"Godliness, Part One," begins deep in the past, recounting how Jesse Bentley comes to inherit his family's farm near Winesburg after his four older brothers are killed in the Civil War. After their deaths, Jesse's father slips into a depression and the farm begins to fall apart. When Jesse returns home after going away to study for the ministry, many people laugh at the idea of this small, fierce young man managing by himself on such a large farm. Jesse soon manages to right the farm's affairs, and it becomes more productive than it has ever been. This success comes at a cost, however: Jesse is a petty tyrant, and everyone who works for him is afraid of him. This includes his new wife, who works herself to the bone on the farm and then dies in childbirth.
Jesse Bentley, Anderson writes, is a kind of man who could only exist before the Industrial Revolution, when farmers had no time for reading or thinking about the wider world. Instead, all their intellectual energies tended to be focused on the simple truths of religion and God. Walking around his property, Jesse comes to see himself as a kind of Old Testament figure, the founder of a "new race of men sprung from himself." He sees himself as chosen by God to prosper greatly.
Part II of "Godliness" flashes forward many years to the story of David Hardy, the son of Jesse's only daughter, Louise Bentley. Louise is an unhappy woman with a sharp temper, and living at home with her makes David unhappy. In one instance, life at home becomes so unbearable that he runs away for a day, and finds, to his surprise, that when he comes home his mother is suddenly tender and loving toward him. When he reaches early adolescence, he goes to live with his grandfather Jesse on the farm. Disappointed that his only child was a daughter, Jesse sees David as God's gift, someone to carry on his legacy--which, since he has become one of the richest farmers in the area, is quite impressive. David comes to love living on the farm. One day, Jesse takes David to a clearing in the woods and begins to pray. This terrifies David, and he runs away, only to stumble on a rock and cut his head. Jesse carries the bleeding boy home, feeling that the incident is a sign of God's disapproval.
The four related sections under the heading "Godliness" cover three generations in the Bentley family. Their small saga stands out in the novel, since it is the only place where multiple sections directly overlap, and where there is a lengthy narrative. In its outlines and large, tragic themes, "Godliness" seems as though it belongs in a longer novel about American life; it lacks the limited, brief snapshot quality that the other sections of Winesburg, Ohio possess. The absence of George Willard from this portion is also conspicuous: he would be out of place amid the Biblical undertones surrounding Jesse Bentley and his land.
The Old Testament is a palpable presence in "Godliness," from the title of the story and the names of the men (Jesse is the name of the Biblical King David's father) to the way that Anderson repeatedly invokes Protestant religiosity in his description of Jesse's character, and portrays him wandering his fields, talking to God. Part I sets Jesse up as an Old Testament patriarch, who has taken possession of an American version of the Promised Land and intends to begin "the building of Thy kingdom on earth." Anderson simultaneously undercuts this stereotype by examining the unpleasant underside of Old Testament patriarchy. Just as the desire to serve God is fundamental to Jesse's make-up, so is greed; Jesse covets his neighbors' lands. He works himself tirelessly on his farm, and he also drives others to work tirelessly, even when they are incapable of such labor. He prays to God to send him a son, yet even as he is praying, the reader already knows that his wife will die in childbirth, worn out from backbreaking labor.
The challenging of Old Testament norms continues in Part II. Despite his prayers, Jesse does not receive a son. Only years later, when he is old and disappointed, does a David come to him, in the person of his grandson. For a while, it seems as though God has conferred a blessing on Jesse, since David (who has been unhappy with his angry, dissatisfied mother) enjoys living on the farm. When Jesse attempts to confirm God's gift, however, by taking the boy out into the woods and waiting for a sign or miracle, disaster ensues. Instead of joy or awe, the boy feels only fear, as if "a new and dangerous person" has taken possession of his grandfather's body. Jesse's unhappiness and dissatisfaction return, and he is uncertain as to how he has failed in his quest for God's approval. In linking himself to a tradition no longer universally respected, Jesse has alienated himself from both family and society.