He was not educated, hadn’t gone to any theological school; he had heard the voice and started preaching. He was a simple, devoted believer.
From the onset, Reverend Ambrose plays the role of foil to the narrator, Grant Wiggins. He cares about Jefferson’s soul, his religious salvation. Grant cares about Jefferson’s peace of mind and his ability to think about others beyond himself, specifically his nannan, or godmother, Miss Emma. Education, as well as the worldliness and broad-mindedness that come with education, separates the two men and their approaches to helping save Jefferson.
“The Lord don’t hate you, Sister Emma,” Reverend Ambrose said, touching her on the arm. “The Lord is with you this moment. He is only testing you.”
Miss Emma reached her breaking point during a visit to Jefferson in jail when she slapped him and then slumped over him, crying. Jefferson had been insisting that he was a hog and resisting his godmother’s food and comfort. When she implores Reverend Ambrose to explain how and why God has forsaken her and why he is punishing her, these lines serve as Reverend Ambrose’s answer. Such a response reflects the pat answer of traditional Christianity but does not ease her pain.
“God,” the minister said. “He ain’t got but five more Fridays and a half. He needs God in that cell, and not that sin box.”
The minister and Grant argue about the radio that Grant has given to Jefferson. The music soothes Jefferson. He listens to the radio all the time. In addition, music opens a door to conversation. Grant feels that the radio and the comfort the music provides belong to Jefferson, and he values such respite. However, here Reverend Ambrose makes clear that he considers the popular songs sinful despite the good the music does. For Reverend Ambrose, only one path exists to redemption—his path, his way.
Not about the minister, his envy, the way he looked when Jefferson and I had come back to the table. Sure, he was happy to see that Sister Emma was happy, but it was not he who had made her so, and he did not like that.
As the novel reaches its climax, Reverend Ambrose’s competitive feelings toward Grant become clear. His traditional religion competes with the secular humanism Grant offers. He not only wants Jefferson’s salvation and affirmation of Christianity, but he also wants credit for being the one who solves the problem and saves Jefferson’s soul. Such a perspective reeks of selfishness, and Grant recognizes the situation.
He got up from the chair and came toward me. He peered at me intently, his face showing pain and confusion. He stopped at arm’s distance from me, and I could smell in his clothes the sweat from his preaching.
Grant describes what occurs when he and Reverend Ambrose share a private conversation in Grant’s room during which Reverend Ambrose confronts Grant directly about his lack of religious faith. He accuses Grant of lacking education simply because he does not believe in the church and its teachings. In fact, the minister resents Grant’s education and considers such an education useless in the world in which they live.