The story begins on the morning of John Grimes' fourteenth birthday, a Saturday in March 1935. John lives in Harlem with his father (Gabriel, an austere lay-preacher) his mother, Elizabeth; his younger brother, Roy; and his two younger sisters, Sarah and baby Ruth. Another sibling is on the way. The family is integrally involved in the nearby storefront church, the Temple of the Fire Baptized. The novel opens with John's mental descriptions of the sinners in the neighborhood, the church, a typical Sunday-morning service, Sunday school, and Brother Elisha (a few years older than John and already saved, he is the object of John's abundant admiration). The plot begins with John waking up, remembering that today is his birthday, and then recalling that he has "sinned his hand" (masturbated) in the school lavatory. This act has precipitated in him a crisis of spirit. This crisis is aggravated by an antagonism with his father, for he believes that submission to God requires submission to his father. John hopes for another future. He is intelligent, excels in school, and has earned the praise of blacks, as well as his white teachers. This confidence in his intelligence buoys him up against his father's physical, emotional, and psychological tyranny.
John's siblings and mother are in the kitchen when he enters. As usual, Roy is arguing with their mother. In John's eyes, the entire place is dirty, irredeemably filthy. He eats his breakfast as Roy and his mother argue about his father. No one has mentioned John's birthday. Roy, whom everyone at the church hopes will soon experience a divinely wrought change of heart, rails against their father's puritanical policies—he resents Gabriel's renunciation of all things external to the church and Bible, and he protests most of all his physical beatings. "When I have children," says Roy, "I ain't going to treat them like this.... I'm sure this ain't no way to be." Elizabeth defends their father, claiming that he knows what is right for Roy's soul and is doing his best to keep Roy out of jail. The obvious affection between mother and son soon ends the argument, and it is time for Saturday chores. John's assignment is to sweep the front room and dust the furniture.
This is John's weekly Sisyphean task. No amount of cleaning seems to do much good. Dusting the mantelpiece, John looks at photographs of himself and his siblings as infants, of his Aunt Florence, and of his father as a young man—by his side is a young wife who, according to Aunt Florence, is now in heaven. John thinks about this first wife, Deborah, and about how she knew his father when he was young in the South; maybe she could have told John how to win his father's love.
He finishes his chores and is left alone for a moment with his tortured thoughts. Then, his mother calls him and gives him a little birthday money, along with some words of love and encouragement. He perceives in these words a great sadness on the part of his mother but cannot yet comprehend this melancholy. His mother sends him out to buy himself a present.
John goes to Central Park and climbs his favorite hill. From the summit he gazes out at the city. He has visions of conquest, of a conceivable glory on this earth, in this city, as opposed to the glory of the afterlife promised by his father's narrow path. The narrow way doesn't call to him now; he wants Broadway. When these exaltations subside, he runs down the hill and out onto Fifth Avenue. He sees the beautiful, elegant (white) people treading that avenue and imagines a moneyed life for himself, his wife, his children. These people before him surely do not read their Bible every night or go to a holy church; yet he has difficulty imagining them burning in hell for eternity. Some white people have been friendly to him at school, including teachers. Thus, he feels certain that white people are kind and will honor him when he distinguishes himself. His father, however, claims that all whites are wicked and deceitful and that God will "bring them low." John now recalls reading about the atrocities committed by whites against blacks in the South. He realizes that, in fact, he doesn't dare enter any of the shops from which the white ladies emerge, that this is not his world—that he could grow to hate these people.
John goes to a movie theater, despite his apprehension that one of the saints, or saved members of his church, might see him enter. The fate of a character in the movie has a powerful effect on John and sets him to thinking of Hell, redemption, and the cruel choice he faces between a religious life and a life filled with the delights of the world. It is late afternoon when he returns home. There he finds the family and Aunt Florence tending to Roy, who has been cut in a knife fight.
Roy apparently had gone with a group of boys halfway across town to pick a fight with some white boys. John feels that his father wishes it were John who had been cut rather than his brother. His father makes John look at the cut and tells him that this is a warning from the Lord, declaring, "This is what white folks does to niggers." John's mother and aunt protest. They insist that Roy is the one who was looking for the fight, not John; Roy is the one who won't listen, who can't be controlled, who does whatever he pleases. Florence, in particular, takes issue with everything Gabriel says. Gabriel argues in vain with his sister, but, turning to his wife, he blames Elizabeth for not looking after the children, for not caring whether Roy lives or dies. Elizabeth can't accept this accusation and tells him that no one can control the child, not even Gabriel with all his whippings; there's no one to blame. Gabriel slaps her. Roy sits up and challenges his father. Gabriel begins to whip Roy with a belt until Aunt Florence grabs his arm.
John goes to the church at six that evening to perform his chores there. As he does his sweeping, he thinks about the church, desperately angry with his father. Elisha comes in. John's mood brightens; he feels bold and sasses Elisha until the two of them are engaged in what is one of their habitual wrestling matches. For the first time, John manages to hold his own to some extent. When the match is over, the two of them continue sweeping and mopping. Elisha talks to John about John's soul, about being saved. John replies that he doesn't know if he wants to be saved. Presently, two women members of the church arrive. Elisha plays the piano and they all sing a spiritual. The door opens again and John's father, mother, and aunt enter the church. His aunt's presence is surprising because she has never set foot in their church before. To John, she seems "to have been summoned to witness a bloody act." Believing that the Lord has brought her here, John wonders what might happen before the night is over.
The long, unbroken opening section of Go Tell It on the Mountain presents the action from the meditative standpoint of an adolescent with a much-burdened mind; there is a lot going on in his life and in this book. John finds himself engaged in several fundamental struggles that are also, in his case, fundamentally inextricable. Nevertheless, for study-guide purposes it may help first to consider them separately and then to see how they are, in fact, essentially connected. These major struggles might be designated "Father vs. Son," "Faith vs. Worldliness," and "Being Black in America." This is also a coming-of-age story, which is linked to the father-son conflict.
Conflict of father and son. The guilt in John's conflict with his father lies with Gabriel, of course, and not John—Gabriel's dark past has hardened him—but John doesn't realize this. Rather, torn and confused, he blames his father to some extent, but he also blames himself; surely, he thinks, there must be something wrong with me that causes my father to hate me so. His reaction is natural: he returns his father's hate but also hates himself for doing so and further hates himself for garnering his father's hate.
It doesn't seem natural for a father to hold such a grudge against his adolescent son, especially one who, like John, seems to be following in his own footsteps. What father tells his natural son that his face is "the face of Satan"? We learn later that John is not, in fact, Gabriel's natural son; however, John is denied the relief this knowledge might grant him. Instead, he searches himself for the thing that makes him different and unlovable. Perhaps, he thinks, his intelligence is to blame—for his mind certainly sets him apart from those around him. But his intelligence is also the "shield" that allows him to survive the beatings and suffering his father inflicts. John hopes his powerful mind may one day win him "that love which he so longed for," but in the meantime it is his retreat—a region where his father cannot hurt him. He views his hatred and his intellect as his means of survival. Gabriel's ill will toward John and favoritism toward Roy will be explained in later sections of the book.
Faith vs. Worldliness. The language of Go Tell It on the Mountain is primarily Biblical and allusive. Scriptural quotes and paraphrases proliferate, infusing everyday speech and inner monologue, as well as the authorial voice itself: "He who is filthy, let him be filthy still; Set thine house in order"—these pronouncements echo through the text, are perverted and reinterpreted. The divine Word is a living word for these characters, and a spiritual transformation is the novel's climactic event. Biblical allegory abounds. In combination, these elements constitute a book steeped in religion.
The religion of the Temple of the Fire Baptized is a fiery Protestantism whose guiding doctrines privilege the Old Testament and its notion of a vengeful god. Part of the reason for this has to do with the enduring identification many American blacks felt with the enslaved Hebrews of the Torah, with the promise to be led, as the chosen people, from the misery of bondage to the Promised Land. As a result, the language and allegory of the Old Testament is present in the thoughts of the characters, and the Biblical parallels in the novel's action often point to this first tome—there are many clear parallels to Abraham and Isaac, Noah and Ham, and Jacob and Esau, some of which are noted by the characters themselves.
Sin is symbolically present in this world as palpable stain: John perceives his house as filthy, beyond cleaning; the air of the church reeks permanently of "the odor of dust and sweat"; the family surname, Grimes, connotes a dirtiness handed from one generation to the next. John's sinful act (masturbation), along with his sin of hating his father, hastens his spiritual crisis.
John is linked, by language and action, to the Bible's John of Patmos. But he also plays the role of Jacob in the doubly suggestive wrestling match with Elisha. To wrestle with the Lord's anointed (Elisha has been saved) is a portentous experience for John—it is a clear parallel to Jacob's wrestling match with the angel of the Lord in the Old Testament. Yet the struggle is also colored particularly by the attraction John harbors for Elisha; thus, its overtones are as erotic as they are religious.
John's "cruel choice"—whether to follow the narrow path, renounce the things of this world and join the saints, or to strive for worldly success—is linked closely to his conflict with his father. John feels the pressure to follow his father, to please his father, and to prove himself to his father by way of his virtue and piety. But, by the same token, he despises his father deeply. He realizes that his father is "God's minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven," and that he, therefore, cannot "bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father." We read, "On his refusal to do this had his life depended...."
Just as the Father-Son conflict is inextricable from the religious conflict, so, too, is John's religious struggle inextricable from the experience of living in a deeply racist society—namely the experience of being black in America in the first half of the twentieth century. If Gabriel turns his gaze resolutely and stoically toward the afterlife and shows little kindness in this life, it is perhaps because very little kindness has been shown him. The promises of heaven are unimaginable and vague to John, who compares them with the concrete glories of the metropolis. Yet John has not yet felt the need for the escape they offer from a cruel, racist world. For it is this escape that the storefront Harlem church offers: an escape from a wicked world, made all the more wicked by the evil of white people. Gabriel hates the white people who ruin life on this earth. Having found God, he looks for justice in the next world instead. But the only real cruelty John knows comes from Gabriel; given this, how can he trust his father's pronouncements? John's experience thus far has not led him to hate white people, and he believes he can win their approval and admiration. Is this belief just naiveté? John has determined that "He would not be like his father, or his father's fathers... He would have another life." His father is a preacher. His father's fathers were slaves. What is this other life John wants? A white person in 1935 might struggle with the dilemma of spiritual vs. worldly achievement. One of the questions of Go Tell It on the Mountain is whether this is even a true dilemma for a black boy from Harlem; what, realistically, are his chances of worldly achievement in 1935 New York?
The racial question is reformulated by the spiritual question in another way. Gabriel and the members of the Temple state throughout the book that the way of the Lord is a hard one, that it is "more than a notion." It is, to them, the ultimate challenge. Yet is it? Is it most difficult, in a corrupt world, to fix one's gaze on the next? Or is it perhaps harder to look squarely at the corrupt world and challenge its foundations? Which is truly the greatest challenge?