    I think that Baldwin is calling attention to the strength of the church and the piece of mind it provides for the black community. There seems to be major consequence for those who stray from the church teachings, while those who stick around and engage in worship and praise create a sort of safe-haven for themselves.
    In calling attention to the strength of the church, he also calls a attention to man’s weakness in John’s father’s seeming resentment for him despite his conversion. I think perhaps he’s showing that despite the power of the church and the God that the people of the church serve, men sometimes fail to see the truth. Like John’s father many Christians of the time period in which the book is set would have the same difficulty forgiving and forgetting the “sins” of the young sheep. Perhaps Baldwin is proposing evolution of the black church’s mindset and practices. I think this is a fair answer to the posed question.

  3. josephtruscello

    Baldwin, I think, is articulating the functionality of religion. The church is a body that controls people; it acts upon its congregants and influences their behavior. I think it would be fair to call the impression the novel leaves negative. Baldwin reveals the shortcomings of the church. He creates characters with very human impulses. Then he shows how those impulses interact with the social institution of the church. Often, the church is an instrument that hides their honest desires.

    When John is “saved,” is it positive or negative? At points it seems cathartic for the boy, but at the same time it could be a massive act of repression — that is, the repression of desire, especially homosexual desire. The church is an apparatus of social control. Actions labeled “immoral” are curtailed by teachings that engender guilt in those who desire these so-called immoral things. So, in denial of his desires, is John acting honestly when in the throes of being “saved?” In part, I think he is. There seems to be a psychological release for him in that moment, although I do not know if it is something I would call “spiritual.” The whirlwind of thought is honest, violent, impactful, but the expression of that whirlwind might be dishonest. The outpouring of faith that came with being saved might have been a desire for paternal admiration, which of course he did not get. So, John is using the church as a means to attain some kind of gratification for the desires he cannot fulfill, and he is therefore controlled by its teachings.

  4. Leah

    Gabriel believes God has revealed forgiveness to him for denying his deceased son and his mother. We see that none of the characters ends up revealing these feelings or secrets in the way that would offer the redemption they seek. What role does shame and guilt play in each of these characters’ search for redemption?

    Shame and guilt play enormous roles in the “salvation” of all of the characters, but I feel that Gabriel is the only one who isn’t entirely aware of this guilt. When we were given a closer look at Gabriel’s background, and how he came to be the man he is today, Gabriel’s shame and guilt were tangible. He would not forget his “fall” and really wanted to redeem himself through the Lord and his good works. However, when we return to the present Gabriel, this shame and guilt seem to have vanished. He seems to deny his sins and constantly states that what he did, he did because of the Lord – whether the Lord was testing him or giving him a sign to correct his way of life. Gabriel insists he is a holy man, yet he constantly abuses his family – berating Elizabeth for having a son out of wedlock, proclaiming she will be damned if she does not repent. He is the one character who, at the end of the novel, doesn’t seem to remember his fall, doesn’t seem to remember his redemption. He certainly has come a long way from the young man who defended Deborah to his elders. He has become the exact man he swore never to become. And yet, he is completely unaware of it.

  5. Sabrina

    I agree with Joseph that Baldwin is discussing the functionality of religion, but not as a means of control, rather as a way of creating community. For the characters in the novel, and for many members of the black community today, the church is a place to make meaning and creating an understanding of the larger society.

    For young people, it is a place to try out and begin understanding the way the world works. It becomes a microcosm of the real world complete with hierarchy, friendship, family, corruption, and hypocrisy. But for many, and this speaks back to the idea of control, it no longer exists as a mirror of the real world, it becomes the only world that they operate in.John is able to play with these ideas and realize that this is not the world/community for him. Rather than being dishonest, he is simply trying to create meaning within this world, but ultimately fails.

  6. Does Baldwin want to leave the reader with a negative impression of the black church?

    To corner Balbwin as an antagonist of the black church is limiting. It implies that the brand of Catholicism he criticizes is somehow more manic or sanctimonious than any other form which preceded it for millennia. In his defense, he is illuminating the idea that most, if not all religions, espouse ideals from which man has consistently fallen short.
    Gabriel, as the most egotistical, self-recognized vessel of the Lord, is also the novel’s biggest hypocrite. He comes to abhor Debora-who may be the closest character to a saint-not only because she is barren (hence, robbing him of the chances of a son/king) but also because he finds her physically unattractive upon the appearance of Esther. Regarding Esther, he forsakes a natural obligation to mother and child to uphold his religiously informed aversion to illegitimacy and public scorn. This is straight out of Genesis, the Bible, which fuels three of the world’s biggest western religions-not just the black church. Look up Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac (I am not about to recount the entire story given the constraints of time and space). Ultimately, Gabriel takes up with Elizabeth and her bastard son John. He does not do this altruistically. He does it because he believes his gross transgression with Esther will be forgiven by the Lord as he takes in a repentant single mother with a bastard child. A situation founded upon such misguided intent is bound to fail.
    Gabriel does not love John, and even if John succeeds in the ways of the Lord his father is regrettably aware that John is not from his seed. This leaves Roy as Gabriel’s only begotten son. The reader is early ingratiated to the idea that Roy is the least likely candidate to become a vessel of the Lord and the keeper of his father’s house. (It is worth noting here that both Roy and the superlative Royal are Anglicized derivatives of the Latin rex, meaning king). And despite John’s transformation at the tender age of fourteen, one can doubt that he will stay a pious, devout course that eluded so many before him. It appears that Baldwin is intimating that religion foments more tension than understanding regarding mankind’s true inclinations. His insight was formed within the black church, but is not specific to it.

  7. Jonathan

    One character’s role in the church that I think is interesting and deserves a second look, especially in the context of questioning Baldwin’s view or intended portrayal of the church is Elisha. I think that it is clear that there is something else going on in this seemingly pious and devout young man. His wrestling with John and his thinly veiled jibes towards John while they are cleaning the church reveal a possible attraction. His prior misdeeds proven to be unfounded by his telling John that nothing happened, perhaps there is something else that Elisha is hiding. This relationship seems to reveal something else in the end of the novel. Elisha’s advice and spirtitual guidance to John seem to be veiled expression of both desire, empathy and colusion. Doesn’t it seem like something else is going one? Like Elisha is letting John in on the joke of “being saved.” I think the message here from Baldwin through John’s experience in the church is all the things already mentioned, such as the importance of community and finding your own way through the church, but also an alternative to a god-fearing bible beating lifestyle, incorporating the genuine goodness of the church into a realistic framework.

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