James Baldwin’s "Go Tell It on the Mountain" - a religious approach

Term Paper, 2001

19 Pages, Grade: good


Table of Content

1. Introduction “I was born in church”

2. Historical Background - Pentecostalism and the ‘Negro’ Church

3. Various Connections to Christian Religion
The Title
The Motto
Part One
Part Two
Florence’s Prayer
Gabriel's Prayer
Elisabeth’s Prayer
Part Three

4. Conclusion



1. Introduction “I was born in the church”

James Arthur Baldwin was born to Emma Berdis Jones and an unknown father on August 2, 1924, in New York City. The fact that he did not know about the identity of his biological father haunted him all his life. Who was to become Baldwin’s stepfather was a laborer and Pentecostal preacher who came - as part of the Great Migration - to New York in 1919 “seeking better social conditions and economic opportunities.” (Kenan 1994: 26) After he married her, he began to preach in storefront churches and made a living of a job he had in a bottle factory on Long Island, and although he “worked steadily, until encroaching age and illness prohibited it”, were his wages seldom high enough to feed his big family[2], especially during the Great Depression. (Kenan: 27) As described in “Notes of a Native Son” this situation had contributed to his father’s “intolerable bitterness of spirit.”(Kenan: 88) It was “unrelieved bitterness and anger” that “drove [his father] away permanently in 1932.” (Kenan: 27) James was very much influenced and shaped by his stepfather, and the problems that derived from his relationship to him became in my eyes a powerful motor for his poetry writings and determined his future decisions. To his father the young boys intelligence and his interest in books was but a source of danger, for “the Bible was the only book worth reading.” (Kenan: 29) If it wasn’t for Orilla “Bill” Miller, a white woman from the Midwest who stepped up against his fathers objections, and for Gertrude Ayer, a black principal who encouraged the young boy to write stories, plays and poems, James would have been deprived of a valuable education, because in the Baldwin household “education was suspect as a tool of the white devils not particularly useful to black men in a racist society that placed so many checks on their ambition.” (Kenan: 31) James Baldwin was brought up “in a household atmosphere of strict, even suffocating, religiosity” (Kenan: 32) and his father lived “like a prophet, in such unimaginably close communion with the Lord, that his long silence which were punctuated by moans and hallelujahs and snatches of old songs while he sat at the living room window never seemed strange to us.” (Baldwin 1984: 89)[1]

At the age of fourteen[3] Baldwin underwent a ”prolonged religious crisis.” (Kenan: 32) It was then that he discovered his gayness and felt guilty for it, it was then that he realized the danger of “becom[ing] one of [the whores and pimps and racketeers on the street]” (Kenan: 34); and yet at the same time he opened his mind towards religion and had an experience on the “threshing-floor” after which he is considered to be saved. This turn of his life is mainly due to his need of shelter “from himself and from the world outside” that he found in church. (Kenan: 35) He decided to preach at the Fireside Pentecostal Assembly and noticed with satisfaction “that his popularity as a preacher quickly outstripped his father’s.” (Kenan: 36)

After three years of holding sermons and getting more and more in touch with arts and learning about his sexual preferences another inner conflict arose and he “was coming to recognize that the conflict within him – between art and religion, between his sexuality and the church, between what he was and what others would have him be – was irrevocable.“ (Kenan: 41) He decided against church and reasoned that he saw no purpose in his salvation if it did not permit him to behave with love towards others. In 1941 he held his last sermon and left the pulpit. “But there were some things I couldn’t ever give up. They’re in my blood, you know. I’ve lived with them all my life.” (Weatherby in Kenan: 41)

One might well say that Baldwin emancipated himself, and he himself said: “Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” (Baldwin 1991: back of cover) “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is his first novel and was published “to critical praise“ in 1953. (Kenan: 140)

2. Historical background - Pentecostalism and Negro Church

To the religious understanding of James Baldwin’s novel “Go Tell it on the Mountain” the concept of Black Pentecostalism is of crucial importance. As a hard evidence for the link between the novel and the Pentecostals may serve the sentence “Their church was called the Temple of the Fire Baptized.” (Baldwin 1991: 13), because that group of church became pentecostal by Cashwell in 1906. He undertook the ventures of travel “to find out … if this was indeed the new Pentecost they had been praying for and expecting for years.” Among these new personal Pentecost churches was the Fire-Baptized Holiness Church. Literary overnight the majority “of the ministers and churches in these groups were swept "lock, stock and barrel" into the Pentecostal movement.” (http://www.pctii.org/arc/synan.html)

What really distinguishes Pentecostalism is the “worship of itsbelievers which is often characterized by speaking/praying in tongues aloud, prophesying, healings, the casting out of devils (exorcism), hand-clapping, shouting and being "slain in the Spirit."” (http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/penta.html) Much of this is experienced by John, when he endures his religious vision near the conclusion of the book; and as well by Elisha. Black Pentecostalism now was in the “possession [of the] African tradition…without conscious memory of the tradition as such…” (Mitchel in Ramm 1989: 131) and consisted of “similar patterns of response – rhythmic clapping, ring-dancing, styles of singing …[that revealed] … the slaves’ African religious background.” (Raboteau in Ramm:133) From that mingling process of the Christian-American culture with the African-American culture evolved the Spirituals that enabled the Black Americans to keep the inner distance to an overwhelming strong Christianity and to their white masters (Ramm:133/134) and later to their white oppressors.

3. Various connections to Christian religion


The novel is divided into three parts; only the second part is subdivided into again 3 parts. During the development of the plot the reader learns that John belongs to the third generation that is “on a vain quest searching for identity.” (Ramm: 129) The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are central terms in the bible; and they also represent the number three. Considering that “the Pentecostal Holiness Church has taught… [among four other cardinal doctrines]… the baptism in the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues…” (http://religiousmovements. lib.virginia.edu/nrms/penta.html) I believe that Baldwin did not use that number by accident, but on purpose to underline the connection between Christian belief in general and Pentecostalism – from a Negro perspective - in particular and his novel. The parts and the chapters are entitled with text vital for Pentecostalism taken from the bible. (Ramm: 248) Each part and chapter has its own epigraph. These quotations – taken from the bible or from spirituals - are always coherently fitted into the action that echoes the contradictory black American life in ghettos between church and family. (Ramm: 147) The author uses a language that is unmistakably drawn from the bible and puts emphasize on the suggestive melody of spirituals and black sermons. (Grädel 1985: 115)

Due to the vast amount of examples one can find in the text I will concentrate on a few incidents that were of particular interest to me.

The Title

The title alludes to the African-American Spiritual “Go tell it on the Mountain” that refers to the announcement of the birth of Jesus, therefore emphasizing Luke 2:8-9 “There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” The fact that Baldwin chose the name of a spiritual is remarkable, for “it is the rhythm that progresses and motivates the main action” (Grädel: 117), just as if the book is a sermon in itself intentioned to preach to the audience, its readers.[i]


[1] from: James Baldwin, Introduction to “The Amen Corner”

[2] the Baldwin’s had 8 children, and in addition David Baldwin brought in yet another son from his previous marriage, he left the family with his father in 1932

[3] John, the protagonist in “Go tell it on the mountain”, is also 14 years old when experiencing a religious crisis


illustration not visible in this excerpt

Go Tell it On the Mountain

When I was a seeker
I sought both night and day,
I asked the Lord to help me,
And he showed me the way .

Go tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere,
Go tell it on the mountain,
Our Jesus Christ is born.

He made me a watchman
Upon a city wall,
And if I am a Christian,
I am the least of all .

Go tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere,
Go tell it on the mountain,
Our Jesus Christ is born.

When I was a seeker
I sought both night and day,
I asked the Lord to help me,
And he showed me the way .

Go tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere,
Go tell it on the mountain,
Our Jesus Christ is born.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


James Baldwin’s "Go Tell It on the Mountain" - a religious approach
University of Leipzig
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Martin Arndt (Author), 2001, James Baldwin’s "Go Tell It on the Mountain" - a religious approach, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/29769


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